M2M and the Internet of Things

Last Tuesday, September 20th, the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and Numerex invited me to address the Second International M2M Standardization Meeting as the keynote speaker for their dinner at the Carter Center. I didn’t know anything about M2M, but that’s never stopped me from speaking before! So I started doing a little research, and this was the result.

Thanks for having me here tonight. I was asked to come speak about M2M communications. My first reaction was “what’s M2M”? I hadn’t heard the acronym before…

But once Alain educated me, I realized I’d actually been working on M2M for a long time.

I’ve had a few careers, but I started out in the telecommunications business… originally at Bell Laboratories, back when that meant something, and then at Nortel, back when that was a great company. In about 1985, I was teaching classes to Illinois Bell in something called “TBOS”. Anybody here ever heard of it?


TBOS: Telemetry Byte Oriented Serial. It was a primitive method for taking contact closure alarms — relays — and remoting them to a centralized monitoring center. It was invented by the old Bell System, and Nortel implemented it in our optical fiber systems. So here I was, 23 years old, in a classroom in Chicago, teaching a class to a bunch of old phone company guys.

And here I am teaching them about TBOS. This is Illinois, so they were heavily unionized. And they’re not looking too excited.

I finally asked one of them what the problem was. He replied: “You’re saying how amazing this technology is, and how you’re able to centralize alarm monitoring at one location, and how we won’t need to have individual technicians at each office to monitor alarms. Well, that’s MY job, and you’re saying they won’t need me anymore.”


So way back in the dawn of time, I not only tripped over M2M, I tripped over some of the business and financial and personal impacts of M2M.

So then I went off and joined a startup company that turned out to be in the M2M space, even though we didn’t call it that… We were building something called SCADA… Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition. We sold that into the electrical power utilities, giving them telemetry and telecomm capabilities over optical fibers strung along the power cables. That replaced a fault-monitoring system which consisted of guys driving around with radios and, literally, dropping quarters into pay phones. Wound up selling that to Westinghouse, and the basic technology is still being used today.

I kicked around the telecomm business for a while, then got into the venture capital business. One of the companies I funded was an operational system layer for fiber optic networks… allowing the optical equipment to negotiate in realtime without human intervention. The idea was that the machines themselves would identify optimum routes as traffic requirements changed as well as routing around failures from cable breaks or other equipment problems. Combination of sensors, telemetry, and some centralized intelligence: that was M2M.

Good idea. We got a beta test with a well-funded startup telecom operator called… Global Crossing. In 2001. Ouch.

So we said no more messing around with these fly-by-night telecom operators. We pulled out all the stops and got a beta test with the second-biggest network in the country. A company named… Worldcom.

Yep, Bernie Ebbers company. We were in their lab when everything fell apart in early 2002. Double ouch.

So we were a bit early with that particular implementation of M2M. Companies like Cisco and Ciena do it today, so the basic idea was a good one, just ahead of its time.

Now, ten years later, I’m running the economic development group at Georgia Tech, and I’m seeing M2M wherever I go. It’s a subset of what Kevin Ashton labelled “The Internet of Things”… what happens when every physical device has sensing capability and telemetry connections to the wider world?

At Georgia Tech, we have an amazing technical depth in sensors of all types. A lot of that started with our work for the military, but a lot of it is now moving into the commercial sector. We have sensors for just about everything. Optical, microwave, acoustical, chemical, mechanical… you name it, if you can detect it or measure it, Georgia Tech probably has worked a sensor for it.

One of the most practical sounds silly, but it’s important. We have a startup company that’s putting ammonia sensors in big industrial chicken coops to control their ventilation fans. It turns out that ammonia buildup is a huge problem, and they currently solve it by having guys drive around in pickup trucks and sniff the air. If they smell ammonia, they flip on a fan for a while. Some sensor work done out of GTRI will let chicken producers do that from a central location.

I’m detecting an echo here.. here I am, putting middle-aged guys out of work again…

Then we have our work with energy harvesting. If you start planning on scattering wireless sensors hither and yon, you quickly run into the problem of powering them.

Batteries are cheap, but changing batteries isn’t.

So we have G.K. Chang working on using flexible nanomaterials to create a tiny amount of electric current, just from flexing. Which means they could be powered by wind, or HVAC airflow, or even blood circulation. That means you could instrument an entire building for temperature, or an entire oil refinery for pressure, without miles of wiring or thousands of batteries.

And I mentioned blood circulation… It turns out that putting sensors inside the human body is a huge opportunity. One of our startup companies is named CardioMEMS. You might have heard of them; they did a deal with St. Judes that values the company at about $450 million. It’s an interesting story.

Mark Allen, a professor in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech, was funded by the Air Force to invent pressure sensors that could work inside a jet engine. That turns out to be a really hard problem, since you can’t exactly run wires to them, since the wires would melt. So Mark got that working… but, at the same time, a physician at the Cleveland Clinic was looking for ways to measure blood pressure inside the heart and the major cardiac arteries.

There are a whole class of situations where arteries can rupture and cause immense damage. For patients at risk, it’d be great to have constant monitoring of their pressure and detect trouble before it starts. You can’t expect them to trot into the clinic for a CT scan every day. And if you implant a traditional sensor, you’d have the problem of changing batteries. Do you know anyone with a pacemaker? Changing that battery costs $10,000.

But Jay and Mark together were able to invent a sensor that can be remotely powered by low levels of microwave energy, so you can fit the whole thing into a little chip that gets implanted through a cardiac catheter, without surgery. So you have an outpatient procedure, then you can go home, measure your pressure daily when you brush your teeth, then have it sent over phone lines to your doctor’s office. It turns out to reduce emergency hospitalizations by 38% per year.

That’s a big deal. And that’s M2M.

At the other extreme, I met with a company last week that’s automating those huge sprinkler pivot systems you see in South Georgia. Each one of them put out about a million gallons of water per day. If you’ve been following the news in Georgia, we’ve had recent years of drought conditions, and we’re in the midst of a water war with a couple of neighboring states, because we’ve grown so fast and don’t have enough reservoir capacity.

It turns out that 80% of the water consumed in Georgia goes to agriculture, and about half of that is wasted. By building a network of moisture sensors and targeting which spots need moisture versus which ones don’t, you can greatly reduce the amount of water you need for irrigation. And one of their examples is a farmer who is farming 20,000 acres across six counties. He’ll be able to manage all those irrigation systems from one computer. That’s M2M.

One more example: vehicle-to-vehicle communication. This is something we’re working with in the Georgia Tech Research Institute, again as a spin-out of military technologies. Civilian applications mean that your car will talk to every other car on the road. If there’s a slowdown up ahead, your car will adjust your speed by applying the brakes just a bit in advance. So you’re saving gas, reducing the chance of accidents, and smoothing out the flow of traffic, all at the same time. And if you’ve ever encountered Atlanta traffic, every bit of smoothing can help.

Take it a little further, and every car on the road will start negotiating with every other, so your GPS will start giving you alternate routes based on realtime events and traffic situations. And, eventually, the cars will just drive themselves, so you can read the paper or catch up on email during your commute. That sounds pretty good to me. And that’s M2M.

So… healthcare, water usage, and traffic. That’s three of the biggest challenges facing Georgia. And M2M is going to play a key role in solving all of them. Like I said, at Georgia Tech, we’re seeing M2M technology wherever we turn. It’s a great time for the industry, and I hope you’ve had a productive day talking about it.

With that… thanks very much for having me here tonight, and back to dinner!