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How Telemetry Powers the Internet of Things (IoT)
August 26, 2019
Telemetry has been around since the 1800s, but a recent explosion in sensor tech, AI, and wireless speeds has turned it into a powerhouse for our lives. Telemetry is the data collection and communication that forms the backbone of the Internet of Things (IoT).
Want the perfect example of how telemetry fuels IoT? When you’re driving and your maps app warns you there’s a traffic jam ahead, that’s IoT telemetry at its best. Apps in hundreds of cars ahead of you relayed their speed data to the cloud, so your app knew about the jam before you got there. Now you can take an alternate route, all thanks to telemetry.
Giving eyes to the world
Now imagine that same tech informed by 50 billion sensors worldwide, reading not just car speed but temperature, vibration, air quality, heart rate, and a thousand other metrics from billions of objects. In the cloud, machine learning crunches those facts and spits back useful insights, making things cheaper, better, faster, and more efficient.
In this post, we’ll look at how telemetry and IoT work hand-in-glove to serve up eye-popping convenience. We’ll also look at how we use telemetry and IoT today, what devices they work best with, and where it’s all headed in the future.
Telemetry is a process that collects raw data from sensors, then transmits it to where it can be used. It comes from the Greek words tele (distance) and metron (measure). Today, blossoming sensor tech uses telemetry to feed the IoT.
As we mentioned above, telemetry isn’t new. In the mid-1800s, French engineers built a network of sensors on Mont Blanc that transmitted real-time weather data to Paris . More than a century later, grad students at Carnegie Mellon University created the first internet-connected “smart device” - an erratically stocked Coke machine whose status could be checked remotely .
Into the future
In the past few decades, a perfect storm of tech has pulled IoT telemetry into our everyday lives. More and better sensors with 10-year batteries combined with faster wireless connections and AI put all the puzzle pieces in place for a connected world that can monitor and improve itself by leaps and bounds.
Today’s telemetry can sense and transmit information on sound, vibration, air flow, fluid levels, torque, air composition, electrical currents, moisture, light, position, heat, speed, and hundreds of other metrics .
What is the Internet of Things?
The IoT is an extension of the internet. It’s made of connected devices like wearables, smartphones, and sensors, while the original internet was made mostly of computers. The IoT lets devices “talk” to each other with no human “bottleneck” in between.
Why is the IoT so exciting? It takes all the infinite data points in our world and starts to tame them. That gives us information on (and control over) our reality at a level we’ve never had. For instance, imagine a Fitbit-style wearable that tracks dozens of health metrics in real time, and then it tells you about a hidden illness before you show outward symptoms.
An overview of the IoT
The IoT grows by the second. There are more than 26 billion IoT devices in use right now and every second, 127 new devices get connected. At that rate we’ll have 75 billion IoT objects sending telemetry by 2025.
How telemetry and the IoT work together
If the IoT is made of “things” with sensors, telemetry is how they talk to one another, and to machine learning applications in the cloud. Data acquisition systems (DAS) collect the info, via USB or wirelessly. They send it on to an internet gateway, and then on to AI software in the cloud for processing.
Other devices called actuators add more power to the system. On a farm, a soil hygrometer may sense that a crop’s roots are dry. An actuator (basically a switch) can turn on the irrigation system and correct the problem.
Too much information? AI to the rescue
Tens of billions of sensors create a swamp of data no human could sift through. For instance, a heart monitor can log real-time data for years, but who will wade through all that info? Thankfully, AI and machine learning can process big data, watching for irregularities like A Fib or tachycardia. Software can then ping your doctor, telling them it found something wrong and asking them to take a look.
One of the biggest ways we’re starting to use IoT telemetry is to check up on levels of supplies like fuel or other liquids, or even items on a shelf. Things that used to require constant checking can now be tracked automatically, and replenished that way too.
How is telemetry tech used today?
When smartphones hit the scene in 2007, they hadn’t found their footing yet. We knew we could download something called an “app,” but we couldn’t imagine how pervasive those little software powerhouses would become.
In the same way, we’re just dipping our toes into the IoT ocean for the first time. We don’t yet have a handle on the far-reaching implications of telemetry and the IoT. Early adopters have jumped in with both feet and more innovations are just around the corner. Let’s take a look at some common uses of telemetry and some on the horizon.
1. Smart homes
We’ve all heard the dream of a home that adjusts its own temperature or makes our coffee, but the real power of telemetry is stronger and more subtle. In the next few years, your home will “know” when it needs heating oil or an HVAC checkup and ask for it. A smart home could slash the need for regular servicing, cutting waste and expense and catching small problems before they get big (and costly).
