Illustration: Datagraf/All-Over-Press

What happens when your fridge goes online

Thursday 30 Mar 17
by Bertel Henning Jensen

Facts about the Internet of things

The Internet of things (IOT) was first mentioned in 1999. Development has been at a slow pace since then, but in the past few years it has started to gain speed.

Antennas for IoT have been set up 45 metres above the ground at the top of the Lyngby Storcenter shopping mall and at DTU in Lyngby as a part of the City of Knowledge Internet of Things project.

The antennas in Lyngby are running on the Sigfox network, which differs from the normal Internet by running a 'narrow-band' service with very small data volumes. It is not dependent on connection to the Internet, GSM or any other network and requires very little power.

The Internet of Things is on the verge of revolutionizing our daily lives, but also involves major challenges. DTU can put itself at the forefront of research efforts

Imagine that your oven at home registers that you left work 10 minutes later than planned, and therefore waits ten minutes to put your dinner on. Then imagine that you get stuck in traffic halfway home and are delayed another fifteen minutes—and that your oven therefore turns down the heat so you can still arrive home to a perfectly cooked dinner, ready to eat.

This is pure science fiction today, but not unthinkable in the not too distant future. Many are predicting that the Internet of Things (IoT)—the connection of physical objects to the Internet—will be the next big online revolution, and Lyngby is one of the places people are already closely watching this technology.

“There’s a lot happening right now. We are seeing strong demand for IoT solutions internationally. It’s therefore very important for education and knowledge institutions to keep up. IoT is expected to see amazing growth, so many people are currently looking at how they can get a piece of the pie. If we can take a bite first, we’ll be in a leading position internationally,” says Daniel Bachmann, CEO and founder of IoT Denmark, which recently created IoT coverage across Denmark through the Sigfox network.

The example of the oven, which communicates with the access card reader at your workplace and notes the traffic information for your route home, comes from Alfred Heller, Associate Professor at DTU Civil Engineering and Deputy Head of CITIES (Centre for IT-Intelligent Energy Systems).

Like many others—he predicts that the Internet of Things will become one of the most important infrastructure research and development areas of the future.

“It represents the entire digital future—that we can create an efficient and sustainable future with disaster prediction and so on. But we’re at a very early stage, so for me it’s still a playground. We must first of all get used to using the technology,” he says.

Computer monitoring

Being able to monitor everything from vehicle transport and electricity consumption to waste containers, in a network which can automatically communicate, calculate and plan, offers countless opportunities for safety, efficiency and savings.

The City of Knowledge & Urban Development, DTU and Lyngby-Taarbæk Municipality are currently running a trial involving monitoring the use of the municipality's cars via IoT. The aim is not to pry into the behaviour of employees, but to see whether money can be saved through better scheduling or by monitoring when vehicles need service etc.

Henrik Lehrmann Christiansen is head of studies for the MSc Eng in Telecommunication at DTU Fotonik and Associate Professor in mobile communications. He says:

“IoT is not a new concept as such, but it is becoming more prevalent. One of the challenges is that a huge number of appliances would have to be fitted with transmitters and receivers. So we are very interested in the whole communications infrastructure, and are particularly looking at capacity, security, reliability and energy efficiency,” he explains.

Man attacked by electric razor

But the trend is not without hazard. There are two areas in particular that raise concern and careful consideration when our devices go online —hacking and data security.

The first is the most obvious. If an entire fleet of cars is on the Internet, it paves the way for some unpleasant possibilities if the wrong people can hack in and gain control.

The horror scenario from Stephen King’s cult classic, ‘Maximum Overdrive’, where an unknown alien force brings all machines to life and instils them with a fatal hatred of humans, suddenly does not seem quite as unthinkable as when the film was released in 1986.

And closer to reality, the recent US presidential election has shown that not only terrorists—but also foreign governments—do not hesitate to use hacking as a weapon against other nations. So do we really live in a world where we want to let an online razor anywhere near our throat?

“There is a potential hazard that people can in principle hack into anything, and for example cause an autonomous vehicle to drive up onto the footpath. The second challenge is privacy—that people can see when you are home and who you are with," notes Alfred Heller.

Henrik Lehrmann Christiansen from DTU Fotonik agrees:

“In principle, watching the movements of the municipality's vehicles represents strong surveillance of our employees. And when we one day put our nuclear power stations on the Internet, there will also be potential problems there,” he says.

Great potential for DTU

However, Daniel Bachmann from IoT Denmark seeks to calm the waters, especially regarding his Sigfox-network. Given that only very small 12-byte data strings are transmitted in a closed network, using signals that only the recipient can decode, he does not see any risk in the system—but there is enormous potential, also for researchers and students at DTU:

“It’s important to recognize that we are very good in Denmark at finding good qualitative solutions to challenges that others might struggle with. We see a huge need for cooperation between the educational institutions and commercial players, and are working very hard to give people good and inexpensive conditions for testing. We will do almost anything to help new companies start using our technology. It's also in our interest. And this applies particularly to students,” he says.

The Internet of Things (IOT) is already in use in a number of places, but the potential is so great that an experimental platform in the real world is needed, and this is where DTU, Lyngby Storcenter shopping mall—and Lyngby in general—come into the picture.

“Being researchers gives us slightly better opportunities than companies, because part of our job is simply to show what is possible, without having to worry too much about legal issues etc. It’s a relatively new role for us as researchers to have to go out and demonstrate what you can do, but it’s an important role,” says Alfred Heller from DTU Civil Engineering.

“It will probably not be something we think much about as consumers in the future, but IoT is one of the building blocks of a world of digital services, and it's going to be everywhere I think.”

Lyngby leading the way in IoT

An antenna stands 45 metres above the ground on the roof of the Lyngby Storcenter shopping mall. It does not draw much attention to itself, but it holds the key to our hyper-intelligent everyday lives of the future.

It and a similar antenna at DTU are connected to the Sigfox network, a sophisticated global network to be used for the Internet of Things—the equipment and infrastructure network many predict will become one of the biggest technological development areas of the future.

The antenna is only a small part of a bigger plan to make Lyngby Denmark's leading test city for the Internet of Things (IoT), among other initiatives.

“It’s no coincidence that we want to make Lyngby into a test laboratory for IoT—it’s very much because DTU is based there. With a research and educational capacity of that calibre, it makes good sense to try to bring the university, the municipality and the private players together,” says Caroline Arends, Director of the City of Knowledge partnership, which is coordinating the work.

The future belongs to telecoms
The initial purpose of the antennas is to monitor the Municipality of Lyngby-Taarbæk’s vehicles, so their movements within the municipality can be optimized. But longer term there are a wealth of possibilities for what can be connected to the network.

“Examples we are looking at right now include waste containers that can tell us if they need emptying, and water pipes that report leaks. The entire supply segment in our society has great economic importance, and a lot of work with IoT is being done in this area,” says Caroline Arends.

There is also a major focus on the antennas at DTU:
“Many people only look at the units sending information, such as whether a garbage bin needs to be emptied. They often forget what lies in between—that the data has to be transmitted. That’s what we are looking at. You could say we are building the roads,” says Henrik Lehrmann Christiansen from DTU Fotonik.

“The quantity of information continually rises, and people just expect that you can exchange whatever you want, but someone has to develop these systems. Eventually, even washing machine manufacturers will need engineers specializing in communication, so telecoms engineers will be in high demand in the future.”

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