Internet of Things Version 2: It’s about Time and Energy

IoT 2: It’s about Time–and energy savings

IoT builds on a simple idea:

Everything, everywhere, connected to everything.

It is a “platform” that enables innovation. And exactly what can you do with this technology?   The answer is almost the outrageously simple “anything”:

  • You can monitor traffic, weather, pollution, noise
  • You can control aircraft, drones, autonomous cars
  • You can track people animals and their behavior.

IoT Version 2: with Precise Time.

When each IoT 2 Device can stamp its data with precise time, a wealth of new applications is possible with resulting time and energy savings.

  • Crowd-sourced acoustic “radar”: If all smartphones had precision timing, the collection of their audio recordings at a crowded place could be used to focus on a single persons speech, or detect where a sudden sound, such and a shot or explosion came from.
  • Crowd sourced 3D video. Simultaneously recorded photos and videos could automatically be synchronized to create a true time base of events, seems from different angles.
  • Always in motion traffic: If all vehicles’ time and position are accurately known, they can in theory be interleaved so no collisions occur. Current traffic lights do this at long intervals, but in theory, cars could be interleaved at high speed through an intersection, without ever happen to stop.

IoT 2: A platform for the unpredictable.

The history of technology shows that the only sure prediction about the main applications of new technologies is that we will be surprised.

  • Electricity was initially seen as a way of providing light.
  • The first computers were used for military and accounting applications.
  • The first big Internet applications were a bookstore (Amazon), flea market (eBay) and porno service.

IoT has deep roots in the instrumentation and processes control industries. Distributed measurement and control systems have origins that go back over 30 years but have lived a quiet existence due to the “nerdish” nature of their systems.

With the advent of inexpensive, distributed computers, these technologies have seen a re-birth, in that the wider computer and app based industries are seeing huge potentials. What is new now, compared to 30 years ago, is the low cost, size, and power consumption per device, which makes the world wide deployment of thousands or millions of devices realistic and relevant.

The platform provided by IoT gives access to a huge worldwide audience of app dreamers and developers, targeting the technology to both niche, and broad applications. Now, distributed data acquisition and control is no longer the exclusive domain of specialized engineers.

I will only mention a few “totally crazy” ideas to illustrate potential applications, realistic or not:

  • Remote “control” of soccer players: Vibrations or electrical impulses will direct the receiving player to speed up, change direction, etc. based on thought switches from the player about the pass the ball.
  • Slot-based, always-in-motion traffic: Pre-assigned slots for autonomous vehicles to drive from point A to B without stopping. Motorway merging, crossing through intersections is done with pre-assigned, precisely timed slots, ensuring optimal resource use (i.e. bumper to bumper high-speed traffic) with no collisions.
  • Micro-control of sway of large buildings, based on real time monitoring of wind and motion fed to multiple small servo systems on the buildings to stabilize them. (This already used for advanced aircraft designs).

Time is money, money is energy.

Time is almost taken for granted as an underlying technology in the modern industrialized society. It governs not only the scheduling of our daily lives, but plays a critical role in essential infrastructures such a communications, power generation and distribution, traffic and transportation, and scientific research. Time scheduling affects the peak capacities of these systems, their total average throughput, , reliability, as well as determines the huge inefficiencies with associated with queues.

A society with better synchronized processes, can make tremendous reductions in energy consumption, particularly in energy intensive industries such as the transportation sector. In addition, poor timing and queuing has enormous indirect costs in time wasted by individuals stuck in traffic jams, waiting for on-line computer transactions, and lost productivity due to delays in physical and electronic transactions.

There are huge potential advantages from orders of magnitude more precise synchronization (to the sub second or sum millisecond level) where this translates into significant energy savings.

