What Do Bees and Thermostats Have in Common?

Jan. 1, 2000

Australian bees get RFID chips and Google buys a thermostat company. Just another day in the developing Internet of Things space. But will the technology spill into process automation?

Well, for one thing, they’re both making headlines these days—and in both cases, sensors play a big role in the story.

Yesterday, scientists at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) announced that they are equipping more than 5,000 bees in Hobart, Australia, with RFID chips in order to track them as part of their research into Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a disease that has ravaged bee populations in many parts of the world, including the U.S. CCD causes the adult bees to abandon their hives and leave the young bees unattended. Bad for the bees and bad for the rest of us, given how dependent our food supply is on bee pollination.

The CSIRO researchers are hoping to track the bees to find out where they go and better understand CCD’s causes—probably a combination of pesticides, parasites, malnutrition and disease. But no one knows for sure; hence, the interest in tracking the bees. Hey, if your cat or dog can be microchipped, why not bees? I just don’t want to be the researcher assigned the task of gluing the chips to the backs of the bees.

Meanwhile, back home, Google has gotten the tech world in a dither again, this time with news of its $3.2-billion acquisition of a company called Nest. Nest makes, of all things, home thermostats and smoke detectors. But not just any thermostat. Tech guru Farhad Manjoo has called the Nest “the world’s best thermostat.” It doesn’t just tell you how warm the house is. It’s equipped with, says Manjoo, “a battery of sensors and algorithms: It can figure out when you’re home and when you’re not, and based on your adjustments, it can build a model of temperatures that feels comfortable to you. It uses all this information to create a temperature schedule that’s personalized to your lifestyle, one that keeps you comfortable while saving energy.”

Pretty slick, yes, but why would Google care? One answer is “the Internet of Things.” Start with your furnace, add your refrigerator, the rest of your appliances, your car and your smart phone, and there’s a whole world of things talking to one another, and Google wouldn’t mind listening in on the conversation. 

But the plot is thicker than that. Most of these acquisitions are about the intellectual property. Nest was founded by a bunch of ex-Apple employees, and even without violating non-disclosure agreements, they’re bringing a lot of valuable experience to Google.

And then there are the patents. Ah, yes. The patents. Honeywell (yes, that Honeywell, or a division of it anyway) is already suing Nest over patents for the technology in the smart thermostat.

Now it’s true that these technologies are still some distance from our world of process automation. But we’ve seen over the last couple of decades how when the consumer market adopts a technology in a big way, it slowly trickles—or in some cases—floods into the industrial space. (Think tablets.)

I don’t think we’ll see a flowmeter from Apple, a Google pressure sensor or an Android-based DCS anytime soon, but we’re already hearing a lot of talk about Big Data and the Internet of Things and The Cloud in our technology patch. We’ve been working at wireless sensing for years. And when words like “big data” start entering the conversation, somewhere down the road, Google or some other company is going to start to want to eavesdrop.

Nobody’s going to want to do process control in the cloud, you say. Bad idea. Besides, no one would trust Google with their process data. Maybe. Maybe not. But then I’m old enough to remember when nobody was going to put PCs on the plant floor either.

I don’t pretend to know where this Internet of Things is going to lead, and whether it’s path will be anywhere near process automation, but it’s going to be interesting to watch.

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