Government and Corporate Programs Seek to Stoke IoT Innovations

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

Through programs such as the Global City Teams Challenge and Google's search for IoT research projects, public and private organizations are looking to move the Internet of Things from concept to reality.

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Last year, Sokwoo Rhee and Geoff Mulligan took leaves from their day jobs—running wireless sensor network provider Millennial Net and developing and promoting Internet-protocol communication standards, respectively—to launch the SmartAmerica Challenge, a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow project. Its goal was to help develop cyber-physical systems (which is government-speak for "Internet of Things") and to test specific projects and activities in a range of industries, from manufacturing to transportation to health care, with the hope of generating measurable benefits.

"We both had IoT backgrounds and were seeing fragmentation on every level, from standards to technology, with everyone doing their own thing," Rhee says of his and Mulligan's work on SmartAmerica. "So we tried to address that and bring all these different folks [from disparate industries] together to create a collaborative approach. We are focused on tangible solutions."

The Global City Teams Challenge kickoff event in September 2012

More than 100 organizations, from behemoths such as IBM and Qualcomm to unknown startups, joined the project, which put out specific challenges, such as developing more resource-efficient manufacturing processes with cross-industry benefits, or using sensor networks to optimize the distribution of energy on electrical grids.

"The White House is interested in showing the actual benefits to the end user of the IoT," Mulligan told me during a briefing this fall, in describing SmartAmerica. "Obviously the White House does not care about one protocol over another, but it does want things like the jobs and the environmental protections that come with some IoT and smart city technologies. So [SmartAmerica] reached out to show off what the IoT means to the U.S. economy and the daily lives of American citizens."

In June, SmartAmerica teams gave demonstrations of 24 different projects at the SmartAmerica Expo in Washington, D.C. The demonstrations involved autonomous vehicles, robots, security systems and unmanned aerial vehicles—all using a range of sensors and communication systems. The exposition was focused on incubating IoT technology, Rhee says. So to move beyond incubation and toward deployment of IoT technology, and to focus on deploying many promising applications within the umbrella of "smart cities," which touch on transportation, infrastructure and energy management, a new organization, called the Global City Teams Challenge (GCTC), was formed.

The GCTC—a collaboration between US Ignite, a private-public partnership (formed by the White House's Science and Technology Policy Office and the National Science Foundation, and launched June of 2012) and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST)—is a year-long program that launched this fall with a two-day workshop, held on Sept. 29-30, at the NIST campus in Gaithersburg, Md. Rhee is co-leading the GCTC along with Joe Kochan, a US Ignite management consultant. The purpose of the workshop was to bring together teams (called "action clusters") consisting of city planners and technologists from the private sector, as well as from academic institutions and nonprofits.

Between those in attendance at the Maryland event and others who followed along remotely, Rhee reports, 350 people participated in the workshop. Soon thereafter, individuals who participated in the workshop, as well as others who have since applied to the program, assembled into 32 teams, based on complementary skills and ideas. Now, these teams are moving their initial ideas through development and prototyping stages. On Feb. 12-13, representatives from all 32 action clusters will reconvene at the NIST campus for a tech jam, where they will be able to provide demonstrations of their projects-in-progress and seek any additional partners needed to meet the June 15, 2015, deadline for submitting prototypes of their projects.

Sokwoo Rhee

The GCTC provides guidance and helps team members find any talent or other resources they require to advance their projects, Kochan explains, but the organization does not provide direct funding. The teams need to self-fund or find other sources to finance their projects.

Rhee thinks that in the past, smart city technology pilots have suffered by relying on an initial batch of (generally government) funding and then petering out once that funding is consumed. "Smart city projects have to be built on a sustainable business model," Kochan says. "That is what we're trying to encourage through this process."

Specifically, Rhee says, that means ensuring projects are scalable and replicable across a number of cities. "That's how we're building economies of scale in IoT deployment," he states. For example, SCALE: Safe Community ALErt network—one of the GCTC projects formed during the SmartAmerica Challenge—is being developed by more than 15 organizations from the private and public sector. This team is developing a system by which remote monitoring and an automated emergency alert system can be used to support the health and safety of elderly residents within low-income communities. Funding to test the technology came from team members, which include IBM, AT&T and Massachusetts General Hospital, but the funding to run the actual program has already been secured from Maryland's Montgomery County, where the system is being developed. "Word got out, and now other cities, including Kansas City, are interested in deploying similar projects," Kochan says.

"The IoT needs a playground, a place to deploy and flourish," Rhee states. "Smart cities are great place where all these different partners can come together."

Google's IoT Expedition
Over on the West Coast, Google recently launched what it calls "a research and open innovation expedition to explore the foundational elements necessary to enable easy development of smart and secure Internet of Things applications and services." To launch this, the company has put out a request for proposals to the academic community. It is soliciting two types of projects—Expedition Lead Grants and Individual Project Grants—from academic researchers, each with a one-year timeframe and both designed, according to the RFP, to "bootstrap a cross­disciplinary research and open innovation effort."

The program's purview is very wide open. Its main requirements are that the proposals provide strong privacy and security safeguards, use open communication protocols and experiment with novel user interfaces and applications that are easy to use and understand. The projects can rely on existing sensors or involve the creation of new ones.

Joe Kochan

The Expedition Lead Grant requires a team of principal investigators, and the proposals should include plans for multiple projects, as well as plan to work with outside collaborators. These grants will range from $500,000 to $800,000, which would fund a team of primarily graduate-level students so that they could devote most of their time to the project.

The Individual Project Grants are focused on single projects and will receive $50,000 to $150,000.

Google will provide expertise and technology assistance, particularly around projects that integrate the Android mobile operating system, Google's Chrome browser and Cloud platform, and Google-owned IoT products such as Nest.

Proposals are due no later than Jan. 21, 2015, and the selected winners will be announced in early spring.