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Be not afraid: Benefits of smart technology are too great to ignore

This article is part of a series called The Future is Smart: How the Internet of things is changing business

Follow the series at tgam.ca/internet

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Peter Nowak is a Toronto-based technology writer and author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.

When the Wright brothers made their first flight in 1903, going just 179 metres, they couldn't have dreamed that airplanes would eventually be able to spend nearly an entire day in the sky.

Yet modern commercial aircraft are routinely flying more than 13,000 kilometres and 17 hours – the distance between Dallas and Sydney, Australia – without landing.

It's the Internet of Things – that latest buzz phrase from the technology world – in action.

Today's planes are made up of thousands of parts that communicate with each other. Digital sensors in the wings connect to the jets, rudders, landing gear and so on. Collectively, they deliver information to pilots and ground control staff, who match and compare it against continual streams of incoming weather data. Potential environmental and maintenance problems can be spotted – and avoided – ahead of time.

Connectivity and data crunching are making planes smarter, which means not just longer flights, but safer ones, too. Flying has indeed never been less risky – crashes have been declining globally for years despite air travel rising, with 2014 seeing just 111 of them, the fewest ever in the jet era.

Whenever someone mentions the IoT, images of smartphone-enabled home thermostats or digital bathroom scales usually come to mind. Such devices may deliver novel capabilities or incremental cost savings, but they represent just a fraction of the potential of interconnected devices. The real benefits of the IoT are also often thought of as some distant goal, to be arrived at in the future.

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Connected planes are a concrete example of how IoT is transforming the world – now, and not in the future.

A recent report by research firm IDC found that the Canadian IoT market will grow to $6.5-billion in 2018 from $2.8-billion in 2013. Over the same time frame, there will be 22.9 billion installed IoT devices globally, up from 10 billion.

The trend represents an opportunity for companies both as ways to improve efficiencies and as new market possibilities. Canadian companies, which are often small and niche-focused, stand a good chance of succeeding or benefiting if they can bring creative implementations to market. The IoT is a horizontal rather than vertical movement, so it won't be dominated by a few big players.

Canadian companies that have already adopted IoT capabilities are reporting cost savings, improved customer service, faster decision making and new revenue streams. The biggest opportunities, IDC says, are in manufacturing, health care, transportation and consumer goods. Possibilities are only limited by imaginations.

IBM, for example, has partnered with both Twitter and The Weather Company, with an eye to using data generated by both – social sentiment and environment, respectively – in new and unexpected ways.

"You put an IoT device in the middle and you have an understanding suddenly of how people are reacting to the device as well as environmental factors that may be around it," says Chris O'Connor, vice-president of smarter infrastructure strategy at IBM. "We've only scratched the surface of the combinations of the information and the usage patterns."

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Security and privacy are clear issues – IDC expects nearly 90 per cent of IT networks will have some form of IoT-based breach within the next two years. Implementations will therefore need security baked into them from the start, rather than added as an afterthought.

But the potential benefits and opportunities are too great to ignore. The U.S. Department of Transportation believes so, which is why it announced a plan to fast-track rules that will make vehicle-to-vehicle communications mandatory. Soon, driving in a smart car will be as safe as flying in a smart plane.

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