During an interview on November 30, 2013, Jeff Bezos, CEO, Amazon.com took the correspondent into a secret room at the Amazon office and exposed an R&D project—Octocopter—drones that will fly delivery packets straight to the customers
By Deepak Halan
Given that safety tests and Federal Aviation Administration approvals are required for flying octocopters to deliver packets, the technology could be available to customers by 2017. Shortening the delivery times is becoming a USP for online retailers. UPS, Dominos, eBay and Tesco are some other companies that are thinking on the same lines.
UPS is toying with the idea of using drones not only for delivering to customers but also for improvement in warehouse operations and bringing packages from aircraft to delivery trucks more effectively.
In time to come, your air-conditioner and washing machine will be able to ‘communicate’ to a smart meter installed in your home. The meter will automatically negotiate for the best rates with the energy providers. The smart meter will then remotely control your home appliances, automatically turning them on at the most favourable times to help conserve precious energy. This will bring down your electricity bills and improve communication between the energy providers and you.
In some years from now, you would be able to breathe fresh air on the roads. Smart electric cars will provide drivers with the latest traffic congestion and best-route information. You will be alerted before your vehicle breaks down. Also, you will be able to instantly communicate with emergency services. These are not scenes filmed in sci-fi movies, but trends that will be made possible by machine-to-machine (M2M) technology in the near future.
What is M2M
In simple words, M2M technology enables communication between smart devices connected via Internet. M2M is about enabling the flow of data between machines and machines and finally machines and human beings.
Irrespective of the type of machine or data, M2M usually involves a device (for example, a smart electricity meter) to record a parameter (such as electricity rate) which is relayed through a network (wireless such as Internet, wired such as telephone lines or hybrid) to an application (customised software program) that converts the recorded parameter into meaningful data (such as whether the washing machine should be switched on now or later when the energy rate is likely to be better). What varies within this basic framework are the various ways in which a machine is connected, the type of communication method used and the manner in which the information or data is utilised.
The four basic phases in an M2M application are collection of data, transmission of selected data through a communication network, assessment of the data and response to the available information.
Usually, an intelligent wireless data module is physically integrated with the monitored machine and programmed to understand the machine’s protocol (the way it sends and receives data). In case the monitored machine is constituted as an intelligent master device, it could use the M2M device as a basic wireless modem. The M2M device would be fed data and then told to send it to the network. However, if the monitored machine is a mere bunch of switches and sensors, or is an intelligent slave device, the M2M device will then serve as the master device and regularly take inputs from the sensors and switches, or send data requests via the serial port.
Getting on to the cellular or satellite networks generally needs a gateway. A gateway receives the data from the wireless communication network and transforms it so that it can be sent to the network operation centre. Data security aspects, such as authentication and access control, are taken care of by the gateway and the application software.
Key M2M application areas
Today, M2M technologies have entered several walks of life. Energy, transport, real estate and agriculture are some major areas where this technology is fairly evolved. Benefits of M2M go beyond making life easier and smarter—they also include sustainable development of our planet.
Global warming is a serious environmental concern increasingly threatening our planet. The higher the CO2 and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the greater is the global warming impact. Hence it is important that we cut down GHG emissions as much as possible, and M2M technologies help in achieving this goal too.
Energy. A smart meter is an electrical meter that records consumption of electric energy in intervals of an hour or less and transmits this data at least every day back to the utility central system for monitoring and billing purposes.
Hence smart meters enable two-way communication between the meter and the central system using M2M technology and form a part of advanced metering infrastructure. This leads to a smart grid which is a modernised electrical grid that uses ICT to collect, interpret and act on information—such as demand pattern of consumers and supply pattern of the utility providers in an automated manner.
Time-of-day pricing, demand management, load balance and load optimisation help to improve the efficiency, reliability, economics and sustainability of the production and distribution of electricity.
M2M can also raise energy efficiency levels with regards to production and transmission, and hence further bring down CO2 emissions by enabling usage of more renewable fuel resources.
It is estimated that M2M could save more than 2.0Gt of carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 in the energy sector alone by enabling the adoption of ‘smart grid’ technologies for both small and large-scale users, including smart meters and demand response systems.
Transport. In the transport sector, M2M applications range from the simple fleet management of personal as well as commercial vehicles, maritime cargo shipping management to the more sophisticated surface transport GPS systems that adapt to varying road conditions (such as heavy road congestion ahead in the journey) to suggest substitute routes.
