Big Brother is Everywhere
Were you excited about a robot that knows how to clean the floor by itself? Meet the streetlight that guards a parking spot and the washing machine that notifies the manufacturer of a fault. An Israeli company that began operation with the support of the Innovation Authority enables common daily products to communicate with us.
If we ask you if your faucet is connected to the internet, you will probably think that we are joking. But for the people who work at Cloud of Things, an Israeli startup operating today in Europe and the United States, it's a perfectly legitimate question.
Cloud of Things offers its customers a systems development infrastructure for managing IoT. In other words, the technological platform that the company has developed enables regular, common day-to-day products to become smart and connected devices, capable of communicating with each other and with a central management system, which are managed via an application controlled by the user.
Alon Mantsur, co-founder and CEO of Cloud of Things in the United States, explains why it's not strange at all that a faucet manufacturer would need the platform the company has created: "He's a manufacturer whose target audience is large complexes such as terminals, shopping malls and education institutions. These centers naturally contain hundreds, even thousands, of faucets. When they are connected to the internet, they create a wealth of extremely useful information for the company managing the center."
"Take a large shopping mall for example. Via the faucets scattered throughout the building, the complex's management company knows with ease how many times the toilet was flushed and accordingly, how many people used the bathroom. A very simple application installed on the maintenance team's smartphone can notify them of unusually high activity in the bathroom and of the need to clean it."
"Another example: it turns out that when a faucet isn't used for more than a day, bacteria build up which are then released with its next use. In other words, the first pupil using the school drinking-fountain after the weekend break is drinking contaminated water. By contrast, when the faucet is connected to the internet, it can be caused to drip every one or two hours, thereby preventing the buildup of bacteria."
"The bottom line is that thanks to the internet connection, the faucet manufacturer can sell his customers smart services that aren’t otherwise available."
What does the Refrigerator do all Day?
Cloud of Things was founded by Eliav Gnessin and David Chouraqui in 2015. Mantsur joined the company and the field of IoT after more than 20 years in the IT world and a career in cyber and information security. In January 2018, he opened the American branch of Cloud of Things together with Dr. Philip DesAutels, one of the world's IoT pioneers, with the aim of replicating the company's European success in the US.
"The world is progressing towards a point where billions of devices will be connected to the internet – including those that we wouldn't have imagined as 'smart'. It started with applications like the smart iRobot which cleans the house using a software program that manages it, includes fields like healthcare and autonomous vehicles and extends to entire smart cities."
"For commonplace daily-used devices, automation and applications have many advantages both at the level of the manufacturer and that of the users. For us as consumers, it means that the refrigerator will notify us when the milk is about to run out, or that we will be able to activate the washing machine, turn on the air conditioning and open the blinds even before we get home. For the manufacturers, who are our customers, it creates infinite opportunities. For example, they will be able to predict a fault in a product and offer their customer a solution even before he contacts the service department, or to offer him instruction on a specific product's function in case of incorrect usage."
Cloud of Things operates in the world of manufacturers who are interested in connecting the devices they produce to the internet domain. As Mantsur explains: "We supply those manufacturers with several end-to-end solutions. In other words, we enable them to take a device – like a refrigerator, air conditioner or even a smoke detector, which is a component with a very low processing power – and connect it to a computerized system. To make this possible, a system that is capable of receiving and analyzing the data is mandatory, in addition to the sensor. Otherwise, the manufacturer will just receive a list of meaningless texts. A complementary application, enabling control of the device and presenting the user the “system insights” must be up and running."
"Our development is, in practice, an open system which facilitates the execution of multiple actions. We have two important advantages which are expressed in two patents we have developed. The first is the client software and the second is called CloudSwitch™."
"Our most important patent is a unique client software called DeviceTone™ that can operate either on a large appliance such as a refrigerator or a small device like a smoke detector. The difference is that the larger appliances usually have a strong processor on which a software component can be installed while in the smaller devices the processing component is a “thin” chip. DeviceTone can be installed on any type of hardware and “talk” via any kind of communications protocol, not necessarily Wi-Fi. Our competitors do not usually offer any edge device client, or at best, the edge software is limited in its specific communication capability."
"Our client, which is installed on the device itself, includes several layers of software, communications, hardware management and security (data encryption, authentication). Each layer is a stand-alone domain, demanding and complex enough to be a challenge by itself, especially when installed on low processing power devices. One of our huge advantages is the DeviceTone™ client we developed. DeviceTone allows quick connection of devices and systems to the internet and cloud – a process that is both time consuming and difficult due to the multiple disciplines involved. Such development is costly and slow (up to two years), delaying the time to market and increasing the costs. The DeviceTone client provides a high level of information, encoding capabilities, and is capable of interfacing with other devices connected to it. Allowing for a versatile range of supported MCU’s to be installed on it, DeviceTone "talks" via all kinds of communication protocols. With the benefits of the DeviceTone characteristics, manufacturers can quickly and efficiently make their products both smarter and connected without any prior knowledge, investments or resources."
"The second patent is CloudSwitch™, recognized and funded by the Israel Innovation Authority. During my previous IT experience, I designed and implemented large data centers, dedicated to storing, monitoring and presenting huge amounts of information. I was surprised when I saw that a home refrigerator generates tens of thousands of pieces of data each day: a rise or decrease in temperature, power consumption, opening of the doors etc."
