The Stack Archive

Keeping the human connected in Smart Cities

Mon 13 Jun 2016

Aston Martin

As I was taken around the factory floor at Aston Martin, near Warwick, it dawned on me what made these cars so very special and sought after: the sheer genius of blending of technological prowess with human skill and ingenuity. All the way through the process, from the building of the chassis, through to the final sign off on the body paint, humans are at the heart of the process, making use of technological innovation to enhance their own output, rather than deferring to it. ‘Handmade’ here means human precision, not idiosyncrasy.

Many think of James Bond when they hear the words Aston Martin – and indeed there is a ‘Spectre-esque’ quality to the ultra-secure, ultra-modern building I was visiting – but there is so much more beneath the exterior of this vaunted brand: at its heart is a product which is the result of a highly tuned synergy between humans and machines.

Why was I here and what does this have to do with Smart cities and the Internet of Things?

I had been invited that day to an event hosted by Spirent Communications, on the subject of how to make IoT adoption simple, safe and secure, which was delivered by Stephen Douglas, its solutions and technical strategy lead. The choice of location was apt: Spirent provides a range testing and evaluation services including GPS signals to the Aston Martin Racing team on its 2016 V8 Vantage GTE race cars.

This is especially important if you are in an environment which relies on consistent and accurate real-, or near-real-time information. A team that needs to understand the precise telemetry of a racing car moving at 200 mph, cannot afford for its GPS signal to be out of sync. Spirent’s ability to capture real world GPS receiver signals during testing and replay the data in simulated track scenarios gives Aston Martin Racing a unique perspective on its GPS signal performance accuracy before arriving at race events.

This small but valuable service is just one of the many things Spirent do – it doesn’t shout about it from the rooftops but it is a major provider of verification, assessment, analytics, and device intelligence solutions, in particular for organisations which deliver deliver networks, connected devices, and communication services – including connected vehicles.

internet-of-things-IoTThese aspects of QoS assurance risk management are also important when considering the technical challenges of IoT deployment. The ‘unhindered’ networking of static or mobile objects through the use of sensors or devices, combined with data analytics to optimise products, services, and operations, represents a paradigm shift for vendors, businesses, governments and citizens. The figures speak for themselves. There are forecast to be 50 billion devices connected to the internet by 2020, representing a 300% increase from 2015.  The baseline consensus on what impact this will have on global and sector economies is at least $3.9 trillion per annum impact on global GDP by 2025.

If the rewards are high, then so are the risks. For all the hype around IoT, this sector still represents a multiplicity of challenges. Douglas identified six which relate to Spirent’s areas of expertise, networks and connectivity:  multiple standards initiatives which lack unification and ratification; new security threats and attack surfaces; the complexity of managing remote devices over long durations; the volume and variety of devices requiring different testing, qualification & quality of service; the increase in the number of connections and diverse communications models; and a lack of developer expertise in these areas. It is here that Spirent has been focusing its efforts and, using its extensive experience in testing and software solutions delivery, is planning to play an important role.

Douglas described how this has involved developing a set of IoT enablement tools which focus on delivering secure interoperability for operator/customers and assuring scalability and replicability of architecture. These factors have significant implications for investment decisions: for example, city planners talk of creating a Smart City framework which can be applied across different locations, either scaled up or down, yet this will be unachievable if the technical infrastructure cannot adapt to meet changing requirements.

Some of the key features mentioned by Douglas include: a cloud-based platform which can read third party code on sensors/devices, avoiding the need for embedded hardware; the OTA management of devices and the facilitation of low cost testing to get rapid approval on the network, via cloud analysis; the use of common API’s and abstraction layers to overcome diversified standards; and overcoming issues of huge stores of unused data from the full spectrum of enterprise devices, using distributed data management and streamlined analytics.

Spirent’s evolution into this space has been undertaken organically, utilizing its accumulated knowledge and experience in QoS testing and assurance. It is its focus on the latter and specifically on the principle of enablement, which enables it to work with and across vendors without competing with their customers. This is especially pertinent when dealing with the deployment of IoT in Smart Cities.

If IoT deployment is to be a success, confidence in the quality, accuracy and reliability of the data generated must be assured

Cities, with their complex infrastructure and concentrated populations, make a target-rich environment for IoT applications – and the need for change is growing, as urban populations grow and require more resources. With 60 percent of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2025, local authorities and other municipal branches of the public sector are focused on increasing productivity, decreasing costs, and improving their citizens’ quality of life. They also see that big data, and the technology required to gather and analyse this, is central to their solutions.

At the recent Urban IoT Showcase held at Smart IoT London in April this year, the role of IoT was therefore a hot topic, with talks from a wide range of experts and organisations, including some of the UK’s leading Smart City projects. To date, cities have, primarily through publicly funded initiatives, been experimenting with IoT applications which focus on improving public services, relieving traffic congestion, conserving water and energy, and improving health and quality of life. One growing theme was that whereas the talk in 2016 was still of experimentation, the focus for 2017 will be on ‘go to market’ strategies.

This move to commercialisation faces challenges. IoT itself risks complicating the system of systems that is a city, and requires thinking about data, architectures and culture. Technology and service providers need to understand both the possibilities within IoT as well as the limitations if they are hoping to manage the concerns of city managers and citizens alike. If IoT deployment is to be a success, confidence in the quality, accuracy and reliability of the data generated must be assured. This means tackling the issues outlined earlier, in addition to the many non-technical issues, such as governance, appropriate business models, consumer trust and so on. With very limited funds, municipal leaders and administrators cannot afford costly mistakes, nor the delivery of an unsatisfactory service to end users.

IoT deployment is ultimately not about the technology, but about the people it serves and who make use of it

Douglas sees enablement platform as allowing cities to be far more flexible regardless of any technology architecture decisions made to date, including the ability to re-use legacy systems – and that this represents a win-win for all parties concerned as it will remove a barrier to decision making and implementation. The company has also been working on advanced analytical tools to turn Big Data into Smart Data, without which real insight is not possible. Examples of the impact of Big Data Analytics to deliver better civic services are now emerging: In New York, for example, the city uses data mining and predictive analytics and has input 7,500 separate factors across 17 city-agency data streams. The output is to assign risk scores per building to determine which of the city’s 1 million buildings is most likely to have a major fire. This helps with the planning and distribution of resources, in turn reducing response rates and costs.

I asked Douglas how he saw the business models for Urban IoT deployment evolving, bearing in mind the austerity conditions many local authorities are functioning under. He acknowledged that the business models and regulatory frameworks have to catch up with the technology and these are holding up IoT deployment – a refrain we have heard many times. He also identified four models which were already in action to some degree: vendor driven; large institutional investor driven; sensing as a service (and re-use of legacy systems); the multiple stakeholder/investor model. We may yet see some of these emerge as the clear front runners to accelerate deployment.

As I reflected on the human ingenuity and skill I had seen at work at the Aston Martin factory, it reminded me that IoT deployment is ultimately not about the technology, but about the people it serves and who make use of it.  Spirent, with its focus on ensuring things work well for its customers, may well have an important role to play in Smart Cities.


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