Industry powerhouses talk the future of IoT at Solstice FWD

Andreas Rekdal
September 19, 2016

From smart houses and cities to devices that help you find your keys, Internet of Things technology is everywhere you turn.

The explosion of IoT innovation owes much to the falling cost of connected sensors, but the computing power and convenience cloud service providers bring to the table have played a big role, too.

“Our customers tell us the cloud has removed the constraints around speed and agility for them and their teams,” said Amazon Web Services Head of Global Business Development Mark Relph. “When you think of innovation and the ability to fail fast, that’s critical…. Picking a protocol that you want to talk to a device on is not innovation, that’s plumbing. Let’s get by that as quick as we can.”

Relph was speaking at Solstice FWD, a conference put on by Solstice for learning — and testing out — what's next in digital customer experience. The conference had its own AI host, named Siena, accessible through Facebook Messenger and on robots armed with facial recognition roaming around the venue. Attendees were also invited to try augmented reality experiences, check the "pulse" of the conference with real-time sensor monitoring, and interact with voice applications.

With presentation topics including conversational user experiences, virtual reality and robotics, Relph shared the stage with thought leaders from across the globe, three of which are Illinois-based companies pushing the envelope in IoT. From self-driving tractors to turbulence detectors, here’s what they’re working on.


Forecasting turbulence with in-flight Wi-Fi

In-flight Wi-Fi isn’t just for catching up on emails. Gogo, which brings internet connectivity to frequent fliers around the world, is also working with IBM to make flights less turbulent.

The team accomplishes this by connecting onboard sensors to a massive data repository on the ground using Gogo's in-flight Wi-Fi, continuously capturing 20 different variables from planes around the globe. Using this crowdsourced data and a custom-built algorithm, the companies can detect when a plane is about to encounter turbulence and give the pilot the option to take an alternate route.

“This is a really big deal,” said VP of Strategic Innovation Eric Lemond. “A couple of weeks ago a flight from Houston to London was redirected to Ireland, and 12 people were injured because of turbulence. If the pilot had known that the turbulence would be there, that could have been avoided.”

For Gogo, predicting turbulence is just one of many potential use cases. Connected sensors can also help cut down on pilots’ paperwork and help airlines avoid logistical issues like lost luggage, delays and even broken coffee makers.


Hooking cars up to smart cities — and Alexa

From self-driving cars to connected entertainment systems, passenger vehicles are the next frontier in the IoT space.

This week, BMW became the first automaker to integrate its vehicles with Amazon’s Alexa, allowing drivers to lock their car doors, check fuel and battery levels and get travel time information using voice commands. These functions are also available through the company’s iOS and Android applications, along with features like car alarm notifications.

Connected sensors also have the potential to help make the driving experience safer and more convenient by planning routes around points of interest, taking traffic and weather information into consideration. BMW is also exploring opportunities to hook its cars into smart city infrastructure to mitigate traffic problems.

“What makes that unique is that once the vehicle is talking with the infrastructure … we now understand where the traffic is congested, and we can reroute drivers,” said Partner and Product Marketing Director Randy Cavaiani. “That benefits you and the environment.”

And while there are still plenty of unanswered questions about safety and liability, there is no doubt that cars will take over more of the driving over time.

Agile development has been a key part of bringing BMW’s connected car concepts to where they are today. The company’s software engineers create several software builds a day and regularly demo new features in their personal vehicles. That, Cavaiani said, is a significant contrast to other engineers within BMW, who often spend six or seven years designing a single model by hand.

Self-driving tractors and smarter agriculture

John Deere may not be the first company that comes to mind when you think about connected devices. But as population growth and meat-heavy diets continue to put pressure on the global food chain, the agricultural equipment manufacturer looks to IoT for ways to increase efficiency in farming operations.

One of those innovations? Self-driving tractors.

Using a complicated array of sensors and beacons, the Molina, IL-based company can make a tractor with a 120-foot planter drive down a road, turn back around and stop within an inch of where it left off. Its engineers have also developed ways to wirelessly tether two tractors together, so that a harvesting tractor and a grain cart can automatically maintain the right distance to avoid waste. John Deere is also using IoT sensors to take soil measurements and reduce seed waste during planting.

Upping farming equipment precision, said Mobile and Digital Applications Director Ron Zink, has the potential to substantially increase yields.

The shift toward implementing new technology hasn’t come without its challenges, however. In pushing to bring iPads aboard tractors, Zink found himself coming up against the company’s philosophy of building things to last for decades.

“I think the shift in thinking to use an iOS platform or a cloud-based system isn’t intuitive to a lot of people at John Deere,” said Zink. “We’re used to creating everything ourselves…. There’s always some things you want to move to mobile. When you think about a tractor with a 30 year lifespan, … you want to separate core systems from mobile where you can move faster and innovate more.”

A healthy middle ground, said Zink, is the ability to enhance old equipment with newer components. The company’s first self-driving tractor prototypes, for instance, were retrofitted models over 20 years old.

Images via Built In Chicago and listed companies.

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