May 11, 2016

Using 'Internet of Things,' smart devices can transform society

Schulich’s Steve Liang champions open, worldwide standard for intelligent systems


Doug Ferguson

University of Calgary's Steve Liang, associate professor in the Schulich School of Engineering and entrepreneur is working to champion the Internet of Things, a cool new area of technological development where devices are interconnected and connected to the Internet allowing for objects, apps and data to work together.

Liang is working on the Internet of Things, allowing for the internet and apps to work together.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Placing wireless sensors to try to create a “smart” nursery for his infant son is not unlike what Steve Liang faces as he helps lay the groundwork for an emerging smart world.

“When I look at the sensors in the nursery, the number of apps needed to operate them is more than the number of sensors,” says Liang, an associate professor in the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering. “This is a real problem, because these systems are not connected to each other.”

Liang has visited everyone from the World Bank in Washington, D.C., to the governments of the Netherlands and Singapore, talking to officials about adopting a single open standard for the Internet of Things (IoT), everyday objects and devices fitted with small wireless sensors and actuators, or motors capable of doing tasks.

Somewhat like smartphones, everything from clothing and vehicles to buildings and industrial machinery could be given an embedded measure of digital intelligence connected to the Internet. It could allow them to independently sense their environment, gather and even act on data, and communicate and interact with each other as well as people, he says.

Experimenting at home with temperature and sound sensors in son's nursery

Liang is a director of the GeoSensorweb Lab in the Department of Geomatics Engineering. He also enjoys experimenting at home with such technology and even placed an inertial sensor on his infant son’s swing set.

“I wanted to know the acceleration of each axis when he was on the swing, purely for fun, and I had a temperature sensor close to his skin for the first couple of days, so I knew if he was feeling too warm or too cold,” says Liang. “I’m a first-time father.”

Some of the sensors in the nursery are hooked up to an app that measures how often his son wakes up and cries during the night.

“We started training my baby to sleep through the night, and because I have sound sensors, we can see how long he is sleeping,” says Liang, with a laugh. “My own sleeping quality is getting much better.”

Going beyond smart homes to creating smart cities and even nations

While consumer devices such as smart thermostats are now familiar to many people, what is actually being envisioned for the IoT is vastly broader — billions of objects and devices of all kinds working together in ways that could radically transform society, forming the backbone of what has been described as another industrial revolution.

They could potentially boost things such as energy efficiency and productivity in fields ranging from industry and transportation to infrastructure and health care. Governments in countries such as Holland and Singapore have already gone far beyond concepts such as smart homes to take the first steps in creating smart cities and even nations, says Liang.

“Some forward-thinking countries want to endorse a national standard and tell every company, ‘OK, this is how I want to do my smart city and you shall comply with this open standard,’ rather than a company saying, ‘OK, this is the system I use and you must use it’ — and then the government pays them for it for the next 50 years,” says Liang.

'If we can effortlessly mix and match different systems, we can create new opportunities for innovation'

Liang is the Standard Working Group chair of the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) SensorThings application program interface. It aims to create a unified, open framework to interconnect IoT devices, data and applications over the web that is non-proprietary, platform independent and royalty-free.

The standard was approved Feb. 1 by the OGC Technical Committee, and Liang expects it could be widely adopted in five to 10 years.

“It will be very bad if the Internet of Things is owned by global enterprises or big companies, because this has really hindered a lot of innovation,” he says. “I strongly believe if we can effortlessly mix and match different systems, we can create new opportunities for innovation.”

Pilot project looks at creating smart shirt with wearable sensors for first responders

In a hypothetical example, Liang imagines a municipal traffic control system that is created separately from an air quality monitoring system. Later, city officials want to combine them to find ways to reduce emissions by altering traffic patterns, but the systems are too incompatible for this to be practical.

As the founder and CEO of Sensor Up Inc., he is currently helping the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with a pilot project called Next Generation First Responder. People such as firefighters and police will be given wearable sensors to detect everything from temperature and heart rate to carbon monoxide.

“We’re working with a company called Hexoskin to develop a smart shirt application for first responders,” says Liang. It could be combined with things such as drones, GPS and wearable cameras, allowing a central command to get live feeds of data to best coordinate resources during a disaster.

It is vital that such projects use a common standard, allowing large cities to work with smaller neighbours during common disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, says Liang. He adds that it could potentially pave the way for a national first responder system.

“Whether they are from New York City, or a small county, they should be able to talk to each other.”

The University of Calgary's Peak Scholars in Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Knowledge Engagement are researchers recognized for taking  their work outside the lab and off campus to make transformational changes in the community.