The Age of The Internet of Things (IOT) is officially upon us. As more devices begin to relay information about our behaviors back to various data warehouses, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this glut of data will offer many opportunities for analysis. More analysis should lead to better understanding and improved applications of this knowledge. As military communicators, it’s time to start thinking about the nature of this data and some of the particular applications that may be useful for the military.
Recent advances in technology have made it possible to equip objects with intelligent and convenient sensors.[i] Market reports estimate that by 2020 the IOT industry will be worth ~$1400 Billion.[ii] As sensors proliferate – think wearable sensors, digital cameras, GPS trackers, infrared, wireless RF, etc. and as various sectors take up this technology – i.e., building automation, industrial, consumer, wearable electronics, automotive & transportation, and agriculture, etc. – more digitized information about individuals and their environments will become available.
The sensor data from the IOT explosion provides information about one’s movement, spending patterns, biofeedback, among other things to corporations and governments alike. A variety of privacy and social concerns have been raised by this, but it does not appear that the trend of sensor propagation will lessen any time soon. Therefore, setting these concerns aside for the time being, this essay will consider some of the military applications that could benefit from this new era of omnipresent sensors?
Top Use Cases for Sensor Big-Data Analytics
Human Performance Tracking: One of the more intrusive, but perhaps most useful use of sensors is tracking human performance. Beyond the various bio-medical tools – other performance measures are being developed. Pro sports teams are helping their players track their sleep patterns to help them improve their on-field performance.[iii] Implantable sensor technologies are enhancing a user’s sensory experience or restore lost capabilities such missing limbs.[iv] Many researchers, such as Andrew Herr, a Georgetown University professor who has studied human performance in military settings, believe that data collection devices could prove integral to improving how military personnel think and act.[v] These technologies can register the decisions made in given settings and under various conditions – which could lead to a more objective representation of human behavior. This data has the potential to advance research on human cognition and social behavior.
Medical Tracking: As devices begin to communicate with each other and share information a brave new world of bio-tracking may appear. If your scale can talk to your fridge which then reports back to your doctor – you may discover some harsh truths about your eating patterns. Looking past the fear of a device counting your calories – there are many potential upsides to the growing awareness of personal health metrics. In fact, some argue that the potential provided by wearables will make these medical sensors indispensable. Currently, fingertip sensors can provide accurate electrocardiograms. Heart rhythm, oxygen concentration in the blood and respiratory rate can all be captured by wearables. Furthermore, ingestible sensors that track medication adherence have already been approved by the FDA.[vi] Moreover, the Air Force Research Lab recently announced the development of a sweat sensor that can monitor hydration, heat stress and other factors.[vii] These technologies, and many more emerging capabilities, will allow for real-time, real-world sharing of medical information. Military doctors and care providers may soon gain access to a profound new way of diagnosing and monitoring their patients.
Unmanned Systems: The automotive industry has demonstrated the potential in self driving vehicles that rely on sensors. Some predict that unmanned trucks may drive highways by 2025.[viii] Already, a number of car companies appear poised to produce semi-autonomous vehicles that will rely upon vehicle sensors to control their movements.[ix] Robocabs that can automatically park themselves and navigate to customers no longer seem like science fiction.[x] Similarly, embedded computers are starting to talk among themselves. These systems are already being used by some companies to control industrial machinery.[xi] As unmanned systems sense their environments they are also capable of relaying this information back to external data warehouses. This data can then be extrapolated for other uses – whether it be to improve the control of autonomous vehicles or to better understand patterns of traffic. The military employs a number of unmanned systems due to their ability reduce the risk of injury to military personnel and to save costs. With the growing initiative to use even more unmanned systems there is already strong demand for sensors and systems capable of controlling these assets.
Population Tracking: Embedded sensors analysts understand where people are and where they are going. They provide scores of data about how people spend their time and can correlate environmental factors that may affect these patterns. These factors may stem from natural events such as a heat wave or a natural disaster. They also may come from manmade phenomena such as increased violence or the movement of outside power brokers into a new area. The drive to understand human behavior is a central drive for retail applications of the IOT. Governments, militaries, and first responders also want to better track citizens, criminals, and adversaries. It will be important to find positive uses for these technologies that do not impede on personal freedoms and privacy.
Whether or not you think that the propagation of sensors is a good or a bad thing – it is clear that they are rapidly entering into mainstream use. There will be many challenges with the mass introduction of these technologies – most notably privacy concerns. However, these difficulties should not dissuade our community of communicators from imaging the potential use-cases of these sensors. The handful of categories discussed in this piece represent just a small sample of the possibilities. How do you think the world will appear in 5-10 years after these devices have been widely adopted? Where do you see their potential taking the military?
Key Questions for Discussion
1) Where do you see the benefit in collecting more information as a result of sensor proliferation?
2) How would you protect the storage and distribution of data collected by military sensors?
3) What would you share with commercial IOT developers about your unique military requirements?
As always – the views in this piece are mine alone and do not represent the U.S. government, Department of Defense, United States Army, or any other organization with which I have had any association.