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IoT on the cusp of becoming mainstream

Read time 9min 30sec
Craig Freer, Vox.
Craig Freer, Vox.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is having a profound effect on all industries and many businesses in South Africa. The reality is that consumers are looking for cheaper products, faster, and as a result, the landscape has become extremely competitive. The change agent is the age of digitalisation that we're moving into, and a key foundation to all of that is IoT.

So says Nico Steyn, CEO of IoT.nxt, adding that IoT is bringing new insights into business and is disrupting the different sectors. As a result, most businesses are now looking towards digitisation, specifically IoT, to start driving productivity and efficiency.

Roger Hislop, executive head of IoT at Internet Solutions, says: "If you think of IoT as a natural evolution of machine-to-machine or telematics, then think of it in the same light as having impacted South African businesses for 40 years, and enormously so. If you only consider IoT in the sense of the recent technology developments of low-cost devices connected to the hyperscale cloud via low-cost wireless sensor networks, then the impact is not a lot, yet. Despite the enormous hype around this technology, most South African companies are still in a wait-and-see state or doing cautious proofs-of-concept."

"Locally, IoT is in the early hype cycle where businesses know they have to consider it and are busy shaping their strategies," adds Craig Freer, executive head: Cloud at Vox.

In terms of the IoT ecosystem, it's in the formative stage from a network, device and platform perspective. Freer believes IoT is on the cusp of becoming mainstream, and is currently where cloud was a few years ago. "Businesses have their own definition of it, they're uncertain and confused, but they're learning as the technology is evolving and starting to make sense of how it can be used to solve real-world business challenges."

Getting ready for the good times

While IoT may still be an emerging technology in South Africa, major telecommunications and IT players, as well as a host of new tech providers, are investing in new IoT networks and solutions, comments Colin Thornton, MD of Dial a Nerd and Turrito Networks. "According to Africa Analysis, there were more than seven million devices connected to IoT networks in South Africa in 2017, and the firm estimates that this number will double by 2022."

From cars, to TVs and phones, to unmanned IP-enabled devices such as sensors, monitors and control devices, these 'things' are providing more information and better insights that can lead to operational efficiencies and remote controllability of processes and operations, adds Eyad Shihabi, vice president, Africa and Middle East at BT. "IoT enables businesses to use big data in smarter ways, to define new digital possibilities and move towards a new cognitive and connected world."

Even so, there are shortcomings with IoT as with many new technologies. Take, for example, the fact that very few of these connected devices are interoperable. The primary problem is that there are too many players in the market. Technology companies are developing solutions independently of each other, using different platforms and frameworks and, as a result, many different devices cannot integrate with one another. Overcoming the interoperability challenges of IoT is an important step in reaching its wide-scale adoption and commercialisation potential.

In South Africa and Africa, perhaps the most exciting areas for IoT-led transformation are agriculture, industry, and urban planning and smart cities.

Colin Thornton, Dial a Nerd/Turrito Networks

Shihabi says that IoT adoption is a global issue, but more so in Africa than compared to front runner environments. "Digital transformation is creeping up the business agenda locally, with many decision-makers realising the need to transform. However, considering the dearth of local IT skills, many companies may not possess the right skills needed to leverage digital technologies effectively.

Lack of benchmarks

Another issue, Shihabi says, is technical perspective. "By virtue of IoT being new and made up of so many other new technologies and concepts, many companies don't know what to expect with the lack of successful projects to 'look up to' or use as a benchmark."

Steyn believes that one of the main issues facing IoT is the disparate nature of devices and protocols. "One of the biggest challenges, obviously, is that each industry is different, so the nature of the device, the way that it sends and formulates data is fundamentally different."

There's a lack of standardisation across multiple sectors and that remains a major challenge moving forward, adds Steyn. "The other challenge is obviously the fact that industries and companies have made sizeable investments in legacy technologies, equipment and enterprise systems. From that perspective, it's being able to create a balance between moving into the new age, but also preserving the investments that have been made and optimising those," he says.

Most people view security as a major challenge to IoT, but they're wrong, says Hislop. "Security in IoT is not exceptionally complex or difficult. It's a key element, but there are a number of security methods that can be applied to make IoT safe from the ground up."

