Emerging wireless technologiesalong with the development of more devices to share data between machinesare expected to have a drastic impact on how businesses cut costs, track inventory, and help customers.
What's being called machine-to-machine, or M2M, technology allows both wireless and wired systems to communicate, connecting potentially millions of diverse devices via wireless networks and enabling two-way communication, often in the form of transmitting data.
"2012 is going to be a big year for this technology, and 2013 is going to be even bigger," says Anne Marshall, an AT&T regional spokeswoman. "More devices are being developed."
M2M also is described as a set of networking and information technologies that connects various pieces of equipment and relays informationsuch as for power meters, vehicles, containers, pipelines, or vending machines. It's how e-book readers such as the Kindle work, and as an early example, the General Motors-supported safety and connectivity system OnStar.
"M2M sounds complicated, but it's really simply about connectivity," says Eva Thomas, Verizon Wireless M2M specialist for the Pacific Northwest. She adds that a greater number of devices are being tailored to industries, with more on the way. "Typically with M2M, it's about streamlining processes, increasing efficiencies, and reducing operation and maintenance costs."
Major carriers such as Verizon Wireless and AT&T also are identifying M2M applications as an emerging growth area for their business models. Today, M2M is becoming a broader technology choice for smaller operations while expanding the options of much larger companies as well.
Examples here include Spokane ProCare Inc., a landscape maintenance, spray and pest control, irrigation, and winter snow removal company, and Liberty Lake-based Itron Inc. Itron has long used M2M as a provider of smart metering, data collection, and utility software systems that allow for communicating data between meters and utilities in near real time, while Spokane ProCare is a newcomer to the technology.
Two months ago, the 25-year-old Spokane ProCare equipped 21 of its trucks with devices that have GPS-tracking capabilities and give real-time data about such factors as engine idling time, mileage, and location. Called the Wireless Matrix Reporter, the device of about 3 inches by 2 inches is installed under the dash of a truck near the steering column. Each device costs about $250.
Brian Heywood, a Spokane ProCare manager, is able to view the information communicated over Verizon's network from the devices, with information appearing on a color-coded map on his desktop computer at the company's headquarters, at 7610 N. Freya. From his office, he can help guide a truck to a specific call, or know where the closest secondary truck is based if a crew needs backup. Another manager who oversees irrigation projects can access the same information on a different computer.
"Our real goal for this was to reduce gas costs and make our routes and travel time more efficient," Heywood says.
Since equipping the trucks, the business estimates it has cut fuel use by about 10 gallons of gas per truck weekly, saving about $3,000 a month. As one example, the data showed many of the trucks were idling too long in the mornings as workers prepared, which has since stopped, Heywood says.
"We can monitor mileage every day," Heywood adds. "We can monitor idle time. It's a great visual tool and you can look at all your vehicles on a map and see where they are in relation to our other trucks and to our service calls. Those signals update every two minutes."
The workers inside the vehicles don't control the devices or input any information. Rather, the devices send out the data. At the office, color-coded truck images show on a computer mapping system, depicting the type of work that the crew and vehicle are equipped to handle: orange for pruning, blue for irrigation jobs, red for spray trucks, and green for lawn mowing care.
Heywood logs into a secure website, maintained by Herndon, Va.-based Wireless Matrix Inc., which makes the devices and offers fleet management and wireless data communication services. The Wireless Matrix service costs the business about $40 a month per vehicle, Heywood says, and he can set up regularly emailed reports.
The system even tells the office when each truck is due for oil change.
Itron started with early M2M technology in the 1980s with automation of utility meters and data collection that was sent back to utilities or Itron's data center, but it was then communicated over the company's proprietary radio network, says Larry Eggleston, Itron's managing director of solutions marketing. That ability exploded in the past 10 years as Itron partnered with AT&T, Verizon, and other wireless carriers to allow utility data sent over secure wireless networks, Eggleston adds.
"That's helped lower the cost for our customers to use and deploy the technology, mainly in upfront costs, utilizing the cellular network rather than constructing a proprietary network," Eggleston says.
He says the company to date has about 10,000 of its intelligent collector devices, similar to a router, on power poles that send data back, usually to a utility. Those read 6 million to 7 million smart meters or communication modules for natural gas and water systems.
Smart grids that incorporate the services and equipment developed by companies such as Itron offer methods for tracking energy usage, reducing costs, and boosting efficiency with two-way data communication between meters or routers and a utility's office. The technology also is able to identify the specific locations of outages.
Through the combination of smart meters, wireless technology, sensors, and software, utilities can closely track power grids and cut back on energy use when the availability of electricity is stretched to its limit. Consumers also can gain insight into their power consumption.
As far as costs for the wireless delivery of such data in the case of a smaller business such as Spokane ProCare, Verizon regional spokesman Scott Charlston says operations using this type of M2M technology pay much less than typical monthly wireless service fees for smartphones or other devices that employ both voice and data.
"Pricing will vary, but it's a small fraction of a cost of an individual cell phone plan," Charlston says. "It's just transmitting data, and by and large, it's a smaller amount of data than you would consume using a tablet or a smartphone."
Other examples of how this technology can help a business, utility, or municipality are far-reaching, says Verizon's Eva Thomas. She gives an example of an Oregon vineyard owner who plans to use devices with sensors designed for agricultural use that can monitor soil moisture, surface temperature, and other conditions.
The vineyard had a more than a $1 million crop loss this past winter because of severe frosts, on about 500 acres spread out over hills and valleys with different micro climates, Thomas says. It now plans to use M2M technology to receive data from different devices located around the acreage, with that information sent wirelessly to the vineyard operator.
Thomas adds, "They have different fans that would help mitigate frost damage. We can bring data back in real time to allow the vineyard operator to initiate some steps, turn on different fans in different micro climates, maybe use misting solutions."
The vineyard also plans to incorporate video from the devices to show harvesting or winemaking that can be viewed by customers on a large flat-screen television in a wine tasting room, Thomas says.
Other examples include a headquarters stocking multiple vending machines equipped with M2M devices, pinpointing if one is nearly out of a particular brand of potato chips, as well as home health care monitoring, truck inventory, and security applications, she says.
Another illustration is a water municipality that uses a monitoring system with M2M technology.
It also could incorporate security features to protect the water supply, with intelligence built into the application that detects if a security breech is a wild animal or a more serious threat, Thomas says.
Subscribe today to our free E-Newsletters!SUBSCRIBE