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The search for the Fourth Protocol – the missing link of the IoT

What is the 'fourth protocol'?

The battle is on. Low-powered radio frequency is seen as the missing link for the industrial IoT, but which flavour will win out remains unclear. So far it's a battle between Sigfox and Actility, both of which offer narrowband technologies designed to allow equipment to frequently send limited data back to a central server, often many hundreds of miles away.

Crucially, the power demands are so low that solar power can be used; the maintenance-heavy batteries required to power frequent cellular transmission aren't needed. However, while SigFox is an ultra-narrowband technology and nothing else, Actility is a package – and the search for the IoT's 'fourth protocol' isn't just about technology, it's a search for a platform, too.

"Unfortunately there is not a common language that can be used within the IIoT space," says Dhunay. "There are a few companies that are certainly looking to create some standards, such as GE and its Predix platform, but certainly there needs to be a lot of work done around the creation of a standard."

Beacons like the Estimote are settled on Bluetooth connectivity

Beacons like the Estimote are settled on Bluetooth connectivity

An emerging IoT platform?

There are other emerging platforms – including the home-centred Google Brillo and Samsung's ARTIK (which includes SigFox) – but the most convincing attempt at a platform for industrial machine-to-machine communications is GE Predix Cloud.

Aimed at aviation, energy, healthcare and transportation industries – among many others – this software platform is all about using the big data collected by IoT devices and sensors to predict failures before they happen, and optimising supply chains with the aim of reducing risk and cost, and increasing the lifespan of machines. As well as coming from a giant-sized industrial company, GE Predix will involve apps.

"A cloud built exclusively to capture and analyse machine data will make unforeseen problems and missed opportunities a complication of the past," said Harel Kodesh, Vice President, General Manager of Predix at GE Software. "GE's Predix Cloud will unlock an industrial app economy that delivers more value to machines, fleets and factories – and enable a thriving developer community to collaborate and rapidly deploy industrial applications in a highly protected environment."

Whether GE Predix dominates remains to be seen but a collaborative ecosystem is just what the industrial IoT needs.

Mike Crooks, Head of Mubaloo Innovation Lab

Mike Crooks, Head of Mubaloo Innovation Lab

The emergence of common standards

There are some standards now gaining wide acceptance among IoT device makers, developers and operators. "Linux and Python are both used as IoT scripting languages," says Poppelaars, who bemoans the lack of a defined common language to connect pumps, motors, sensors and robots.

"The industry standard for hardware communication in the IoT sphere is MQTT, which is a message queuing protocol," adds Mike Crooks, head of Mubaloo Innovation Lab, which works on location-based technologies. "While this isn't a language, it provides a common set of standards which devices can be built to emit." It's also fair to say that for beacons – despite being Apple and Google platforms – Bluetooth is the de-facto protocol.

Work is being done, with the Allseen Alliance's AllJoyn, Industrial Internet Consortium, IPSO Alliance, Open Interconnect Consortium, and IEEE all developing competing standards. It's largely a battle between tech and telecoms companies, and no single standard will emerge anytime soon.

However, in all this talk of the varying technologies vying for the title of 'the fourth protocol', it's wise to remember that over 95% of industrial automation systems in factories and manufacturing plants is wired, not wireless.