The IoT: Mobile Today, Robotic Tomorrow?

With or without drivers, private fleets are primed to emerge as IoT network nodes.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor

"The Netrider device is more than a router. It talks to all these [communication] devices and is an active node in the network, and also manages data very carefully. The other thing our IP determines is whether data needs to be sent now or can be cached. The buses have to send their position every few seconds [to support real-time bus-tracking apps], but we also need to read [bus] speed, onboard diagnostics, and all this data can be stored locally. Rather than sending it over the expensive [cellular] network, it will wait until the bus is in range of a Wi-Fi access point."

The utility of having a versatile, shape-shifting network like Veniam's goes well beyond empowering commuters to watch cat videos on their way home from work. Because each bus need not rely on using a pricey cellular link to transmit data, it can scale the uses of the Netrider. All of the disparate systems inside a bus—the ticket scanners, driver console, public announcement system and surveillance cameras for safety—are generally standalone systems, but by networking them together through the Netrider, the Porto transit agency can program them from a back office and make changes wirelessly across a fleet of buses.

The Porto transit system uses the Veniam network to track each bus's location every few seconds. Apps that utilize this location data and mapping software can route commuters around unexpected delays—a flat tire on a bus, or an accident that snarls traffic—by directing them to different bus or train options as the app detects these delays, ensuring the fewest delays occur.

Veniam is also running a pilot program in Porto in which the network is being leveraged to improve garbage collection. A sensor and communication module mounted inside each trash bin tracks the fill rate. When the bin needs to be emptied, the module sends an alert to the collection agency via a Wi-Fi connection to the nearest access point, which could be a passing collection truck, a bus, a taxi or any other vehicle carrying a Netrider router, or even a fixed-position access point that is part of the Veniam network. A number of companies, such as BigBelly or Enevo, are already using sensors and wireless networks to track fill rates of garbage or recycling bins. But with this pilot, Veniam hopes to show that a single network could perform many varied functions across a city. "The city of Porto estimates it will save 25 percent of its waste-collection costs once they implement this at full scale," Barros told me.

Connected Cars
Two of Veniam's other co-founders are Robin Chase, the former chief executive of Zipcar, and Roy Russell, Zipcar's founding chief technology officer (and Veniam's current CTO). So it's no surprise that Veniam has also set its sights on creating large Wi-Fi networks by turning private fleets into nodes in its network. Does this mean we will see a Veniam network emerge in, say, San Francisco's Zipcars? Or will Uber or Lyft drivers begin creating mobile Veniam hotspots?

Barros would not divulge any specific cities or car-sharing service providers that Veniam is in talks with, but said to expect an announcement by the end of the quarter. One fair guess is that Veniam or other Wi-Fi networks will eventually employ driverless cars, which will emerge through Uber, Google or some other entity as network nodes.

Barros boils down his mission as a vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure network provider thusly: "You get the context for people to make decisions in a simple way. It's interaction with the physical world, where the Internet serves as the way to move people and things."

Mary Catherine O'Connor is the editor of Internet of Things Journal and a former staff reporter for RFID Journal. She also writes about technology, as it relates to business and the environment, for a range of consumer magazines and newspapers.

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