Machine-to-machine (M2M) communication is revolutionizing numerous areas of the global economy. But for M2M solutions to function without a hitch and to prevail globally in the future, the industry will need to cooperate.

The number of machines communicating with one another around the world is increasing at a rate that can only be described as explosive. At present, more than 100 million vending machines, vehicles, smoke alarms, and other devices are sharing information automatically. Berg Insight analysts expect their number to increase to 360 million by 2016, while the market researchers at Machina Research anticipate that around 12.5 billion M2M devices will be communicating with each other by 2020. By then, automated M2M communication for all manner of purposes will be used across the industry.

Many solutions are in use already. Copiers with an M2M module, for example, order fresh toner and paper automatically. The application areas for this technology are enormous and are appealing to companies because its success is swiftly reflected in falling costs and simplified processes. Furthermore, falling prices for M2M modules, mobile data network expansion, and statutory requirements add to the momentum of demand. For instance, the European Union has decided that from 2015 all newly registered motor vehicles must be equipped with an e-call automatic emergency call system that alerts emergency services automatically in the event of an accident.

To ensure goods and people get to their destinations safely, companies already offer a range of M2M solutions. Tracking modules like Telic’s Picotrack Endurance relay the actual location of overseas containers worldwide. Tiny high-tech modules are fitted to the container shell. Powered by batteries or solar modules, M2M solutions of this kind can operate independently for years.

Also using M2M technology, PX Technologies’ PX-iP smoke alarm sounds an acoustic alarm in an emergency and texts or e-mails the emergency call center and emergency contact numbers listed for the device. If none of the numbers answers or one of the persons called confirms the fire, the call center alerts the fire and rescue service, which will then be on the scene faster. If entire buildings are equipped with smoke alarms, the source of the fire can, moreover, be located precisely. This information helps the fire service to put the fire out faster and minimizes the risk that the fire department runs.

The Success Of Renewable Energy

M2M also helps to advance the development of renewable energy sources. Wind turbines and solar modules mostly generate their power locally and in a volatile manner. That can lead to problems if too much electricity is fed into the power grid, which then loses stability and threatens to collapse. M2M devices fitted to the transformers at transformer stations can measure continuously how much electricity is fed into the grids. If it is too much, they cut off the feed-in automatically and ensure the network’s security.

Electricity meters equipped with M2M technology provide another solution. These smart meters do more than just identify “electricity guzzlers” in the home. As part of an intelligent power grid, they coordinate feed-in and consumption. The washing machine, for example, will only run if there is surplus energy in the system. This supply-oriented use is an especially interesting way to establish battery-powered cars.

On average, cars are in use for two hours a day at most. For the remaining 22 hours, their batteries can be recharged whenever there is a supply of surplus electricity. Furthermore, battery-powered cars not only could be recharged at a favorable juncture, they also could feed electricity back into the grid at peak consumption times. Without M2M communication, the cost of coordination would be inconceivable.

Cows That Text

By using M2M technology in agriculture, farmers will be better able to monitor their bulk goods, grain, and fodder silos. Depending on how they are equipped, M2M devices measure the filling level, temperature, humidity, and other parameters. The system stores this data continuously and alerts the farmer by text or e-mail if irregularities occur. This is to avoid the risk of pests proliferating or rot spreading in the silo.

The use of M2M solutions in agriculture can benefit the profit margin by monitoring the stock. A French company, MEDRIA Technologies, offers two monitoring solutions, the HeatPhone and the VelPhone. The HeatPhone notifies farmers when cows are ready to conceive so they can improve their herds’ reproduction rate (Fig. 1). The VelPhone warns farmers when cows are about to calf (Fig. 2). Farmers then can continue with their work before the birth and must only stop when they really need to do so.

Both of these solutions are based on different devices that share information. Farmers install a data collector in the stable or in the pasture. Sensors fitted to or in the cows then relay the animals’ vital data to this data collector. For the HeatPhone, farmers establish a behavior profile for each animal. Data that departs from the normal regularly recorded pattern indicates hyperactivity that is typical of animals in heat. The data collector then alerts farmers automatically by texting them. For the VelPhone, sensors measure the cow’s body temperature. The system collects this data, evaluates it, and texts its findings to farmers up to twice daily. The system also notifies farmers when calving begins.

M2M Improves Fitness

M2M solutions also will be used to assist athletes during training. Clothing and equipment with built-in sensors collect fitness data and relay it without delay to a Web portal and, if required, publish it on a social network. The portal then presents athletes with the processed data and gives advice on how to improve their fitness. In addition, the devices will, as a rule, include a GPS module. Runners can then plan their routes better and measure the distance they have covered or their speed.

Mobile Network Operators Must Cooperate

These examples are generating a growing public interest in M2M solutions because almost every area stands to benefit from the use of this technology. Just as we today think we have a mobile application for everything, the future Internet of Things will truly have a suitable M2M app for nearly all users’ needs. A number of hurdles remain to be cleared before this stage is reached, however. M2M’s success will depend to a large extent on how simple and reliable the solutions are. Clear service agreements and uniform standards will play an especially important role in this process, and mobile network operators (MNOs), will need to intensify their cooperation.

Deutsche Telekom, Orange, and TeliaSonera have already set up a cooperation body, the GMA or Global M2M Association. Its aim is to improve quality of service and M2M communication standards. To do so, MNOs establish network interoperability, harmonize software interfaces, and jointly certify M2M modules.

The M2M Alliance, with members that range from Telekom via Vodafone to Telefónica and include nearly all of the major European MNOs, pursues similar objectives. The more MNOs follow suit, the likelier it will be that mobile network operators around the world will be able to provide a fast and reliable global network for M2M solutions.

E-commerce Platform Enables Worldwide Sales

The M2M market is strongly fragmented. This is an extra hurdle to clear because smaller firms and startups mainly offer many of today’s M2M solutions, and they face a gigantic international market that has so far barely been tapped. They frequently lack the resources required for marketing their products around the world.

The major mobile network operators can help them to cope with this challenge. Deutsche Telekom, for example, provides a special e-commerce platform, its M2M Marketplace, for this purpose. Other Internet portals on which M2M products are available exist, but they frequently offer only products for certain industries or the products of one manufacturer for sale.

In contrast, M2M Marketplace is independent of manufacturers and global in alignment. It thereby provides smaller manufacturers and developers with an opportunity to market their products globally. Smaller firms are not alone in benefiting from using the e-commerce platform as a sales channel, however. The Urmet Group, which specializes in M2M products, is already established in the market and uses the online sales channel to complement its direct sales.

Marketing is not the only challenge that smaller manufacturers and developers face. Existing M2M solutions cannot be applied to other industries one-to-one. That is why customers need customized solutions designed to suit their requirements and would prefer to source them from a single provider. Smaller firms can only fulfill these requirements by cooperating in a network, and that is why Deutsche Telekom has launched a partner program to enable project partners to find each other. These partnerships aim to bundle different competences for projects and thereby to offer customers end-to-end solutions from a single source.

All this shows that the challenges are many and varied and require a new culture within the market. Latest survey findings indicate, though, that taking them up is very much worthwhile. Machina Research anticipates global sales totaling $927 billion by 2020. At present the industry’s annual sales amount to $118 billion, the market research company says. These figures may vary from survey to survey, but even conservative estimates leave no doubt that the market is set to grow strongly in the years ahead.

Whether these forecasts are accurate will depend to a large extent on how the industry deals with its present challenges. If it does so successfully, the mobile network operators, the hard- and software providers, and the users will benefit, and the Internet of Things will then be as much a matter of course as the mobile Internet is today.