Machine to Machine Communications

By the end of the decade, it is estimated that up to 50 billion devices will be wirelessly connected to the internet.

One of the key drivers for this increase will be Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications, which will be used to link devices together over the internet.

This will go beyond smartphones and tablets, and connect everything from wearable health monitors, through to electricity grids, roads and railway networks.

The technology has the potential to deliver some very significant benefits to society.

We set out below four different M2M case studies in the areas of agriculture, power, health and transport to help illustrate how the technology might work in practice; the benefits they could deliver; and a timeframe for when they could become a reality.

 

What is it?

A smart energy grid that intelligently manages the power being generated from renewable or local energy sources with consumer demand for electricity. This could reduce reliance on large power stations to meet dips in supply and peaks in demand.

How does it work?

Electricity companies monitor the consumption of different devices in the home using M2M sensors. During peaks in demand for electricity, such as in the early evening, power to certain devices in the home would be restricted, delaying their start times until later in the evening when there is less demand for electricity. If M2M is commonly installed in a wide range of domestic products, then taken together these changes in electricity consumption patterns could significantly reduce total peak demand.

How does this compare with today?

There is an increasing focus on using new sources of electric power including wind farms, solar panels and water turbines. A disadvantage of these approaches is that they can generate energy at times when it is not in high demand, which makes us reliant on back-up power stations to manage the peaks. This can be very costly.

What are the benefits?

If smart grids are more intelligently matching supply with demand, this could reduce reliance on expensive power stations and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

Timescales:

Smart meters are already becoming established, enabling consumers to better monitor and control their energy consumption. This is one step towards fully-fledged smart grids that could be in place in 15-25 years.

What is it?

Intelligent pill boxes and wearable sensors that monitor the health of patients and automatically trigger an alert if a problem arises. This will help patients leave hospital earlier and reduce the frequency of routine follow up appointments - improving quality of life and reducing costs to the NHS.

How does it work?

Wearable monitors Wireless M2M sensors are attached to a patient's body to monitor vital signs, such as heart rate and blood pressure. Readings from these devices are sent wirelessly over the internet to a central medical database, which processes the information and triggers an alarm if the patient's health deteriorates.

Intelligent pill boxes Sensors in an M2M-enabled intelligent pill box could detect when tablets have been taken and phone the patient to remind them if they have forgotten a dose. They can also automatically request repeat prescriptions and warn the doctor if medication is not being taken.

Smart sensors 24 hour monitoring by sensors around the home can detect a range of things, including a lack of human activity, wet floors resulting from taps being left on and other events that may indicate a need for help. Carers, including family members, can be alerted to provide immediate assistance.

What happens today?

At present monitoring of patients and those in need of care is a labour intensive process. Patients can need hospitalisation simply because they have failed to take their medication correctly. Older people may be prematurely taken into residential care because of an incident at home which could have been dealt with easily if a carer had been available.

What are the benefits?

M2M communications has the potential to significantly improve the health and quality of life of patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and asthma.

The Department of Health believes that at least 3 million people with long term conditions and/or social care needs could benefit from the use of telehealth and telecare. Using this technology it aims to deliver a 20% reduction in emergency hospital admissions, which could save £155m every year in England alone.

After launching Telecare services, Wakefield Council found an average of 23 people a month were deferred from entering residential care. Cost savings in the first six months were £1.3m, which suggests that the nation as a whole may be able to save around £500m a year.

Timescales:

Widespread roll-out is likely within 10 years

 

What is it?

Intelligent traffic management systems that control the flow of traffic, reducing congestion, bottlenecks and delays. And cars that communicate with each other, making the flow of traffic smoother and safer.

How does it work?

M2M sensors in cars and on the roads monitor the build up of congestion and wirelessly send this information to a central traffic control system, which automatically impose variable speed limits that smooth the flow of traffic. This system could also communicate directly with cars, directing them along diverted routes to avoid the congestion and even managing their speed.

M2M sensors could also be attached to the mechanical parts of a car, such as ABS wheel rotation sensors to measure speed. This information could be wirelessly communicated to nearby cars, which have onboard computers that process and react to this information. Automating the flow of traffic in this way would reduce congestion and enable traffic to flow much more efficiently. This could, for example, reduce the 'shockwave effect' when a line of cars brake and accelerate in an uneven manner, which is a significant cause of congestion on motorways.

M2M communications could also deliver other benefits, such as intelligent parking guidance in town centres. Rather than driving round looking for a space, in the future drivers could be assigned spaces as they approach and their vehicles guided to the vacant space via the quickest route.

What happens today?

Transport systems are already becoming more 'intelligent', with real-time information on traffic congestion. However, the systems in place - such as temporary speed restrictions - rely on drivers themselves reacting to information, rather than it being automated.

What are the benefits?

The Government estimates that road congestion costs the British economy more than £7bn a year. Reducing congestion by as little as 15% through the introduction of intelligent transport systems, could provide savings of more than £1bn a year.

Equally, by reducing 'rush hour' congestion, the need to build more roads will be reduced, delivering additional savings. There are also environmental benefits, including a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

Timescales:

Commercially available automated cars are likely within the next 10-30 years.

 
 

What is it?

Fertilizer, fodder and water distributed across the farm in the right quantities, in the right places, and at the right time.

How does it work?

In the future low-cost wirelessly connected machine-to-machine (M2M) sensors are likely to be sown into fields to measure moisture at different depths below ground. This information will be beamed wirelessly to a central control system, which sends water to the crops that need it and at a rate that best permeates the ground with minimum waste.

After harvest, grain stores need to be cooled to preserve cereals and minimise any insect activity. M2M communications would also be used to monitor and control the storage conditions of these crops, reducing energy costs, improving food quality and reducing wastage.

How does this compare with today?

Measurements of soil moisture levels are often taken manually, or estimated using satellite images. This means limited water resources are sometimes used in the wrong places at the wrong time, resulting in reduced yields and an increased risk of crop diseases. Similarly, grain store monitoring and temperature control is often inefficient, either because human intervention is required or because control systems fail to manage temperatures adequately. M2M solutions are already emerging in this area.

What are the benefits?

Better tasting, more nutritious crops produced with less water, fertiliser, pesticides and energy.

With a growing population, there is an increasing demand to improve the productivity of farmland while also protecting the environment. Studies show that M2M irrigation systems can produce water savings of 70%, reducing the need for fertilizers and pesticides and lowering the environmental impacts of farming. Not only that, smart irrigation techniques produced sweeter fruit with higher vitamin C levels.

Timescales:

Emerging today and mainstream in 10 years.