The Rise of Machine-To-Machine Communications

M2M networks enables intelligent data-driven decisions.

California traffic has a beastly reputation. But officials in Los Angeles County turned to technology to help tame the gridlock, and today, thousands of wirelessly linked components help regulate the timing of lights at intersections to better control traffic flows.

At the heart of this intelligent system is a machine-to-machine (M2M) network, which enables direct communication among wired or wireless machines using telemetry. L.A. County's network includes several hundred network-enabled traffic light controllers; inductive underground sensors that feed data about traffic volume and speed; video cameras; and more. Software sifts through the data, analyzes it and then serves up meaningful information to workers who can then make intelligent decisions about traffic controls.

M2M solutions have been around for more than a decade; one popular example is the OnStar onboard vehicle communications service. The technology has evolved considerably, and so have the benefits.

24 billion

Number of devices connected to wireless networks by 2020

SOURCE: "Connected Life" (GSMA, October 2011)

Today's M2M solutions can leverage a variety of more affordable machines including new sensors, tiny radios and RFID chips the size of rice grains — all of which can be harnessed to support communication between numerous devices and systems that then translate the data collected into meaningful information. Nancee Ruzicka, a director with Frost & Sullivan's Stratecast, attributes M2M's recent growth to increased coverage, smaller size and greater power of the various components, and reduced costs.

"M2M has been a concept for 10 to 15 years, but only within the last 12 to 18 months has it become de rigueur," says Steve Hilton, principal analyst with

Analysys Mason. Hilton says primary benefits include cost savings (such as systems to track repeat offenders while they await trial rather than holding them in jail) and cost avoidance (for example, from systems that let an agency such as a municipal utility better understand demand and usage of energy as it plans capacity).

Hilton predicts new services will abound in utilities, transportation, healthcare and security markets. For example, Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami uses a real-time location system to track thousands of items throughout its campus. The system includes active RFID tags, receivers and a wireless network to keep tabs on everything from infusion pumps to refrigerators used to store pharmaceuticals.

Keeping Tabs on Criminals

In Greensboro, N.C., police deployed an M2M network to track repeat offenders as they await trial, mainly to discourage them from committing new crimes. But already the technology — which includes anklets that leverage GPS and cellular communications to relay positioning of the wearers — has solved new crimes, says Sgt. M.E. Rakes. Last May, a defendant was wearing one of the court-ordered ankle bracelets that placed him in the vicinity of a home that was being burglarized. Police found the stolen property at the defendant's home, and he later confessed.

Rakes says more than 70 repeat offenders who have been ordered by the court to wear the devices are being monitored by the M2M solution. If one of the defendants doesn't adhere to his mandated curfew or shows up near an off-limits location, officers receive automated alerts via e-mail and phone. Rakes says the solution serves as a strong deterrent, noting that more than 90 percent of those placed on the program have not committed any crimes while awaiting trial. "We can monitor these people with machines and computers, 24x7. We have only six officers in this unit, myself included, and the technology allows us to monitor a lot more people than we could without it."

As for cost savings, placing the suspects on house arrest with machine monitors is less expensive than putting them in jail. An ankle bracelet costs $4 a day to rent, while it costs $60 a day to house an inmate.

The program has been so successful that the Guilford County, N.C., Sheriff's Office plans to deploy the technology to track repeat offenders as they await trial. "The idea is that they'll have these on their ankles and won't commit any more crimes," says Lt. Robert Elliot. "In the event that they do, we can use these as investigative tools."l

Jan 05 2012