Finding ROI

Hislop says the main challenges are two-fold: "From the bottom-up, tactical approach to IoT, the challenge is in clearly articulating the use cases, identifying a single problem to solve, working out the benefits that would be realised in rands and cents in order to allocate budget with a clear return on investment. Often, the problem is having so many great use cases that you're stuck trying to pick one or two to get on with. From the top-down 'digital transformation' approach, the challenge lies in getting all the stakeholders across IT and operations to agree on how to move forward."

Thornton says that given the costs and complexities involved in successful IoT rollouts, implementation in South Africa will need to be largely driven by government and the public sector. "As such, the level of government buy-in will arguably determine the nature and scale of IoT rollouts in SA."

With regards to practical challenges for rollouts on the ground, Thornton says IoT devices in outlying areas will require robust and long-lasting power supplies. "However, innovation in this space is already creating alternative technologies for energy harvesting, while ultra-low power devices are also becoming more ubiquitous."

Along with the challenges facing IT adoption are numerous benefits. "As many experts have emphasised, there's an infinite number of potential IoT use cases. Almost every sector, from manufacturing to healthcare, can harness IoT solutions to transform and innovate. In South Africa and Africa, perhaps the most exciting areas for IoT-led transformation are agriculture, industry, and urban planning and smart cities," says Thornton.

"The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry estimates that the agricultural sector accounts for more than 50% of water usage in SA, and experiences water losses of between 30% and 40%. Irrigation water losses are significant, and it's estimated that less than 60% of the water used in agriculture reaches the root systems of plants. Looking ahead, deploying sensors and other IoT technologies allows farmers to irrigate with the correct amount of water, at the right time. Water absorption in the ground at root level can also be monitored, ensuring that irrigation is not only efficient, but also effective," he continues.

Within industry, sectors such as mining and manufacturing can benefit from IT solutions in myriad ways, adds Thornton. "Chief among them is increased worker safety and improved operational efficiencies. In mines, for example, sensors can be used to detect dangerous methane levels and unsafe rock movement to improve safety procedures and emergency responses."

Shihabi says there are no limits to the industries that can benefit from IoT, but has identified a few that would instantly gain the most rewards. "The logistics industry plays a significant role in the economy. IoT adoption could improve asset monitoring and drive down costs, from warehousing and operations to freight transportation and delivery. Collaboration could be made easier, and there would be improvements in productivity and customer service. Also, inventory could be automated to save time, and get data that puts a stop to damage and fraud."

Also, says Shihabi, the reality is that two-thirds of South Africa's population now lives in urban areas, up from a little less than half in 1994. This means that there's a bigger need for services like education, healthcare, transport, energy, water and housing. For metros like Africa's economic hub, Johannesburg, it means rethinking the city's infrastructure to be ready for the demand. With IoT technology, adoption can also help meet the demands for a more connected population, providing data to improve the lives of citizens, benefitting local businesses and organisations, and improve service delivery.

Smart resource allocation

Thornton agrees: "When it comes to African metropolitan areas, increasing urbanisation is putting pressure on resources such as power, water, sanitation and waste disposal. By harnessing IoT networks, city planners and policymakers can draw on real-time data from millions of objects, including water meters, electricity meters, waste bins, traffic lights and street lights. This forms the foundation from which contextual data can be collected, analysed and used to manage cities and fast-growing urban environments in a smarter, predictive and more efficient way."

There are also several pitfalls to avoid when embarking on an IoT journey. "The main danger is when organisations try to go large too quickly. We recommend a top-down, bottom-up pincer. Start doing longer-term strategising on how distributed, real-time sensing and data analytics can bring business benefits, but also start implementing some small-scale projects to understand the benefits and limitations of the different technologies," says Hislop.

Freer adds that IoT requires significant investment and skills and isn't something a business should jump into if it's not serious about adopting the technology and prepared to make the required investment. "Businesses have to do their homework on every level and answer tough questions before making the leap; some of these questions are around the ability to deliver a solution and what it will take to realise it, versus the paperwork, available network coverage and, finally, whether the devices are manufactured locally and can be customised. We've had instances where we were unable to adjust the firmware once a device goes into the field or perform updates, which meant devices went off every three minutes. We've since done our homework and come to the realisation that IoT is a deep learning curve."

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