The Internet of Things for large-scale infrastructure management: being at home in a €1.5 trillion market
20 March 2018
“Heimdall, in Norse mythology, the watchman of the gods. Heimdall dwelt at the entry to Asgard, where he guarded Bifrost, the rainbow bridge. He required less sleep than a bird, could see 100 leagues, and could hear grass growing in the meadows and wool growing on sheep.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica
In early 2017, I was preparing a research proposal for a project on using wireless sensing to monitor damage from coastal erosion and climate change on remote archaeological sites on the northern periphery of Europe and in the Arctic regions.
Trying to find a suitable project acronym, I came across Heimdall and it seemed a good title for a remote monitoring project. When asked to make a presentation for Engineers Ireland at a seminar on project management, it struck me that Heimdall would have made an ideal project manager: ‘needs no sleep and can see and hear everything no matter where it was happening’.
The focus of that presentation and of this article, the Internet of Things (IoT), can make every project manager a ‘Heimdall’ because the IoT uses the communications infrastructure of the internet to connect not just computers and phones together but to connect the physical world and the things in it. By doing this, it becomes possible to monitor and control anything, from anywhere, and at any time.
The IoT is enabled by the rapid advances in ICT (Information and Communications Technology) over recent decades that have given us low-cost, high-performance computing, highly miniaturised electronics, the internet, and ubiquitous wireless communications.
To connect any ‘Thing’ to the IoT, the first step is to attach some electronics to it – this can be as simple as an RFID tag which simply gives the ‘Thing’ a unique identity that can be read by an RFID reader connected to the internet but can range all the way up to sophisticated embedded sensing, data processing and active wireless communications.
At the basic level of ‘Thing’ identity, we can know what the ‘Thing’ is and where it is but we can also link to a detailed history of the ‘Thing’ stored in the cloud.
An example is an RFID tag embedded in a structural element that, for the lifetime of the element, will, in-situ, allow the manufacturer to be identified, the materials, manufacturing and design data to be accessed, and the life history to date to be viewed.
At the more sophisticated end of the IoT, by attaching electronic sensors to ‘Things’ in the physical world, we can get real-time data about the ‘Thing’ itself and/or about what is going on around it.
Whatever the ‘Thing’ is – people, animals, structures, vehicles, buildings, machinery, goods, plants, soil… whether the ‘Thing’ is large or small, living or inert, static or moving, in the land, air or water, advances in sensor miniaturisation and performance, combined with falling sensor costs, make it possible to sense almost anything we want.
Embedded computing and wireless communication allow the data from the sensors to be processed and uploaded to the internet. With this sensor data, we can measure and monitor the ‘Things’ themselves, what is happening to them and what is happening around them. By analysing the data and extracting meaning from it, we can take actions or deliver services.
We can also, in many cases, issue instructions to the ‘Thing’ to perform particular tasks. An example is a semi-autonomous excavator that can receive excavation instructions based on 3D site surveys, monitor and report on excavation progress, on its own mechanical condition, on unexpected collisions, and on operator safety.
The IoT gives us visibility and control of Anything, Anywhere, Anytime giving us insights into what has happened in the past, what is currently happening and, with all that information, also allowing us to make more accurate predictions of what will happen in the future.
Before examining the applications of the IoT in project management, it will be useful to look first at why the IoT exists at all – why, out of all the possible evolutions of the internet, is the IoT the one generating so much interest and investment.
At a basic level, the IoT could not exist if the ICT industry was not motivated to build and supply the technology infrastructure for every layer of the IoT from the ‘edge’ where the connected ‘Things’ are, up through internet connectivity and communications, cloud services, data analytics and delivery of actions and services using the internet infrastructure.
One motivation for the ICT industry is that markets for conventional tech ‘gadgets’ – computers, phones, tablets and so on – have been saturating in recent years as they reach the fundamental limit of the human population able to buy and use them. The IoT, on the other hand, is not limited by global population with projections into the tens and even hundreds of billions of ‘Things’ that will be connected over the next decade – a potentially unlimited growth market.
However, there is no point in providing the technology infrastructure unless a market exists and businesses and consumers are motivated to use the IoT. Because of the potential value and impact of the IoT in terms of operational savings, new revenue sources, more accurate decision-making, and increased capabilities, efficiencies, yields, safety, security and convenience, predictions put IoT market value at about €1.5 trillion within the next five years.
The IoT for project management
Project management, in many aspects, is already beginning to be one of the major beneficiaries of the IoT as a ‘Heimdall’:
Supply Chain Management
The IoT allows global monitoring of the locations of raw materials, vehicles, machinery, equipment and construction elements. This enables continuous updating of estimated arrival times allowing project schedules to be adjusted.
In addition, the IoT allows monitoring of the condition and handling of sensitive cargo – has it, for instance, been exposed to mechanical shock that could cause damage or to excessive temperature or humidity? This can allow a manager to refuse delivery of potentially damaged goods without inspection and also establishes the time and location where the damage occurred.
On-site inventory management
By labelling inventory items with smart identity tags, it becomes possible to automatically log items into and out of stores and, with more sophisticated tags, to monitor their location on-site. Again, sensitive items can be monitored for handling damage or environmental damage. Weigh-bridges and other measuring equipment can also be monitored remotely. This allows real-time monitoring of inventory and reduces waste and loss.
