In Ann Arbor, Mich., 3,000 vehicles participating in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot Program are connected to each other wirelessly, enabling cars, trucks and buses to "talk" to each other to help avoid crashes and improve traffic flow. Soon, they may be able to communicate with more than just other vehicles.
The concept of an "Internet of Things" has been around since the late 1990s to describe network-connected objects with unique identifiers. In recent years, the growing number of devices coming online has led analysts to conclude that the world is increasingly alive with information.
"The Internet of Things is here today," says Daniel Castro, senior analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. To illustrate his point, Castro cites connected sensors that monitor the structural health of federal buildings and infrastructure, and others that track cargo.
Brian Melewski, a capital support engineer at the Veterans Health Administration, says the agency's hospitals are using Internet-enabled devices, such as fire and security systems, that automatically send email alerts to administrators when there's a problem, as well as smart meters that monitor energy use. The meters help the agency to make decisions about infrastructure improvements, he says.
"All of our capital improvements are driven by the energy savings we see," Melewski says. "We know where energy is wasted, so we can help reduce energy use."
In addition to exploiting the Internet of Things for their own advantage, some agencies are exploring public-facing applications that benefit citizens. NHTSA's pilot program in Michigan, for example, aims to reduce the number and severity of traffic accidents by having vehicles communicate directly with each other.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) gathers weather data using connected road sensors across the country. The agency performs quality control on the information, combines it with data from other sources (such as private citizens), formats the numbers and then sends the data back out. The service helps state officials, for example, make weather-related transportation decisions. "Like, when do you put down sand, or what type of chemicals should you put down because of what's about to hit you?" says Greg Pratt, section chief at NOAA's Global Systems Division.
Chris Greer, director of the Smart Grid and Cyber-Physical Systems Program Office at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), says the Internet of Things is still in its infancy. "We're at kind of the foundation stage," he says. NIST is laying that groundwork by establishing interoperability standards between devices, as well as by developing provisions for security and privacy.
As more devices begin communicating with each other, potential applications may be limited only by imagination. Pratt envisions a future in which the weather data from road sensors is sent not only to government agencies, but also straight to vehicles such as the ones being tested in Michigan.