How does IoT work – the Internet of Things explained

A network of devices

The Internet of Things, or IoT, is a term used for a network of devices connected to the Internet to collect and exchange data. This definition of IoT does not include your own computer or telephone, with which you can use the internet. Rather, it is about devices that are always connected to the rest of the world.

Billions of connected devices are part of the Internet of Things. The connected things of the IoT include computer hardware, including embedded processors that tell the devices what to do, sensors that collect different types of measurements, and communication hardware that can send and receive signals. The devices can use our smartphones as their access to the internet or connect to another piece of hardware in our homes that acts as a hub or connects directly via the internet. They often send data to servers for Cloud computing, where it is then aggregated and analyzed. We usually have access to the results on our mobile devices or computers via apps or browsers.

Collecting and processing the data

Devices of the Internet of Things collect data about their environment with a sensor. That can be as simple as a temperature measurement or as complex as a full video feed. But also think of sensor data in the form of location, noise, or humidity, and various measurements of machines or our body.

The devices sometimes work through their own embedded software or firmware, but they can also use the Cloud for data processing. The data that is sent is stored and processed within the Cloudserver, that is, in a data center using data analysis. As soon as the data reaches the Cloud, the software processes the data. This can be very simple, such as checking whether the temperature value is within an acceptable range. Or complex, such as using computer vision on video to identify objects (such as intruders in your home). Sometimes advanced algorithms are used, like machine learning, through which the device can adapt to different stimuli and patterns. This processed data is then used to perform intelligent actions that make the devices smart. The devices influence the physical world through an actuator. An actuator converts a signal into an action, for example a movement.

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Sending the data

The IoT devices can be connected to the Cloud in various ways, including: mobile, WiFi, Bluetooth, LPWAN or directly onto the internet. IoT devices for the most part send their data wirelessly, for example via the mobile network.

Because these devices do not have to send large commands, these connections are often “overkill”. The IoT is used by machines and when machines talk to each other, they are – in contrast to people – often a bit more concise: a short status update of a few hundred bytes is sufficient. That is why LPWAN (Low Power Wide Area Networks) is often chosen. Characteristics of these networks are a deeper range, low data use and low energy consumption. The networks are very suitable for connecting devices that want to send / receive small amounts of data and want to use a battery for as long as possible. The three best-known networks are LoRa, NB-IoT and SigFox.

Within the IoT, every device – from the small sensors on your doors and windows to kitchen appliances – has its own internet address (IP address), which not only makes everything uniquely identifiable, but also accessible via the internet. As the address of the object, an IP address has the advantage that it is well standardized and therefore works well with the network. Due to the internet of things, the number of required IP addresses is expected to increase explosively. The transition from IPv4 to IPv6, which is already taking place, lets us meet the need for (very) large numbers of IP addresses.

Communication protocols

With so many companies working on different products, technologies and platforms, it is difficult to have all these devices communicate with each other. At present, many connected devices can communicate with the internet and our smartphones, and perhaps even some related products, but most cannot talk to each other. Mostly, you have to use a different app or website for each of your IoT devices. There are no universal standards or platforms to enable seamless interaction between all smart gadgets and that enable you to operate them from a central app. However, different groups are working on making standard protocols and software to achieve interoperability of multiple devices from different manufacturers.

Using the data

The information that the IoT devices have gathered, is then made useful in one way or another for the end user. Smart objects must be able to communicate with people. This can be done via a warning to the user, for example a text message when the temperature is too high in the company’s cold storage. Information is displayed in the form of graphs or charts in a user-friendly interface.

Some actions are performed automatically. Instead of waiting for you to adjust the temperature, the system can do this automatically via predefined rules. And instead of just calling you to warn you of an intruder, the IoT system can also automatically inform the relevant authorities. However, it is not always one-way traffic. Depending on the IoT application, the user may also be able to perform an action and influence the system. For example, the user can remotely adjust the temperature in the cold storage via an app on his phone. The adjustments or actions that the user makes are then sent through the system in the opposite direction: from the user interface, to the Cloud and back to the sensors / devices to make the change.

Smart and autonomous responses

Devices and objects with built-in sensors are connected to an Internet of Things platform, which integrates data from the various devices and applies an analysis, to share the most valuable information with applications. These powerful IoT platforms can indicate exactly which information is useful and what can be safely ignored. This information can be used to detect patterns, make recommendations, and identify potential problems before they occur. With the insight of advanced analysis comes the opportunity to make processes more efficient. With smart objects and systems you can automate certain tasks, especially when they are repetitive, time-consuming or even dangerous.

For example, if I have a car manufacturing company, I might want to know which options are the most popular. With the help of Internet of Things technology I can: use sensors to detect which areas in a showroom are the most popular and where customers linger the longest, use the sales data to determine which components are sold the quickest, and automatically adjust the sales data to supply, so that popular items never go out of stock. The information that is picked up by connected devices allows me to make smart decisions, based on real-time information, so that I can save time and money.

Thanks to (big) data, the IoT now consists of things that can respond autonomously. If a device says its temperature is 60 degrees, there is an algorithm that tells the device to show a red light. The increasingly autonomous IoT is inextricably linked to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and big data: indispensable building blocks to be able to formulate meaningful information and actions from large amounts of data.

How does Iot work – an example

In essence, the IoT is one big Cloud. Thanks to the Wi-Fi connection, the small chip in your coffee maker becomes just as smart as a supercomputer. It can do its “thinking” in the Cloud. Imagine that the next time you have to solve a big equation, you can borrow Stephen Hawking’s brain for a few seconds.

If we continue this example with our smart coffee machine, then it has every component you might expect from a coffee machine – a coffee pot, a filter holder, etc. – but in addition it is also equipped with computer hardware, most likely a small circuit board with a weak processor, a network card and a sensor, with which it can determine if there is coffee in the pot.

In this scenario, the coffee pot is the physical part of the IoT. In addition, there is the Cloud, in which all these machines interact with each other, and communication protocols, so that your car cannot send messages to your coffee machine and vice versa. All this is managed via a control device, such as an app on your phone or tablet.

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