Many different aspects of safety and security can use the IoT:
• Access control of people and vehicles across site perimeters and zones;
• Internal geofencing for controlled-access zones;
• Tracking the location and movement of anything mobile on the site;
• Controlling traffic and preventing accidents through location monitoring, a capability that will increase with the expected growth in the use of semi- and fully autonomous vehicles, already in use, for example, some large mines and quarries. If accidents do happen between vehicles or between vehicles and structures, this can be detected immediately by sensors on vehicles and the severity of impact recorded;
• Vehicles, equipment and tools can be enabled to allow only users with authorised tags;
• Personal accidents can be detected immediately, for example, if a lone worker falls, or if they do not move for a given amount of time, by the use of wearable impact and motion sensors;
• The mechanical and electrical condition of vehicles, equipment and machinery can be monitored remotely, allowing collection of diagnostics and warning of possible life-threatening failures.
If the condition of vehicles, equipment and machinery can be monitored remotely, preventative maintenance in response to specific potential problems can be carried out rather than post- breakdown reactive maintenance or routine, scheduled maintenance that may not actually be required.
Service personnel can arrive on-site with the specific parts required, reducing downtime. This can prevent breakdowns and maintain efficiency, performance and availability.
At a more advanced level of the IoT, sensors can be attached to structures as they are being erected or to excavations to monitor their stability, giving warning of potential collapse. This, however, demands more sophisticated data analytics to reduce the risk of false alerts.
As with personal cars, there is much work being carried out on semi-autonomous or even fully autonomous construction vehicles – vehicles that can reduce the skill levels required of operators, that can be given new tasks remotely, for instance, precise excavation instructions derived from site surveys.
These site surveys may themselves have been carried out by smart UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles or ‘drones’) that can do comprehensive 3D site surveys in a fraction of the time it would take at ground level.
The IoT beyond the project
As well as using the IoT for infrastructure project management, project managers can expect to be increasingly asked to install IoT networks in the infrastructure itself to allow monitoring and control over the lifetime of the infrastructure.
As well of being of long-term benefit to the owners of the infrastructure, this could also have a considerable national benefit: for example, if weather, flooding and groundwater levels are monitored nationally across infrastructure sites, this will give invaluable data not only on the impact of severe weather but also on the progressive impacts of increased precipitation caused by global warming across the country.
There are, of course, challenges in introducing new ICT-based capabilities into project management:
There is a cultural shift in how project management is carried out, becoming more data driven and also, potentially, allowing many aspects of project management to be carried out remotely. For many project management companies, using the IoT will demand new skillsets, and the IT division, rather than primarily being a provider of IT infrastructure, will have active involvement in day-to-day operations.
If workers on site are being monitored for location and activity, even if for their own safety, sensitivities around ‘Big Brother’ oversight and the introduction of this type of technology must be handled carefully.
Cybersecurity is always mentioned as a primary challenge in any discussion of the IoT, regardless of application field. This is very understandable because there the number of ‘Things’ you have connected to the internet, the greater your potential vulnerability.
Large-scale infrastructure is an attractive target for hackers both for nefarious purposes and also because it usually presents a high level of security that ‘recreational’ hackers can boast about cracking. On the other hand, having an IoT sensor network in place on large-scale infrastructure can help to identify malicious intrusions at an earlier stage, potentially allowing intervention before serious damage is caused.
There is a strong awareness in the ICT industry that the IoT will fail if security levels are not effective and security is being built into every layer of the IoT technology infrastructure. Overall, however, no IoT project or product should be launched without security as a primary design parameter and without robust testing of that security before going live. For many project management organisations, this will require partnership with external IoT cybersecurity experts.
If a project management organisation is collecting data from people, compliance with data privacy regulations will be mandatory. As these become more and more stringent to protect the right to privacy of citizens, there will be growing compliance overhead.
An emerging aspect of compliance as the IoT expands will be establishing liabilities for loss. If, say, an autonomous construction vehicle causes loss, who is legally responsible and what laws apply when the IoT infrastructure is distributed over many technology layers and, potentially, even different countries?
Data is the reason for the IoT’s existence but data is also its biggest challenge. What data to collect? How much of it? How often? What analytics do I need to extract meaning of significance from an ocean of data? How fast to I need to analyse and respond?
Machine learning and artificial intelligence will have a growing role to play here for specific analytics challenges, particularly recognising specific patterns in large amounts of data but they also require a large investment of time in ‘training’ of the AI. Despite some of the more extreme claims for the potential abilities of AI to replace humans, it will be a long time before any AI will be able to be any way as effective as an experienced project manager.
In the interim, however, rapid progress is being made in data visualisation, presenting complex data in a dynamic visual form that can be more easily interpreted by a project manager, supporting rather than supplanting decision making. The project manager of the future may well wear a hard hat with a pull-down data visor that superimposes live data over the site being viewed through the visor.
Where to start?
Project management organisations that want to explore the IoT may already have sufficient expertise in-house to began small-scale IoT trials once suitable use cases have been identified. Where expertise is lacking, partnership with one of the many commercial organisations offering IoT consultancy and services is an option. In this country, we are also fortunate to have a network of technology gateways that provide independent advice and support, and potential access to funding, for project management organisations that want to explore and apply the potential of the IoT.
The ‘A-IoT Cluster’ is a consortium of five of Enterprise Ireland’s technology gateways, providing a single point of contact for companies looking to access technical capabilities for IoT research and development. Via the cluster, industry can connect with 300 research professionals in software, hardware, communications/networks, data analytics, control, UI/UX and trialling. The A-IoT Cluster is open to all companies, of any size, nationally and internationally. More information is available at https://www.technologygateway.ie/network/applied-iot-cluster/.
Author: Professor John Barrett, Nimbus Research Centre, Cork Institute of Technologyhttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/2018/03/20/internet-things-large-scale-infrastructure-management/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/a-iota.pnghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/a-iota-300x300.pngTechCIT,ICT,internet of Things