"The Israel Innovation Authority targets and supports technology companies with high potential for attaining commercialization and growth in Israel", says Aharon Aharon, the Authority's CEO. "Informed decision-making through analysis of data that is collected from a wide range of sensors, technological innovation, and leading unique markets at an international level are necessary conditions for companies to prosper, succeed and establish themselves here in Israel."
"When we talk about connecting devices to the internet, we are talking about vast amounts of data", says Mantsur. "The cloud suppliers have a specially designated array of servers– IoT Cloud – that receives data from the various components and, based on the collected data, performs analytics. Prediction, big data, correlation, machine learning, and clustering are the 'Big Words' behind the process that is performed based on the collected data. With the help of the CloudSwitch™ component, at Cloud of Things we can transfer the data (either in its entirety or a selected portion of it) to the cloud and “leave some of it behind” pending immediate needs. The capability to transfer some of the data to one cloud and some to another cloud, allows us to benefit from the best of all worlds (taking advantage of each cloud provider's best combination of price, analytics and big data engine specifications). The result is that the customer is capable of producing a load balancing in the data traffic and attain an optimal level of trouble shooting."
"We supply three components which together constitute a complete solution for the manufacturers. The first is Firmware – a software component that is installed in each MCU processor, at any processing capability, on the device itself. The second is a management system which receives the vast amounts of data transferred from the edge devices and performs the analysis necessary to generate useful information. The third component is the Gateway - a router – which is an intermediary component, used for NON-IP devices, that can communicate with multiple devices and appliances."
Manufacturers Learning from the Users
"There is a whole world of possibilities", Mantsur promises. "Each of the manufacturers who are our customers, use the data for his own relevant purposes. The customers we are currently approaching are various manufacturers in the fields of lighting, faucets, solar and electrical heating units and kitchens."
"One of our main customers today is a kitchen manufacturer, offering its end users integrated appliances such as refrigerators, ovens, freezers and stoves. Marketed as a 'smart kitchen’, the product emphasizes end users' benefits such as family/home safety in addition to features like remote monitoring and control of the appliance. This deployment provides the manufacturer with additional benefits: from a direct cut of maintenance costs (via remote monitoring and troubleshooting), through active prevention actions (like deployment of a different software managing the appliance), to active prediction and notification of possible failures (who wouldn't like a warning before our refrigerator just “dies”?)."
"Another strategic decision is to focus on smart lighting, because of the market potential, and the clear ROI transition from traditional energy (wasteful legacy lights) to LED lights. This field is presently undergoing a tremendous revolution. As part of the transition to smart cities, realizing the potential to upgrade the lighting infrastructure and achieve several objectives via its automation (like reducing the OPEX, faster response to failures, energy optimization) has enabled the creation of new projects and an exponential grow of the demand for controlled lights. Supported and encouraged by laws that aim for a 90% OPEX reduction, an immediate need has been created, one that we are able to fulfill. Looking ahead to a comprehensive smart city solution, additional sensors and services can be integrated on the same platform without any additional CAPEX, such as internet service for residents, environment sensors, and traffic and transportation support systems. Think of a combination of CCTV cameras spotting parking places, lamps blinking to show its location, active billboards directing vehicles to those spots, and all supported by a city application used by each resident."
"One of our customers, Tondo Ltd. (an Israel based company), provides smart lighting solutions for buildings, public places, and cities (streets lights). With DeviceTone installed on a Tondo product, enabling control of all the lights inside or outside a building becomes an easy task. As the system is two-directional, not only system-initiated actions can be monitored, but also, non-scheduled, unexpected behaviors can be detected, indicating any abnormal operation, e.g., identifying that a light has been turned on in an office building that is supposed to be empty – thereby indicating a possible security problem. Similarly, with DeviceTone, Tondo and its customers can receive continuous data from external light sensors on whether it's cloudy or clear and adjust the internal lighting intensity accordingly."
"Aside from the obvious advantages, this also represents a fundamental change in the relationship between the manufacturer and the customers using his products. The kitchen manufacturer explained the difference: 'Until today I would install a kitchen and that would be the end of my relationship with the customer – unless there was a problem and he contacted customer service. It’s a one-way information channel in which I usually have nothing to gain: the customer will contact us only in case of a failure. At best, he would come back after ten years to buy a new kitchen. Now, thanks to the IoT, I have constant contact with him. I can study how customers use my products, help them operate it and maximize its advantages. It's providing a fast response platform and the knowledge to prevent and avoid failures via changes in the appliance operation software, up to notifying the customer of an imminent major failure. The information gathered in the end users' operation of the appliances guide us in defining new products and planning the next model while adapting it more precisely to the customers' needs."
"Regulation is a crucial part of the entire connectivity issue. Cloud of Things invested substantial resources in emphasizing information security and data privacy, by toughening up the product and the granularity of the type of data transferred. Although most of the data is purely operational and generated by edge devices, we refer to it as private and regard it as requiring critical protection. Exposure undoubtedly exists but it is addressed with the application which receives precise definitions of who can connect, monitor, change and allow access to data. Only pre-defined data is transferred to the manufacturer, while each individual device is strictly protected. There are no “system passwords” meaning that each device is a stand-alone, and the hacking of one device will not impact or jeopardize other devices' security."
"If in the past, 'Big Brother' was reflected in the hacking of CCTV cameras – today, the potential exists in any IoT device. As the regulators gradually defined the boundaries and rules regarding use of the internet, and assuming we will see the same thing happen in the field of IoT, it’s important to preempt reality and offer a product that meets the expected levels of privacy and security without the need to modify or replace it."