Something strange is happening in a rubbish bin in Milton Keynes. On his way to the bus stop, Alex drops a drinks carton into it. The bin’s sensor system detects that an item has passed the top ridge of the container. It sends out a signal that alerts local rubbish trucks. Before Alex’s bus arrives, Becky’s truck comes to empty the bin.
Milton Keynes Council’s MK:Smart partnership is trialing new kinds of sensor systems at a city scale. This experiment uses new communication channels, bypassing mobile phone masts and WiFi hubs. These channels can use electromagnetic spectrum with much longer wavelengths. If the communication system needs to pass on small amounts of information at a time, it doesn't matter if the waves are more spaced out. Letting Becky know that a bin is full requires a lot less data than the WhatsApp photo Alex sends his friends of graffiti on the bus stop.
These longer waves form low-power wide-area (LPWA) networks. Unlike Alex's mobile phone battery, Becky's rubbish bin sensors can run for up to a decade on AA batteries. These sensors can also communicate through the thick walls and obstacles that reduce WiFi and mobile range. They offer a sustained communication infrastructure for connected objects, otherwise known as the Internet of Things (IoT).
This network could do a lot more than rubbish collection, and in 2015 we'll start to see that happen. I expect most of these will be in areas where installing communication technology was previously impossible or uneconomical. As part of MK:Smart there could be up to ten applications in 2015 including intelligent monitoring of parking spaces. I would love to see other projects that move into our parks and public spaces, helping us understand how and when people use them.
And what about systems in our offices and homes? We could find out how much people move around the office, without the intrusion of tapping their phone's location data. We could monitor the day-to-day activities of vulnerable adults, without rewiring their homes with complex hi-spec systems. I predict that we’ll see pockets of these corporate uses before the end of the year.
The future of this technology is exciting, ripe with possibility. The UK Government review of the Internet of Things will kick off 2015 by setting out how the country can position itself as a global leader in this field. This leadership will come first from cementing links between public and private sectors to push forward the Internet of Things for civic engagement and social change.
More public-private partnerships will also help to keep the attention of UK companies with foreign investment. Neul, the Cambridge-based company that partnered with BT on the Milton Keynes trial, was bought by Chinese tech giant Huawei in September 2014. Samsung Ventures has invested in Evrythng, the London IoT firm that helps drinks companies track their bottles round the world and retailers digitally deliver reward points using sensors in packaging.
2015 will be a vital year for setting the direction of these firms. The seeds of a very British IoT are already here. In 2015, low-powered wide-area networks will provide the first testbed for turning this into a new sector with real public value.