Defining Industry Standards for IoT in Industrial Automation

What is IOT?

In theory, the Internet of Things, or IoT, is a fairly simple concept; connect as many devices as possible to the internet to make “things” smarter. However, the definition of IoT can vary depending on the industry a device is being developed for. In fact, it was stated in a publication by the US government, that there was “no consensus among commenters on a formal definition of IoT, or even on whether a common definition would be useful”.

For example, some developers may focus on the hardware, such as IBM who said IoT is “the growing range of Internet-connected devices that capture or generate an enormous amount of data every day”. Whereas the likes of Vodafone don’t focus on devices and instead describe IoT as a “dynamic global network infrastructure with self-configuring capabilities based on standard and interoperable communication protocols”, which, when put into layman’s terms, essentially translates to the IoT being a vast network that can be run autonomously, smart things are there just to connect to it.

Personally, I believe that the Vodafone statement can be a bit misleading. The IoT can be and is being, built upon industry standards and communication protocols that have already been established, but I hope to show you that the industry is a lot more fractured over this subject than one might think.

Need for Standardisation

The need for IoT is massive. Every industry could benefit from having real-time data to help make informed decisions, especially the automation industry following the introduction of Industry 4.0, the current trend to automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. Whether it be monitoring peoples weight and blood pressure to help treat cancer in real time, or loading almost 2000 sensors onto high-speed trains in France to allow real-time monitoring, IoT could be a major benefit. It is estimated that by 2020 there will be nearly 8 billion connected devices, with Industrial IoT being worth upwards of $115B.

This, however, creates a problem. As the idea of the IoT is expanding rapidly it is increasingly hard to define standards for the technology, especially as different industries have different needs. The 2017 EU summit held on IoT showed that there were 150 generic standards in place, and another 175 domain-specific standards, of which 70% were in communication. This makes it difficult for the likes of the automation industry to implement interoperable standards, and as such could lead to the industry fragmenting.

Because of this, the US government have said they are going to aid private companies in defining standards, mainly for the benefit of security, and for developing a better infrastructure in the US to allow companies to easily build upon it.

Possible Standards

A lot of standards that already exist can be and are being, used for IoT, but they may not always fit the very specific need of the device. Here are some interesting standards that could be used in industrial automation:

Wi-Fi HaLow

Wi-Fi HaLow (IEEE 802.11ah) is an amendment to IEEE 802.11 and is a low power Wi-Fi communication protocol that was developed in 2017. This could be very useful for IoT devices that run on batteries or need longer communication radiuses with its 900MHz range. This standard is a strong competitor for Bluetooth with the lower power consumption combined with a higher data transfer. This could be extremely useful for a system where multiple sensors have to spread across a wide area. For example, in an oil field, sensors could be placed on pipes and actuators and the low power consumption and extra bandwidth of Wi-Fi HaLow could make them very effective for the generation of real-time data, compared to sending a team out to take up routine maintenance. According to Bain & Company, this level of visibility can help oil and gas companies improve production by 6% to 8%.

White-Fi

White-Fi (IEEE 802.11af), like Wi-Fi HaLow, is an amendment to IEEE 802.11 that was developed in 2014. It is also a low power version of Wi-Fi that allows for WLAN operation by existing in the TV white space bands, the frequencies used for broadcasting but not used locally. This allows for very large communication distances and lower power. This protocol would be very useful for rural areas, as the infrastructure already exists and the added distance would allow these rural areas to relay information without the overhead cost of placing edge devices closer to the sensors.

MQTT

MQTT, or Message Queuing Telemetry Transport, is a lightweight alternative to HTTP that uses the publish/subscribe method compared to the polling of HTTP. This protocol would be extremely useful for industrial automation, where there could be thousands of sensors all hooked up to one server. Using HTTP would put a toll on the bandwidth with all of the polling, whilst with MQTT the bandwidth is freed up with sensors publishing only when they have a reading.

HyperCat and PAS 212

HyperCat is an open specification created by over 40 companies backed by the UK government, including BT, IBM and ARM. It creates a JSON-based catalogue (explaining the Cat part) tagged with metadata that allows IoT devices that normally wouldn’t talk to each other to be interoperable. Though less of a standard and more of a platform, HyperCat is designed to expose information about devices over the web in a standard way. Users can implement their own annotations of this specification, but if they choose overlapping semantics, the possibilities for interoperability are increased.

This is where PAS 212 comes in. PAS 212 is a specification that defines a simple method whereby developers can publish their data, and subscribers can automatically discover these resources using the HyperCat platform without having to manually check the API information. It does not define an implementation of the services themselves, but It does recommend a set of best practices (or catalogue as it’s called in the specification) when interfacing with HyperCat. As a result, a developer can write just one client and automatically download resources from any compliant server, without previously knowing what devices are connected.

Though these emerging standards seem to be more tailor-made for IoT, there are still well-known protocols that will be used for communication. Within Industry 4.0, many architectures such as OPC UA, a platform independent architecture that connects all of the OPC protocols together, have already been developed. IoT could take advantage of this already existing infrastructure and build upon it.

It’s Not Going to be Easy

The only problem with the above technologies is the fact that you have several competitors actively developing and using alternatives at the same time. For example, Microsoft has released a messaging service similar to MQTT called AMQP in conjunction with JPMorgan. Whilst it may not be as open as MQTT, Microsoft have said they will make it part of Azure. Essentially making it easier to incorporate it into the other services that Microsoft offer with their Cloud-based system, which is another key technology being used in IoT. This is just one example of many other protocols that can be used such as NFC, Bluetooth, ZigBee and LTE, each with their own benefits and use cases. With a bit of digging, you will tend to find the companies leading the way with IoT are just expanding on their already established protocol/architecture.

Each industry will have to decide the best way to move forward with the standardisation of IoT and implement protocols that best fit with their current infrastructure. Whether that be thousands of small sensors leading into a complicated deep learning algorithm to better evaluate industrial machinery and reduce maintenance costs, or a single sensor used to check on the wellbeing of those vulnerable in Health Care.

In my opinion I believe that as we run head first into the future of IoT, it is best to steer away from the idea of having a “one size fits all” set of standards across all industries and instead, treat IoT as a concept unique to each industry with each developing its own set of standards based on the collaboration between the needs of the private sectors and governments around the world. However, until then, “Hey Google, how do you write a conclusion for a blog post?”.

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