Route optimisation of personal and commercial vehicles results in cutting down unnecessary driving, less wastage of fuel and subsequently lower GHG emissions. BCG & GeSI estimate that M2M apps could save almost 1.9Gt of CO2 emissions by 2020 in the transportation sector by optimising routes of planes, trains, trucks and ships, and ensuring that people and goods are moved as efficiently as possible.
In case of passenger vehicles, different ride-sharing and personal transport optimisation companies that use M2M are swiftly achieving credibility and market share, thus bringing down the total number of vehicle kilometres travelled.
Better fleet-management systems mean improved vehicle diagnostics, higher vehicle lifespan and lower operating expenditure. M2M can also help in inventory management to bring down losses by eliminating deadheading, for example, return journeys made by empty or underutilised vehicles.
Real estate. By using M2M technologies, it is possible to increase energy efficiency in the built environment without inviting capital expenditure and infrastructure changes.
M2M enables development of extensive and sophisticated building management systems, which monitor various parameters, such as the outside temperature and wind velocity. These systems result in higher security and lower costs, for example, by switching lights and machines on and off automatically. Time is also saved as human intervention is minimised. For example, M2M systems controlling the ventilation and fire systems are set in such a manner that they work optimally at all times.
Architects have started using sensors that capture site-specific data and send it back to the office where the analytic software helps to maximise the potential efficiency of a building in blueprint drafting. M2M can reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 1.6Gt by 2020 enhancing the energy efficiency of building systems which include heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting, electronics and appliances and security systems.
Agriculture. Lately, we have been seeing deviations in climate and unexpected floods and typhoons. Our agricultural sector is threatened by these and thus demands a change in the manner we grow, harvest, transport and store food.
M2M can help bring down the methane emissions which are produced from cattle digestion (enteric fermentation) by monitoring cattle health and optimising their grazing patterns.
Remote monitoring of soil conditions, smart farming and smart watering are some other ways by which M2M technologies can help reduce GHG emissions. These come under the genre of ‘precision agriculture.’ For example, tractors that have M2M-enabled auto-steer technologies can be mapped with high precision in terms of their location in the field. They can then automatically reference that data with information on crop aspects, such as soil and water quality from other sensors and use water and fertilisers very accurately over each square metre of the field with almost zero wastage.
There are also savings in fuel consumption as tractors are used only where and when they are really required. A great example of M2M technology at work in the farms in India is NanoGanesh—a device that enables farmers to switch on irrigation pumps used for watering crops in remote locations using their mobile phones along with a mobile modem that attaches to the starter of the irrigation pump. This is a big boon for the farmers who had to walk several kilometres to their fields to switch on or switch off their water pumps. Nano Ganesh allows farmers to remotely check to see that there is electricity, and to automatically turn the pump on or off.
It is estimated by BCG & GeSI that M2M could help reduce another 1.6Gt of CO2 emissions by 2020 in the agriculture sector by reducing deforestation, managing livestock and improving the efficiency of planting, seeding, harvesting, fertiliser application and water use. This will enable a larger amount of crops to be grown using fewer resources and in saving money for our farmers.
With time, more and more things in our daily lives will become connected—our home appliances, houses, cars and offices. And the more they will be able to communicate with each other. We can look forward to a whole new and completely connected world.
As per the 2013 report Machine to Machine Technologies: Unlocking the potential of a $1 trillion Industry By 2020, produced by the Carbon War Room Research and Intelligence Group, there will be 12.5 billion M2M devices globally by 2020. Another transformation that we will see is the shift in the distribution of M2M applications.
In the early days, the M2M apps were mostly centred on the automotive and transport sectors and were commercial in nature. As the technology developed, applications in other sectors, such as health, agriculture and energy, also became prominent. However, their usage was more concentrated in the developed nations.
In time to come, M2M apps will dominate all sectors and include several other sectors, such as banking and real estate. We will have smart homes, smart clothing, smart factories, smart cities and smart anything that you can think of. These apps will be both commercial and consumer in nature and touch several people in emerging and developing countries too.
The popular science-fiction film Star Wars exposed a world where machines verbally communicated with humans and other machines. In the years gone by, it seemed the technological wonders depicted were too far-fetched to ever resemble reality. However, some of these once-futuristic concepts would soon become reality.
The author is an associate professor at School of Management Sciences, Apeejay Stya University