Connectivity is what bridges people. To connect implies the transmission of thoughts and ideas between individuals, through the internet or otherwise. In the 17th century and prior, these connections or networks were established through a meeting of peoples, organizations such as the Royal Society brought together the brightest minds of the century to dream up the future. With the invention of the postal system, the telegraph, and now WiFi, these pools of knowledge have aggregated and digitized into what we know as the internet. Yet as humans, we also possess a more fundamental knowledge, knowledge aggregated not by other sources but from our own senses. One uses the knowledge of who, what, where, and how as the basis for one’s actions — AI (artificial intelligence) aims to do the same. Today, automation and the AI behind it have unfettered access to the digital realm. AI may dissect and learn from hundreds and thousands of digital sources each minute; however, without the ability to learn from and interact with the physical world, its capabilities will be forever limited. That is what the internet of things (IoT) promises to resolve. A network of sensors acting as the eyes and ears of automation, only these sensors are not to be limited by attachment to a body, these sensors may be continents apart — for they are connected to the greater body of the internet — yet provide the data for a singular action. The data such IoT sensors provide can thus be utilized by AI and automation to enact physical actions based on the digitized information. Perhaps execute market trades, track and move an asset, or simply turn on a sprinkler.

Implementing IoT however has proven difficult. On the software side, users fear and question how their data is to be used, corporate giants are developing closed proprietary networks, and network security remains an ever important issue with increasing connected devices. On the physical side, IoT requires vast physical network infrastructure with a great need for bandwidth and speed. Currently, this is being met primarily through fiber optics, which brings into question robustness, implementation cost, and whether the future is truly to be wireless. Blockchain and mesh networking technologies offer a solution, one that will accelerate every economy’s adoption of IoT.

For most, blockchain has become an obscure buzzword following Bitcoin or cryptocurrency; however, blockchain is in fact the technology that underlies Bitcoin and the other various cryptocurrencies. At its heart, blockchain is a “trustless cryptographic proof mechanism for peer-to-peer transactions based on CPU hashing power.” (Nakamoto). What does that mean? In layman’s terms, it means blockchain is similar to a shared cloud supercomputer that is controlled by nobody in particular, is tamper-proof, and can execute code automatically via smartcontracts. Decentralized and (optimally) transparent blockchain networks ensure trust in data. All blockchain transactions are publicly viewable by anyone from anywhere and furthermore contract operations may be hard coded into smartcontracts subject to public review. Most importantly, network honesty is maintained through hashing power, which anyone may contribute to. Exemplary of this trust is leveraging blockchain for agricultural supply-chain transparency. Walmart, IBM, and Tsinghua have agreed to explore this exact solution. Under a blockchain system, “digital product information such as farm origination details, batch numbers, factory and processing data, expiration dates, storage temperatures and shipping detail are digitally connected to food items and the information is entered into the blockchain along every step of the process.” (Slocum) Such a modernized solution would provide a trusted record which anyone from the end consumer to superstores could access, features absent from the current methodologies of using pen and paper.

As briefly touched upon earlier, IoT or “The Internet of Things” is a system or network of interconnected devices working in parallel without human-to-machine interaction. “Devices” in this context however is not limited to the traditional devices we consider to be connected such as smartphones or laptops. In this context, it includes any type of computing, mechanical, or digital machine one can imagine. With this network of machine-to-machine interactions, physical data-gathering machines such as sensors are able to act as the realtime eyes and ears of its counterparts in the digital realm thus paving the way for automation and AI. The effect of connecting “dumb” machines with smart sensors is hailed as a fourth industrial revolution. IoT certainly has a lot to live up to although its implementation thus far has been difficult.

One of the current primary methods of IoT deployment is through fiber optic cables. Fiber optics are essentially thin fibers of glass used to carry data at the literally the speed of light. Data is beamed in form of light pulses through the fibers which refracts and reflects within the fiber until it reaches the other end. The advantage is less signal loss, no interference, and higher bandwidth — the disadvantage however is cost. (Saltzman) The dominant telecommunications companies such as Bell are investing billions in laying fiber optics to provide faster internet. The result however has been an oligopolistic and uncompetitive market. In 2015, the CRTC ordered the big telecom companies to share their networks with smaller providers however the response has been slow, and disputes continue to crawl through the courts. It is a complicated issue with multiple valid stances, from the side of the big players, “forcing them to allow rival companies to profit from fiber optic cables would kill any incentive to invest in laying new ones.” On the other hand, fiber monopolies today seem to be much the same case as the copper telephone lines of yesteryear. Indeed, copper lines for telephone also used to be owned by singular companies until similar CRTC mandates forced their shared usage. In the words of CBC reporter Aaron Saltzman however, “fiber will be the connector, the central nervous system of the global economy, a backbone for the internet of things where just about everything, every coffee maker, every car, every elevator, every shopping cart, will connect to the internet and each other.” Fiber is angling to be the future of IoT and networking in Canada and cannot be locked up with private ownership lest the Canadian economy be left behind in the race for tech and efficiency.

