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Cyber-physical systems readied for demos by White House-led team

Cyber-physical systems readied for demos by White House-led team

Internet of Things tech is cheap and available, and its only limits may be imagination, says Presidential Innovation Fellows

WASHINGTON - A White House-led effort to show that the Internet of Things can save lives and create jobs is about to put on a big show.

A one-day SmartAmerica Expo here on June 11 will showcase pilot projects that demonstrate the potential of the IoT to control physical systems, or what the government calls cyber-physical systems.

Cyber-physical systems collect and analyze data, and then go a step further to feed this information into a system with the intention of closing the loop, or resolving a problem.

"We really want to show and demonstrate that this is possible, but not just from a technical level," said Sokwoo Rhee, a Presidential Innovation Fellow and co-lead, along with Geoff Mulligan, of the SmartAmerica effort.

"From a technology level we know it's possible," said Rhee. Without the demonstration projects, "it becomes just another technology or product play."

A project underway in Montgomery County, Md., illustrates Rhee's point.

Similar to two dozen other such projects, there is a team involved, in this case researchers from the University of California at Irvine and MIT, along with multiple vendors, including IBM, Sigfox, a French-based, long-range, low-bandwidth provider, and Twilio, a cloud communication firm

The team is building a system for suburban Washington county that can monitor, on a very detailed level, what goes on inside the home. From a hardware perspective, the team are using off-the-shelf IoT technologies, low cost sensors and wireless radios, and some hackable smoke detectors.

The sensing capability is broad.

It begins with the most important and obvious, smoke and carbon monoxide detection, temperature, and then moves to gas detection, including explosive gas, light, dust, mold, pollen and other air quality factors, as well as motion. The unit also monitors itself, namely its battery life.

The developers are imagining all types of users for the system, including people without broadband access. Using either mesh technology, where every device is a node that can hand off signals to another device extending range for miles, or Sigfox's network, these devices can operate independently of a resident's network -- even during a power outage.

"When we look back at some of the bigger disasters that have happened, one of the things that we have learned from them is you can't rely on cell phones," said Dan Hoffman, Montgomery County's chief innovation officer.

This sensing capability has the potential of being very sophisticated.

For instance, motion detection capabilities for a live-alone senior. When operational, the motion data will go to IBM's cloud, which will monitor it for anomalies in a Montgomery County resident's patterns, such as a sudden movement indicative of a fall.

If a problem is detected, an automated alert system kicks into action. First, to the occupant to see if that person can be reached and then to caregivers, relatives and neighbors. If no one can be reached, county emergency services may be dispatched. The loop, so to speak, is closed.

By having smoke, gas and other environmental sensors connected in an apartment complex operating independent of home networks, fire responders may know of a problem before the occupants. They may also quickly discover the extent of a problem by the number of building sensors reporting data.

Including mold and pollen sensors as part of the system may help residents and medical professionals understand the health of the building. "We can monitor the air quality of a building," said Hoffman.

Inoperable smoke detectors, often the result of dead batteries, has caused some fatalities in the county. With smoke detectors connected to a municipal network, Hoffman hopes that in the next five to 10 years that "dead smoke batteries are a thing of the past."

The county is taking its devices and installing them in an apartment complex for those residents willing to take part in a pilot.

The key here is cost. The hardware, sensors, wireless radios can be purchased for $1 or $2. The cost of networking is also dropping.

Montgomery County has installed a Sigfox tower on top of a government building. The cost was $3,000. Sigfox, a French-based firm, uses sub-GHz frequencies to send short m-to-m messages at low bandwidth for maximum range.

Sigfox's system is now being deployedi n the U.S., initially in the San Francisco Bay Area. Hoffman believes the Sigfox system may be able to provide total wireless coverage to Montgomery County for less than $100,000, allowing anyone to connect to device. Sigfox says subscription cost, depending on usage, will range from $1 a year to $1 a month.

Montgomery County will be one of two dozen projects demonstrated at the expo here. Others include a robotic, on-demand shuttle being piloted Stanford and West Point.

Another project, "Smart Roads," is demonstrating how it can reduce congestion and improve emergency response. "Smart Rooftops," which attaches sensors to heating ventilation & air conditioning units (HVAC), to monitor energy consumption, will also be demonstrated. The data is uploaded to a cloud for analytics to help improvement energy management.

Another demonstration system monitors water supply, and several projects are designed to help with health monitoring. This project list is long, and the only limit seems to be imagination.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is

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