In a way, cars in Gerla’s dream would be not at the tips of the branches on the internet of things, but would become part of its fabric. Each vehicle would be a potential access point for the internet.
“What I imagine is that all the vehicles will become mobile sensor platforms, with video cameras and everything. They will produce so much information you can’t upload it all on the internet. So they will have data storage on board, processing power … you’d have a kind of mobile cloud.”
It would work because of the simple benefits it would bring. Vehicles would no longer merely receive traffic reports; they would deliver the information about local driving conditions into the cloud (though they’d need to know the difference between a red traffic light and a traffic jam). Through distributed intelligence, vehicles could cooperatively plan their routes to avoid congestion in critical areas – a 2005 study estimated traffic delays cost the US economy $78 billion.
Of course, there are potential problems. Everytime you let your computer or router be accessed by other users, you are vulnerable to hacking. This was illustrated in a 2010 study that showed that even built-in tyre-pressure sensors (which wirelessly connect to the onboard computer) are a security weak point. The researchers at Rutgers and South Carolina Universities showed hackers could eaves drop and track the wireless tyre transmitters, and substitute false warning messages.
Any internet of things in the future would have major issues of security, authentication and trust if we are to enjoy the benefits of seamless connectivity. Giacomo Morabito of the University of Catania proposes that trust relationships based on the approach used by social networks. For example, devices possessed by the same owner should trust each other more than those owned by different people. Objects made by the same manufacturer are more likely have common inanimate interests.
“When my Apple computer doesn’t connect to the departmental Microsoft-based printer, why should I go and ask the Mac user in the next office how she does it? This is 2013. My computer should find hers, and they should sort it out for themselves,” Morabito explains.
Power is another issue. For billions of devices to be truly autonomous, there can’t be any worry about when their battery runs out. Here, Moore’s ubiquitous law of shrinking electronics s the net’s friend.
In phones and computers it has meant ever increasing processor potential. But in the other direction it has meant low-level processing for ever decreasing cost. And requiring ever decreasing power.
For Professor Ian Akyildiz, Professor of Telecommunications at the Georgia Institute of Technology, this means the inevitable end point is the internet of nanothings. We don’t want to be aware of the devices that help us in our lives, he argues, so the sensors would have to be much smaller than the microsensors and Radio Frequency Identification tags we see around us now. That would mean they could use much less power, surviving on energy harvested from the environment (see the third article in this series).
Their nano-antennas (made of carbon nanotubes or graphene) would be too small to send and receive radio waves, and so the devices would naturally operate in the very high frequency terahertz range – currently used in airport body scanners. The advantage of that would be that the data rates could in principle be far higher than with radio devices.
The nano-sensors would themselves be networked together, but also be connected into wider internet.