Visions of a world in which humans and computers are data-linked and machines make autonomous decisions have filled the pages of science fiction books for decades. Thanks to the affordability of semiconductors and the ever-accelerating speeds of the Internet, what was once fantasy is now on the horizon.
The movement toward a future of interconnected objects in our homes, in our offices and in large-scale organized systems has been branded as “The Internet of Things.” And while the idea of self-driving cars and interior lighting that automatically adjusts to your mood will inevitably seize the imagination of the public, it is the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) that will likely have the greatest impact on our world.
IIoT will be a large subset of the greater IoT, which Cisco CEO John Chambers predicts to be a $19 trillion market. As it primarily applies to the energy, infrastructure and manufacturing sectors, the IIoT is expected to greatly increase efficiency, adaptability and growth while reducing waste, limiting latency and minimizing risk. There is vast potential for digitizing our energy efforts, multiplying our manufacturing capacities, automating the data grid and making our cities far more intelligent than our phones.
But before the Industrial Internet of Things becomes a reality, there are two big hurdles that engineers must work to overcome.
- 1. Security & Data Privacy
Cybersecurity has consistently made headlines ever since large scale breaches were reported across some of the biggest U.S. retailers back in 2013. Malevolent hackers are constantly trying to access consumer financial information, and cyberspace has become a battlefield as strategically important as any physical location. Before the civilized world can enjoy the immense benefits of IIoT, engineers must design security systems that can prevent the grids from being compromised. This is no small task, as an interconnected industrial world brings with it a multitude of new entry points for hackers, cyberterrorists and warring nations. New security technology and protocols will need to be implemented for every user touchpoint, as well as every added layer of the IIoT system.
- 2. Interoperability
With the rise of consumer electronics, engineers had to figure out how to allow each device to perform its function without drowning in electromagnetic interference. The challenge with entire connected systems will be less of a noise issue and more of a compatibility issue. If a variety of different technologies are used to deploy different data grids, it will likely prove very difficult to make those grids communicate with one another. To achieve seamless communication among all systems within the IIoT, engineers within the Industrial Internet Consortium--a partnership of more than 150 companies--are developing unified standards for IIoT communication that they plan to present to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) by 2018. This effort is necessary and promising, but it is the beginning of a long and arduous process that will test the mettle and ingenuity of our engineers.
If the Industrial Internet of Things is to become reality, these two fundamental issues of security and interoperability will need to be solved first. Both problems will likely be moving targets that will change and grow as we attempt to scale the IIoT across industries and infrastructures. But the value of smart, adaptable systems that thrive on seamless data-sharing is undeniable. When engineers build it, science fiction fans may well say that the future has finally arrived.