The use of M2M technologies is growing in many areas – from machine control to transport and smart homes. Daryl Miller, vice president of engineering at Lantronix, looks into the current applications, and examines what the future will hold.

The UK market for M2M has experienced unprecedented growth in the last three years and the number of connected devices is set to double over the next eight years to 50 billion globally. The idea of machines speaking to machines is, however, making some people think there is an impending machine age. In reality, M2M is not science fiction but science fact, and it is getting ever closer to users to improve their quality of life.

There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, networks have now become omnipresent: wireless internet is being installed across large areas of cities and 3G, followed by faster LTE technology, is even penetrating rural areas. Secondly, the sensors for various measurements have now become standard components, so devices are now able to easily detect factors such as location, speed, light conditions or temperature, and a lot more. Thirdly, communication components like NFC (Near Field Communication – a standard for contactless exchange of data over a maximum of 10cm) and device servers are constantly getting smaller and more affordable. Lantronix, for example, has a device server in its portfolio that is the size of a two-pound coin.

The use of professional M2M technologies is rapidly advancing in areas such as transport, security, utilities, logistics, healthcare, building automation and machine control. According to IDC, 15 billion smart devices will be connected via the Internet by 2015.

The smart home of the future

One of the biggest potential growth areas in the world of M2M has to do with the concept of the ‘smart home’. In today’s smart homes, private users can already control their stereo system with their Smartphone, programme their heating system or control electric shutters, and there are wireless-enabled washing machines that can be controlled via an app.

Many analysts claim that the smart home of the future is likely to contain 15 to 30 connected devices and sensors; all linked via a home area network and connected to service providers’ back-end systems and the Internet. Connected devices will range from ordinary household appliances through to solar panels and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

The UK government has set a target to have 53 million smart meters in homes and businesses by 2020. Smart meters can transmit real-time information directly to companies, removing the need for meter readers to physically travel to each property. They also provide data for management statistics at the press of a button. From the consumer side the information collected can be fed back to indicate consumption trends and potentially ways of reducing bills. Smart metering is already common in France, Sweden and Italy due to regulatory enforcement.

Quick payments via Smartphone’s are also expected to increase in the years ahead. E ticketing in public transport is at the forefront here. Rail passengers in Germany can already book tickets for selected connections using Touch&Travel, with passengers using this for all public transport in Berlin, Potsdam and the Rhine-Main area. Anyone with an NFC-enabled Smartphone can purchase a ticket by briefly holding it up to a contact point when they get on. They can then check out in the same way at their destination.

Impact on the automotive industry

The car is another machine that can provide additional comfort when it communicates with other systems. Fleet management is one of the most popular M2M applications in businesses, and taxi or logistics companies are able to easily check the location of all vehicles in the fleet. Any user of public transport already knows one advantage of this M2M technology:  the time to the next connection displayed at bus or tram stops. This is only possible because M2M components built into the buses constantly provide information about their location.

Modern ‘in-car services’ ensure increased comfort, infotainment and security in private vehicles through the combination of online services, driver assistance systems, sensors and integration solutions for smartphones.  Examples of this include BMW Connected Car, Audi connect and Daimler’s Comand Online. These can help, for example, when looking for a free parking space or the nearest open pharmacy. Real-time traffic information, partly based on anonymous data from other vehicles, ensures that the navigation system can quickly adjust the planned route based on the current traffic situation.

In the future, vehicles will be able to identify the driver by the mobile phone and automatically adjust vehicle features, such as individual mirror positions or favourite radio stations. Hyundai is experimenting with using the mobile phone as a key.

The vehicle also illustrates how M2M can provide better service and support in other areas. It is already common in mechanical engineering for maintenance staff to use remote diagnostics to acquire a clear picture of the malfunction. M2M can therefore also be used to assist the breakdown service. If the vehicle is able to automatically send a standardised diagnosis based on its own sensor readings to the nearest workshop, then this workshop can then dispatch the appropriate specialists and ensure that they have the right replacement parts and tools with them.

Unlimited possibilities

The possibilities of M2M are unlimited. So far, there has been a positive reaction to the technological developments in the automotive, security and healthcare sectors. It’s simply a matter of time before the other sectors follow.