  • Traffic today is slowly synchronized by traffic lights.  When traffic systems near saturation, the delays grow dramatically.  Just a 10 % increase in traffic volume may result in a complete “stop” of traffic. With precise synchronization, cars, trucks and airplanes can use the roads, highways, and airways more efficiently thereby reducing the need for expensive infrastructure expansion of new highways and airports.
  • Airports are an excellent example of huge areas allocated to queuing, both for passengers and freight. The whole process of passing through an airport needs to be re-thought in terms of synchronization to make it a frictionless, efficient process from home to “Fast your seatbelt” in the aircraft. In practice, current huge airports provide little “value add” to the travel experience.
  • Precision synchronization is also a mechanism to enable better resource allocation. Ride sharing mechanisms, coupled with synchronization, enable higher efficiency in resource (road “time-space slots”) usage.   Since the majority of cars in the western world only carry one passenger, (and taxis often only “one half passenger”)  a complete re-thinking of this paradigm could give dramatic results.   Increasing this to two passengers, would remove most traffic jams, reduce travel time dramatically, and not only decrease energy consumption significantly, and save billions of dollars in infrastructure investments.
    • Imagine the energy and resource waste if aircraft only flew with 25% of full capacity.   But this waste is accepted on our public roads today!

Security, Safety, Reliability and Privacy.

Since IoT system can span the globe, and monitor and control critical systems, the Security is critical. Uncontrolled access can be a major challenge.  In addition, since many systems involve safety critical and society essential infrastructure, the safety of such system must meet a high standard, and robust backup or fallback mechanisms must be defined.  Obviously, such systems must also have a very high standard of reliability to give the promised efficiencies. Finally, the wealth of personal and corporate data that the flow on such a network must be carefully guarded to prevent “Big Brother” misuse of data.

The smartphone as an example of IoT 2: What, when, where, why.

The smartphone is today’s most visible IoT device. It knows both “Time” and “Place”, (“When” and “Where”) and has a lot of sensors that can see, feel, and hear, (the “What”), as well as record these data.

From a layman’s perspective, Time is something that we take for granted. We don’t think about how accurate it is, and what that accuracy means in our daily life.

It is time that allows us to determine the sequence of events, and thus better understand the causes and relationships between events. It helps us answer the question “Why”.

The precision with which we “know the correct time” has a huge impact on what the IoT can be used for. –and don’t be fooled, when the 7 o’clock news start on your TV, it will arrive on your home screen about 8 seconds later than 7.00.00, depending where you are and how you are connected. As a counter point, the Apple watch shows the correct time within 50 ms.

A layman’s background about time setting.

Smartphones can easily drift several seconds in the course of a day, so time stamps on photos taken by different smartphones of the same scene at the “same time” can show events in the wrong order! Thus you wouldn’t be able to determine which picture was taken first!

Occasionally in the course of a day, a smartphone may “set its watch” to internet time. This means that your time may suddenly jump forward or backwards! If your clock is set backward, the same time can occur twice the same day, or if it is set forward, there will be a gap of times “that do not exist”. This phenomenon is no different than when you adjust the time of a mechanical or electronic watch. This may seem insignificant to you, but computer systems have crashed due to leap seconds being introduced!

If your time is not correct, you may miss a plane or train. If time is not known precisely, cellular phone systems, the internet, and smart power grids, may break down. If the time stamps on financial transactions are not the same on different banks systems, there may occur “out-of-order”, resulting in overdrafts of accounts for a few microseconds, overdrafts which can trigger alarms, payment stops, or huge interest payments.

Therefore, the above systems rely on extremely accurate time.

In the realm of science and research, precise time plays a fundamental role. To analyze the complex interactions of a diesel engine, or the vibration of an aircraft wing, data must be measured at precisely known times on different points of the structure, in order to properly understand the behavior and mathematically model it.

Precise time comes from highly precise atomic clocks whose time information is distributed by the internet and GPS.   When the time information is transmitted by the web, large delays can and will occur, and these can be corrected for to some extent.

GPS, which is primarily known for location information, uses an extremely precise clock to make this possible. Over the surface of the globe, this clock is synchronized within about 50 ns, which is remarkable considering that light travels about 17 meters in this short period of time.  The magic of GPS providing such precise time distribution over such great distances is a modern marvel of engineering and science, using both Einstein’s specific and general relativity theories.

It is this precise GPS clock, called the 1 pps (pulse per second) clock that makes IoT Version 2 possible: Precisely synchronized global sensors.

Start your imagination!


Carsten Thomsen

Senior Specialist, DELTA

Carsten has a broad range of experience in the instrumentation and technology industry as Division Manager at Brüel & Kjær, Vice President of Engineering at National Instruments (Austin, Texas) and Director of Engineering at DELTA.

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