Nantes, France. I’m here to pick up a friend from the airport. There is a great view of the runway, and I’ve seen his plane land, a beautiful Airbus A320 flying Air France colors. This is a domestic flight, and ten minutes later, he is off the plane and has his luggage.
We talk about his business trip, and how it went. He’s a technical recruiter, and has been working on a project in the south of France. He tells me just some of the details. We clear the terminal and walk towards the parking lot. On the other side of a fence, an A320 is being looked over by a crew of technicians. After a quick refuel, it will be ready to take off and fly to another destination.
– You know, they keep on talking about IoT, but I can’t see any solid examples yet.
I smile. He stops dead in his tracks.
– You have an example?
I do. You just flew it.
He has a blank expression on his face.
Look, it is right over there.
I point to the A320.
– What do you mean IoT? The airplane is IoT?
Well, not exactly. IoT is the Internet of Things, devices that communicate. This plane has an onboard system called ACARS, and it communicates with the ground throughout the flight. Hundreds of parameters are monitored and sent to the ground crews.
– But why?
Modern aircraft are highly reliable, comfortable and silent. All this comes at a price, and a modern aircraft can cost a small fortune. Even worse, an airplane will only make money when it is flying, if it stays on the ground, the company doesn’t make any money at all. In order to maximize revenue, companies need to keep their fleet flying, but not at the cost of safety. On board systems monitor the flight, and inform ground crews of any problems. It monitors critical systems, but it also monitors other systems; if the in-flight coffee machine stops working, it alerts the ground. If there is a malfunction with the toilet, again, the ground will be alerted.
Imagine an international flight. Halfway over the Atlantic, one of the ovens stops working. Of course, the flight crew will have a problem getting all the food ready for the passengers, but it can still be done. It is a nuisance, but it doesn’t force the airplane to make an emergency landing. Imagine arriving at Paris, and telling the ground crew that there is a problem. They only have an hour to find a replacement, and get it installed. That probably won’t happen, so the plane will take off with a defective oven, which will be replaced at a later date. Now, imagine that the airline’s center is notified as soon as there is a problem. The flight is scheduled to land in 6 hours, to the airline notifies the ground crew at the destination that there is a defective component, they have a few hours to find replacement parts, and when the airplane touches down, they will already be there, waiting, prepared to replace everything necessary.
– That seems like a lot of effort to change an oven.
Maybe. The oven isn’t the best example, I’ll grant you that. Think about this, then. The engines. Aircraft engines are an incredible feat of engineering, and are some of the most reliable mechanical systems ever built, but they are still mechanical, and things can go wrong. Engines do fail from time to time, even if it is extremely rare. Luckily, an A320 can perform very well with a single engine, but it still requires action. An emergency landing at another airport, having to take the engine off the wing, inspect it, find the fault, and then replace the components, before putting the engine back on. This can take a very long time, and can be horrendously expensive. What if the engine itself could communicate with the ground team?
– They can do that?
Some of them can, yes. Engines are monitored, and hundreds of parameters are analyzed. The engine in your car doesn’t fail without a reason, and simply taking your car to the garage from time to time saves costly repairs. Jet engines are even more advanced. Failures rarely “just happen”; they can often be predicted by looking at variables; oil pressure, temperature, vibration, etc. Instead of waiting for a failure to occur, they can be prevented with close monitoring, changing elements as required. It saves on cost by replacing small parts before big parts fail. It saves cost by replacing elements quickly, putting the aircraft back into service as soon as possible. That is one of the reasons for IoT; cost saving. Being aware of all the parameters means the best choice can be made. Airlines know when to change components, thermostats know when to turn the heat on, greenhouses know when to open the windows.
– I never knew that panes could do that;
One of the things that makes IoT so good is the fact that it isn’t visible. There is no point in adding a screen to a thermostat to display “Calculating ideal temperature”, or “contacting server”. We expect things like that with the programs that we have had on our computers, but that is about to end. People want simple devices that work, and IoT is all about that. Just walking through the airport, you probably didn’t notice the wireless equipment used to broadcast Wi-Fi and to power the wireless telephones used by the airport staff.
Imagine walking through a beautiful garden, completely unaware that there are hundreds of sensors, monitoring soil humidity, temperature, plant growth and other parameters that sets off the sprinkler system only when needed. The world has limited resources, we are painfully aware of that, and this is the technology that could save us. It will make calculations far better than man could, and create data far more precise than we can imagine. All of this can be powered by a solar panel, making it even more eco-friendly.
He remains silent as we walk to the parking lot. Behind us, passengers are getting ready to board their plane, unaware that their trip is made easier and cheaper with IoT. The plane will soon be ready to depart, a trip monitored by processors and microcontrollers like Atmel’s SAM D21.