M2M takes flight: I'll have my machine call your machine to deliver higher productivity, improved security, and more control
One topic that has always provided plenty of material for the fertile minds of science fiction writers, for example, is machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and intelligence. You know, the type that was theatrically demonstrated in such big budget movies as Minority Report, where police sent intelligent and networked robotic machines scampering throughout a building looking for the telltale retina patterns of Tom Cruise. These small and autonomous sensors communicated and interacted with one another in a fast and furious wireless mesh network, making for some edge-of-the-seat moments and a pretty good look at how theoretical technology meets actual applied techniques.
M2M technology is more than just a gleam in the eye of some clever Hollywood scriptwriter, however. A number of developers and end-user companies are actually putting rudimentary wireless M2M tactics to good use in various applications ranging from automatically controlling in-building heating and ventilation systems to tracking container shipments worldwide. Cell phone makers like Nokia and wireless service providers like Cingular are also turning their attention to wireless M2M applications to open their doors to machine-to-machine systems that 'talk' to each other over high-speed wireless data
We recently talked with Venkat Bahl, vice president of marketing at Ember Corp., a company based in Boston that specializes in embedded wireless solutions for the building automation, asset management, industrial automation, utility, and defense industries. While he admits there are presently a lot of 'mixed messages' and complicated dynamics impacting these early stages of wireless and embedded M2M, there are a lot of forward-thinking systems integrators and vendors that are investigating and deploying applications that mix remote sensing with wireless mesh networking and WAN-to-LAN-to-WAN communications.
Bahl compares the current state of M2M technology and applications with the early days of the Internet, which went through a hazily-defined evolutionary period before delivering up the current crop of fancy and complicated eCommerce applications and sophisticated search engines. Communications -- in this case over the wired World Wide Web -- was the first step in this process, and certainly not the end of the road in terms of where we will be 10 or 20 years from now. As wireless data rates increase and become more reliable, and applications providers and OEMS more technology savvy, we will see M2M systems become more prevalent and more intelligent.
Bahl claims that Ember Technologies -- one of the leaders in this field -- is presently working with more than 80 customers who are at various stages of deployment and implementation of M2M projects -- nearly all of which are well beyond initial trial phases. These customers and M2M partners include Philips Lighting and Andover Controls), both of which are involved in in-building machine control activities. Ember is also working with Rae Systems, Inc., a Sunnyvale, CA company that is focused on hazardous materials detection and systems that can monitor container shipments. Not surprisingly, Homeland Security is driving a lot of these efforts and channeling a significant amount of funding to machine-based tracing and monitoring projects.
Ember's marketing VP insists there is enough ROI in M2M today to drive OEMs to put it into their products. "There are the cost savings, the value addition, and the fact that now you can put in the communications for very low cost and at very low power, and develop a very scalable network," says Bahl.
While there are few interesting and somewhat 'sexy' applications pumping along right now that involve M2M systems -- one of which involves a Las Vegas casino, which understandably prefers to remain anonymous -- the 'bread and butter' of applications involve building automation and control and factory systems. For example:
A major utility company in California is using M2M techniques to monitor and even remotely control the use of individual appliances within homes and businesses -- such as air conditioners. These systems can be shut down during peak power demands, and users that opt into the program can get a discount in exchange for letting M2M systems determine when to turn off them off and then back on again.
A major semiconductor manufacturer is using M2M systems to check on the quality of manufactured products as they make their way through the fabrication process and to automatically pinpoint and eliminate faulty or defective products.
- A leading automobile manufacturer has installed an M2M system to monitor one segment of its assembly line, involving the manufacture of car doors. The system can look at the individual parts that make up the door as it comes together and isolate those pieces that are defective.
M2M technology an also be applied remotely and for mobile applications as well. For example, systems can be designed that automatically adjust the temperatures and environmental conditions within a refrigerated and sealed shipping container. M2M sensing systems can monitor and keep a detailed audit of the temperature, pressure and vibration changes on a product so that system can automatically tweak a refrigeration system to adapt to changes and provide a detailed history, says Vinay Gokhale, vice president of RFID Products for Impinj, Inc., a maker of RFID tags and technologies.
We obviously think that M2M offers tremendous opportunities for mobile and wireless vendors and systems integrators, as well as a fertile field for applications developers. The fast-evolving reality of M2M may make it a bit more difficult for science fiction writers to find a hypothetical story line, but that's the price you have to pay for progress.
A La Carte: A Disposable Solution for Wireless Content Tracking
This just in: A Stockholm-based maker of disposable computers has agreed to work with a Taiwanese semiconductor company to produce integrated circuits that will be incorporated into a 'throwaway' sensing product that an collect, process and exchange encrypted data. The disposable circuit and memory can be embedded into a credit-card-size device, creating a paperboard computer that can be attached to a sealed container and track such things as content, the sender, when it was closed, and if it was tampered with. Data can be read by two types of RFID reader one a standard design and the other more proprietary. It will also include a tiny antenna for transmitting wirelessly not Microsoft Excel and other applications.
The technology is now being tested in Swedish and German post offices, as well as university hospitals and pharmaceutical firms in both the U.S. and Sweden. Deals are also in the works to mass produce the toss-away technology for the healthcare industry in the U.S.
Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to http://www.shorelineresearch.com.
This was first published in June 2004