2. Environmental science
Millions of sensors around the world track weather info, ocean wave height, soil data, and even migratory animals. Curious about sharks? Use the Ocearch great white shark tracker to see where 30+ tagged monster predators are right now . You can also use the site to keep tabs on dolphins, whales, and sea turtles.
3. Smart cars
Soon, your car may text you when it needs an oil change, not based on mileage but on viscosity. Likewise, it may know when it needs brakes or shocks thanks to internal sensors. That’ll mean less trips to the service center, because you’ll only go in when you need to - and before a breakdown forces your hand.
Telemetry and the IoT will most likely lower the cost of our trips to the grocery store. A farm that self-diagnoses its own microclimate with soil, leaf, water, and other sensors will know when it needs fertilizer, irrigation, or attention to stave off disease. That means less wasted effort and supplies, resulting in lower prices at the register.
IoT telemetry means anything that can run out can then be automatically reordered. That cuts errors and drops the costs of constant “checking up.” Some supplies can even replenish themselves, re-ordering directly from external vendors or refilling themselves from in-factory reservoirs or stockrooms.
For instance when you have an HP Instant Ink compatible printer, your printer can send a request for ink to HP when it gets low. A new cartridge will arrive on your doorstep before you run out.
With IoT telemetry, shelves and vending machines will ping distributors to reveal exactly how much of what stock to load onto the truck. That foreknowledge cuts out the need to make a special trip to see how much of which items need to be replenished.
Rockets, robotic rovers, and even flying drones for use on alien worlds already send and receive data about positioning and status. So far, the furthest telemetric communication on record is with the Voyager I spacecraft, which is now 11.7 billion miles from the nearest payphone.
8. Medical telemetry
A patient with an ongoing condition can wear an under-the-skin monitor that relays real-time information to a specialist. Health trackers can decimate healthcare costs by providing timely info automatically, without over-taxing human medical professionals and systems.
Common IoT devices
Here’s a short list of popular IoT devices you may already have at your command. Each one makes lives easier by cutting down on searching, wondering, or going somewhere just to check a fact or perform a task. This leaves you with the ability to skip those “have to's” and focus on your “want to's.”
Can’t keep track of your keys or wallet? Stop the madness with the Tile tracker. It’s an IoT telemetry-powered wafer the size of an Oreo that you can clip or stick to items you may misplace . You can use your phone to ping your Tile with Bluetooth telemetry, or even make it ring.
Lost dogs are a tremendous source of owner stress. The Whistle GPS Pet Tracker keeps one eye on Fluffy or Fido at all times. Lost your pooch? Just use your phone to find out where he’s scurried off to .
3. Nest thermostat
The Nest Learning Thermostat uses AI to learn your schedule so you don’t have to program it. After a week, it knows your habits and adjusts the temperature for savings and convenience. It also tracks energy use to reduce your carbon footprint.
4. HP Tango printer
The world’s first smart home printer, the HP Tango is cloud-based and uses telemetry to print from anywhere. It checks ink levels too, reordering more when needed so you never run out.
5. Amazon Echo
Smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home use Bluetooth telemetry to turn lights on and off, start your coffeemaker, play music, buy groceries, and perform tons of other tasks. There are about 120 million smart speakers in U.S. homes today, and those numbers are expected to grow by 84% over the course of 2019.
Privacy concerns for telemetry and IoT
The IoT and telemetry aren’t without their problems. Any new tech carries the potential to shave off a little of our privacy, and with telemetry the concerns are far-reaching. Consumers are increasingly alarmed about devices that share their every move with corporations.
Critics say IoT security hasn’t kept pace with the rush to innovate. Insecure devices, services, and software compound the issue. The Department of Homeland Security has stepped in to regulate and strengthen IoT security and uphold user rights.
The IoT has put sensors in tens of billions of previously “dumb” objects in our world, and more are coming every day. Telemetry sends info about sight, sound, motion, and hundreds of other variables through ever-faster internet connections. AI spots patterns and makes valuable insights that human operators or consumers can use.
With actuators, AI can act independently to refill supplies, water crops, and perform trillions of other tasks. The IoT is still in its infancy, but the next few years will see it take center stage on a global scale and in our daily lives.
 The Johns Hopkins University Press; The Origins of Space Telemetry
 Carnegie Mellon University; The “Only” Coke Machine on the Internet
 Finoit; Top 15 Sensor Types Being Used in IoT
 Ocearch; Shark Tracker
 Tile; Find Your Stuff
 Whistle; Pet Tracker
About the Author: Tom Gerencer is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Tom is an ASJA journalist, career expert at Zety.com, and a regular contributor to Boys' Life and Scouting magazines. His work is featured in Costco Connection, FastCompany, and many more.