The Internet of Things improves our ability to analyse changes in physical infrastructure. Two major players in the IoT ecosystem are working together to tap the potential of the Internet of Things. Etteplan is a leading engineering firm in the design of new IoT equipment, while Digita operates a wireless nationwide IoT network infrastructure in Finland.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is quietly becoming central to many of the needs of our daily lives – but in a different way than many imagined.

The change has not meant talking refrigerators and toasters, as was sometimes predicted. Instead, behind the transformation are sensors and locators that transmit increasingly precise data about our environment. This data is then transferred over a network to a cloud server and, through analytics, benefit and improve our daily lives.

Does all this sound too abstract? Let’s put things in more practical terms. Jaakko Ala-Paavola, CTO of Etteplan, illustrates the matter using water pipes as an example. With its some 3,000 employees, Etteplan has the latest insight into the industry as the company is a major developer of IoT equipment and the largest company in its field in Finland.

“A good example of the benefits of analytics is the ability to detect leaky pipes. When we know the average water consumption of a building and the hours of the day when no water should be running at all, we can evaluate whether the problem is a leaky pipe in the building,” says Ala-Paavola.

“This is a simple example of the kind of analytics that is possible, but one that clearly shows added value. Previously, such a service was beyond the capabilities of water utility companies.”

The example shows how the Internet of Things is a two-way street: the Internet needs data gathered from things, with the things in turn requiring fast analytics enabled by algorithms and instant communication across geographical borders.

Increasingly detailed analysis of the surrounding world speeds up development and saves resources in a wide range of sectors, from water supply to electricity companies, industry, property maintenance and logistics.

Sensors and analytics are at the core of development: as the result of better and cheaper hardware, it is now possible to monitor and observe also those parts of water supply networks and energy grids that are not critical and therefore not worth expensive investments in monitoring equipment.

Many of us have already become familiar with remotely readable electricity and water meters. So-called smart metering solutions can save manpower resources and reduce the need for travel in a country with long distances such as Finland,” says Ari Kuukka, Director, IoT Services at Digita.

Even greater benefits are possible in the assessment of maintenance needs. When the building’s indoor air quality or the status of a piece of equipment can be monitored in real time, any issues that emerge can be addressed immediately.

“Where as in the past, a substation was inspected by a technician from the utility company every two years, today, potential issues can be tackled right away instead of waiting until the next inspection visit,” says Kuukka.

Sensors themselves do not make a distribution cabinet or plumbing any smarter. Analytics and user interfaces that help interpret the data have developed alongside sensor technology. Recently, more widespread applications of the IoT have been introduced in logistics, for example. In addition to entire semi-trailer trucks, individual boxes in the trailers can also be monitored.

“IoT makes it possible to monitor property that is not quite valuable or critical enough to warrant a separate monitoring solution in the past,” Kuukka says.

At Digita, the sectors with the strongest growth in demand for IoT solutions are infrastructure, real estate and logistics.

“What all these solutions have in common is that they enable the customer to upgrade from monitoring the most critical five per cent to up to 50 or even 90 per cent of the infrastructure as a whole. All sectors of the business world have uses for IoT applications. The number of devices connected to Digita’s IoT network is growing rapidly,” says Kuukka.

Until now, IoT devices have operated most in Digita’s nationwide LoRaWAN network, which is especially suited for sending and receiving small amounts of data. The IoT solutions that use LoRaWAN are affordable and long-lasting and work in Digita’s network everywhere over Finland.

A 5G network is also underway, but its development still requires some time. According to Kuukka, the reason is simple: Building a 5G network for an individual site, such as a factory, is considerably easier than covering the whole of Finland with a 5G network.

The 5G network is better suited than the LoRa network for sending large amounts of data in real time, and it is already most commonly used in IoT solutions that control industrial processes.

“IoT solutions that are based on 5G data transfer could be suitable for the needs of critical data transmission, such as controlling machinery,” Kuukka says.

According to Jaakko Ala-Paavola from Etteplan, interesting opportunities are also opened up constantly evolving machine learning solutions that diversify the possible uses of simple sensors connected to the LoRa network. This helps save on electricity and data transfer costs and increases the service life of equipment.

The key concept in this solution is that the device can analyse its own measurement data independently based on learned models. This way, it knows what is and isn’t essential and only passes forward relevant information – ensuring that limited network capacity is not burdened unnecessarily.

“As a technology that is not suitable for sending large quantities of data, the LoRa network benefits from this significantly,” says Ala-Paavola.