Cheat Sheet: M2M

The rise of the machine-to-machines...

M2M. Yeah, I think I got their last album. Rockin'.
You might be a fan of Norwegian girl bands but I'm talking about the other M2M - machine-to-machine communications.

Oh, of course. What's that all about then?
It's pretty much doing what it says on the tin - it's where two machines communicate with each other without human intervention, typically over wireless networks (although M2M can also make use of good old-fashioned wired communications too). One interesting suggestion from industry watchers Berg Insight is that M2M may take over the GSM band once Europe's mobile users have all shifted to 3G.

Okay, let's have some examples of this.
One of the most popular examples and the one you've probably heard of is RFID or radio frequency identification. It's used as a tracking technology whereby identification chips are attached to individual items or pallets and read by handheld or stationary readers.

In store, for example, an RFID monitoring system could be connected to a stock ordering system. If the RFID monitoring system discovered stock levels of a particular item were low, it could automatically place an order for more.

Okay, I've heard about RFID. But where else would I find M2M?
Sensor telemetry - which is predicted to be one of the fastest growing sectors of M2M.

Which means what, exactly?
It means using sensors to gather information, transmit it over wireless networks and have the 'machines' involved act on it.

It's predicted there could soon be more than one trillion sensors in action - measuring heat, light, motion, on/off - anything you like, really.

A trillion sensors eh? That's a lot of sensors. A lot of sensors.
Too right. The whole M2M phenomenon has even reached the curious ears of the European Commission which favours the unwieldy moniker of 'the internet of things' to describe it. Other pundits have come up with the clunker web 3.0 to refer to an internet populated by machines.

Of those trillion sensors, the lion's share will be microprocessors: more than 500 billion of them. Other sensor carriers will include two billion smart devices, including appliances, machines, vehicles and building equipment, one billion handheld smart devices such as mobiles and 300 million personal computers according to the Focal Point Group.

But what about now? Where do I get the sensors now?
At the moment, a lot of work on sensors is happening around automating simple tasks currently carried out by people - remote meter-reading or stock control, for example.

However, security is another big area for M2M communications - and that's security of both people and assets. M2M is often used as part of an alarm system. For example, it can be used to back up a fixed-line system in the event of wires being cut by an intruder and alert the police or security guards, as appropriate. M2M can also be integrated into expensive assets which will automatically report themselves missing if removed from a set area - such as a stolen van which could even use GPS connectivity to report its whereabouts after the theft.

People too can be tracked in this way, with security in mind. Those working in dangerous environments including oil rig workers or social workers visiting unsafe areas can carry devices to alert people if they are in trouble or enable them to be located if they go missing.

I bet you could do a lot with tracking and M2M, couldn't you?
There's no flies on you. Transport and logistics is another area industry watchers believe could be a goer - fleet tracking, for example.

Monitoring and recording the time a driver is on the road and recording the weight of the vehicle remotely, for example, can help haulage companies stay within the law. There are also money saving applications associated with M2M and fleet management. Calculating whether a car is following the most fuel efficient route, for example, can be fed into a scheduling application to structure drivers' times and routes better.

It's also possible that M2M will soon play a bigger part in the lives of the UK's average drivers, with the introduction of pay-as-you-drive tax or insurance schemes, with M2M systems reporting back on where and for how long travellers bother the UK's tarmac - and then charging them accordingly.


Jo Best has been covering IT for the best part of a decade for publications including, Guardian Government Computing and ZDNet in both London and Sydney.

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