Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Some thought concerning a rapidly emerging internet of things 6: identifying and harnessing the power of ad hoc systems 1

Posted in business and convergent technologies, social networking and business by Timothy Platt on June 17, 2013

This is my sixth posting to a series on a rapidly emerging new level of online involvement and connectedness: the internet of things (see Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2, postings 211 and loosely following for Parts 1-5.)

I have been focusing on defined rules-based systems such as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems in recent series postings (and see particularly Part 4 and Part 5.) And whether these systems are small and localized as in a smart home-based network of things, or large and complex enough to manage and interconnect large industrial and infrastructure systems, they all hold certain defining features in common:

• They include and connect relatively fixed-by-inventory, assemblages of functional nodes together.
• Each node and the device it represents carries out a specific function or set of functions that call for at least some input from at least one other node in this same network, under at least one normative operating condition in order for it to function correctly. Else they provide such input to at least one other node in the network, under at least one normative functioning condition, or both.
• And all such functional, data sharing actions obey and are consistent with a single, defining overall set of network rules of operation.
• New nodes can be added in and old ones already in these systems can be replaced or completely removed, and for specific hardware and for position in the network and in its map of allowable connections.
• But at any given time, the array of nodes and the devices they represent, and the map of possible allowed connection paths between them for sharing information is relatively fixed, and in many cases completely fixed and even static.

My goal for this posting is to completely throw out that last assumption as a required defining principle, and to consider ad hoc networks – and how they can be used to manage communications and control challenges that no more-static system could as effectively and cost-effectively address, and certainly with as much operational flexibility. And I will argue a case by way of examples that both fixed network, and ad hoc for node inclusion networks play essential roles in their own more appropriate contexts.

I begin this with an already real-world example that we are increasingly coming to take for granted, and certainly if we drive on unfamiliar roads or where we are in any way concerned about possible traffic congestion and travel delays: real-time traffic-flow tracking and its fine granularity map-based reporting through hand-held and other portable devices such as smart phones and dedicated Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation devices.

• Whenever a GPS device user connects into an online navigation system they automatically start reporting their own GPS-designated position to that system, and their device becomes a node in an ad hoc assembled network. In this, it does not matter if their device is a dedicated single function GPS-based tool, or a smart phone or other multifunctional device that happens to have a GPS systems connection capability and an app for making this type of use of that capability.
• The ad hoc assortment of devices that happen to be connected into any given local or regional network array of this type at any given time is always changing and shifting as to which nodes are connected in and network-included at any given time, as well as changing for where those nodes are located. And if they are connected into a traffic tracking system through ground-based antenna systems such as cell phone towers, as these nodes move along, they drop off of the connection coverage areas for one such antenna or set of them and move into the coverage areas of others – with occasional dead-zone drop-offs where they at least briefly fall out of the network for failure to find a functioning wireless connection point that they can use even when on for this.
• When that happens, these devices and their users fall back on using cached map and traffic volume data already downloaded and buffered into their node device level systems, at least until they can find and reestablish real-time, live network connection again.
• And in keeping with my active network, passive network distinction as initially defined and discussed in Part 1 of this series, these are all active, two-way communicating nodes when they are connected in at all.
• Here, the basic network connection map is very simple, as would be expected as an easiest model to implement for an ad hoc network. All GPS device nodes connect directly, by way of networked antenna signal capture systems, to a central coordinated computer system which from the GPS device perspective can be viewed as if a single node, and that in fact is best represented as a black box subsystem. This black box subsystem, looking inside it, is in fact comprised of a networked and load balanced system of server computers that work together coordinately to manage all of the network traffic flow that goes into keeping this GPS-based system working.
• As in the case of more fixed active networks of things, connectivity and information sharing in this and other ad hoc networks are highly rules-based. But unlike the situation with SCADA systems as discussed in Parts 4 and 5, as cited here above, nodes here all do essentially the same things, at least on a per-node basis. So the rules of connection and functionality that any given node connects in and operates by, while in a GPS network are standardized and replicated for essentially all nodes potentially involved as they become so. This leads to these networks being very modular, standardized and consistent.
• Here, one of the primary functions of that central controlling black box computer system “node” is to organize and share collective and organized GPS device data, and knowledge developed by it from at least potentially all of the nodes in the system to every individual node in that system. Default priority is to focus on sharing this collective and processed data and knowledge to specific connected nodes about activity in their own real-time local areas geographically, but these systems generally support GPS device users when they seek to look ahead outside of their current locations and local areas too.
• GPS data from specific nodes indicates their real-time positions, and that means these systems can track both direction and speed of travel too, and match that to a database of posted speed limits to identify where traffic is slowed down and by how much, and precisely where. Further data and traffic flow knowledge can also be added in such as input from outside sources related to bridge or roadway closures, or lane closures for scheduled repairs or because of reported unplanned incidents.

Organizationally and functionally this all represents a simple had hoc system and certainly from the GPS device network node perspective – if that is, you only look at the rules and processes permitted and supported for a minimal scale cell in this system, looking at this entire navigation tracking and reporting system as a cellular automation system. As with cellular automation systems in general, the complexities arise from emergent properties that are developed and organized, here in that central networked computer system, where overall traffic patterns and traffic flow knowledge is developed from simple, single device inputs.

I am going to pick up on this working example of an ad hoc network of things in my next series installment where I will look more fully into how ad hoc networks are organized per se. And I will pick up on a second working example too that is still only just beginning to be developed, with the development of new, more long-term predictive weather forecast systems. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time and its continuation page, and at Social Networking and Business.

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