Internet of Things and the myth of the killer app


To prepare for the future, mission critical infrastructure must balance the need for near-term ROI and lay the groundwork for future benefits – while hedging the risk and uncertainties of an emerging marketplace. Above all, scrutinise your communications platform.

The concept of smart city and Internet of Things (IoT) is at the peak of the hype cycle. It offers tremendous promise of a future enabled by smart analytics that enhance efficiency, ease congestion, reduce waste and error and make our lives easier. Yet it faces many obstacles. Who will own the data it generates? Who can access it? What about privacy – and security? Who will pay for the infrastructure and who would truly benefit from it?

The history of smart grid offers significant parallels to the smart cities movement and the evolution toward the IoT. As IT and communications technologies transformed consumers’ lives over the past decade or so, utilities faced a range of challenges to integrate it effectively into their operations and their customer relationships. Throughout the transition, two patterns have endured. First, adoption tends to begin with use cases that promise near-term return on investment. Second, new technologies tend to emerge then merge.

Vertical smart grid applications that pay

Utilities, due to their regulated nature, have hurdles to cross to establish the case for investing in technology. Smart grid, for many utilities, began as nearly synonymous with smart meters simply because metering was the first use case supporting a return on the cost of installation. Gradually, the understanding of ‘smart grid’ grew to include forms of automation across the distribution grid as utilities also found cost/benefits in applications like outage management, voltage regulation and advanced distribution management.

Emerge and merge

Smart grid innovation arose from these vertical applications, each requiring some form of communication and management. Embedded communications allowed meters to talk to each other; upgrades to substation and other T&D resources often meant equipping units to send and receive data, even if it was only the capability to be pinged. As the smart grid era matures, utility operations, many still siloed, may have multiple smart devices and technologies, each capable of communicating only with their own make and model.

As the smart grid market developed, mergers and acquisitions brought some hardware and software makers under the same umbrella, consolidating the market to some degree. Yet the patchwork challenge has remained for utilities; many that had invested deliberately to secure return on their investments are now facing limitations in managing, securing, updating – or bringing together for analysis – now exponential volumes of data.

The fundamental rules apply

As the saying goes, the only constant is change. The choice to invest in a particular solution always carries the risk of painting oneself into a future corner. Yet, certain needs endure – whether in smart grid or the smart cities and IoT era. Security, scalability and the need for a flexible way of connecting devices remain vital.

Utilities, many of which now have years of experience with machine-to-machine (M2M) networks in the form of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and distribution automation (DA), continue to drive innovation forward. They continue to need to manage costs and support rate case requirements that benefit consumers and utility alike.

Many faces of success

Trilliant’s smart energy communications project for the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) in Mexico City includes both AMI, DA and revenue assurance elements designed to reduce energy losses and engage consumers with energy choices. With CFE’s communications canopy in place, it can leverage that investment to serve goals beyond theft detection. Trilliant’s platform connected British Gas consumers’ in-home displays and provided meter data to the retailer, delivering information each can use to manage energy efficiently. The UK utility’s connectivity with meters, operations and consumer home energy portals has already demonstrated its capacity to motivate customers to change energy use behaviours. Tampa Electric Company, having gained savings from grid efficiencies, is positioned to pull streams of disparate data gathered by its communications network together for analysis.

Bask in the shelter of the canopy

What each of these different utility use cases have in common is that while focusing on achieving a particular functionality with a near-term return, they installed a device agnostic, standards-based, globally compliant communications solution with a single unifying platform. This means each can add devices to scale up or add new functionality, unlocking new returns from its investment in the core solution. Within the Trilliant portfolio of technologies, utilities can find virtually any form of wireless network needed to connect across varied terrain for multiple purposes.

Removing obstacles to innovation

As 2017 approaches, it is still early days for IoT and smart cities. Utilities and other energy providers and cities may have different views on the level of data sharing to be desired, prudent, or even allowed between entities. How will these be resolved? And what impact might the different resolutions have on the investments that must be made today?

What will the role of private enterprise be in data and its uses? Startups and global players alike will undoubtedly bring innovations to market that both benefit and challenge those responsible for critical energy and public infrastructure. There are “things” that may become integral to the IoT that haven’t come to market yet – smart cars and buses, smart parking and transportation systems. As this change continues, it is essential that utilities and cities address essential needs for security, modular control and flexibility. Balanced against the need to deliver near-term benefits, infrastructure leaders will need to be increasingly future-ready. The unifying role of an enterprise-wide communications system will be more important than ever.

A foundational moment

The advance of smart city and IoT technologies follows something of the pattern established in smart grid. For example, the LED conversion, which provides clear savings from smart lighting programmes, is one of the dominant vertical use cases taking hold in many regions around the world. Is this the killer app? With history as a precedent, it is more likely one of a series of innovations to come – and one that will need to be secured and integrated with others in a way that is both cohesive and independent.

Even as a new crop of applications emerge, preparation is possible by building a foundation that can anticipate and adapt to change in whatever form it may take. With a thoughtful approach to the communications system that connects and is the foundation of the devices, investors can prepare their enterprises to unlock additional benefits and avoid the common pitfall of spending on a patchwork of use-specific applications. MI


As the Senior Vice President, Global Solutions, Ryan is responsible for Trilliant’s solutions architects, strategic engagements/global partnerships, product management, proposals and standards. Ryan joined the company in early 2007, where he pioneered the process and best practice being implemented in Trilliant smart grid deployments.

Previous articleNo IoT without IT/OT
Next articleAn intelligent approach to intelligent buildings
Nicholas Nhede is an experienced energy sector writer based in Clarion Event's Cape Town office. He has been writing for Smart Energy International’s print and online media platforms since 2015, on topics including metering, smart grids, renewable energy, the Internet of Things, distributed energy resources and smart cities. Originally from Zimbabwe, Nicholas holds a diploma in Journalism and Communication Studies. Nicholas has a passion for how technology can be used to accelerate the energy transition and combat climate change.