As a case study for how IoT can affect the real world, one can look to its implementation and effects in Barcelona. Barcelona has invested in 500km of fiber optic cables as part of an infrastructural IoT project, and the fruits of the 30-year investment worth around $35M are now on full display. Temperature and rain sensors for example have been implemented in 60% of Barcelona’s public parks leading to a 25% increase in water conservation. Through the use of this data, city crews know where, when, and how much to water city parks. The potential of this even extends to automating the watering process, turning on and off sprinklers based on IoT data. In addition to the environmental advantages, the monetary gain of automated or informed irrigation efforts have also been impressive. Each year, the city of Barcelona now saves $500k on its water bill. Barcelona is a clear case for the benefits one could expect from investing in IoT smart cities (Adler).

International Data Corporation (IDC) Canada has forecasted the market for the top 36 use cases of IoT would be $6.5B in 2018, rising from $2.88B in 2013 for a compounded annual growth of 18%. Impressive numbers, outpacing global IoT growth at 12.5%, but still paling in comparison to the $3.0T projected in the US by 2020 (Wallis). 30 billion autonomous “things” are projected in 2020, the lion’s share of that is currently bound for the US and China, so what can Canada do to take part? Canada’s entry into the IoT market has been inhibited by security and privacy concerns, cost, infrastructure limitations, and conservatism to emerging technologies. Infrastructure such as fiber optics remain a key deal-breaker for the Canadian market while US markets thrive with fierce Silicon Valley competition and China continues to turn its economy on a dime with state-owned enterprises. Major Canadian mobile carriers on the other hand remain reluctant to invest in innovations and startup platforms unable to cut through the red tape to utilize major networks. Canada is thus far positioned to be a follower rather than leader in IoT, “lagging behind both the US and Asia-Pacific” according to Nigel Wallis, IDC analyst, and behind Germany and Japan in factory automation (Dingman).

Bluetooth mesh offers the deployment of wireless infrastructure capable of IoT without the prohibitive costs of fiber optics. Instead of corrosion-prone, tear-able, and difficult to implement fiber optics, Bluetooth mesh IoT devices have the potential to be place-and-forget with low power consumption and a solar power source (BluetoothSIG). Blockchain meanwhile offers a decentralized and trustless network upon which the network’s data and smartcontracts can be executed. Based on live sensor data, say humidity and temperature in a public park, blockchain smartcontracts have the capacity to securely execute commands and operate sprinkler systems. Additionally, cryptocurrencies built upon the blockchain enable transactions to power mesh app ecosystems. Take the “Tile Tracker” as an example. “Tiles” are Bluetooth chips one can place in their wallet. Using their “crowd-locate” feature, if one then loses their wallet they are able to send a signal to the rest of the user network and anyone else running their app who connects with that chip send their location at that moment to the wallet owner’s phone. Such a system relies on a massive user base, yet users are as of yet uncompensated for their phone’s battery loss while running the app or private data. It is a chicken and egg problem, without a large user base first, the app, while revolutionary, will not work. With a wireless and blockchain based user base, users would be able to set cryptocurrency bounty rewards for such tasks and with the power of IoT and wireless, a nearby smart city IoT device may even already have detected the lost wallet.

While IoT innovation holds numerous benefits for the Canadian economy, its implementation has thus far been costly and slow. Canada has an opportunity to be at the front of the industrial revolution 4.0 and would do well to court both innovators and established players. The neoclassical economic growth theory states GDP = FT(L,K,H). Increases in labor (L), capital (K), and the quality of capital (H) will lead to diminishing marginal returns or linear growth at best. Growth by this model and others is thus primarily driven by FT, the factor of technology. Technological changes, increases in fundamental efficiencies such as those promised by IoT, are what truly propel sustainable yet rapid growth. Furthermore, IoT stands to not only raise the bar for technology but pave the way for new ones, providing data for AI and enabling automation through machine-to-machine communication.

At Orbis, our vision is to bring affordable and robust IoT to build enterprise solutions, smart cities, and consumer networks. We begin with IIOT (Industrial Internet Of Things), developing automated parking, irrigation, asset management, etc solutions. Our hardware and network software SDKs will be available to third-parties. Upon partnering with cities and businesses, we then move to mobile mesh, developing in parallel, a mobile app allowing one’s smartphone’s Bluetooth to communicate with one another as well as with our existing IIOT devices. This is the future we at Orbis are working towards.

Jason Chao

Founder, Orbis Communications