The Intelligence of Objects

The quality of cleverness is something we generally attribute to people. Now objects are set to become intelligent too – and not just individual smart objects considered in isolation, but as a networked whole. For ex- ample, objects will be able to determine their “condition” themselves and “talk” to each other. Researchers at Fraunhofer IIS are developing the basic technologies required for this Internet of Things – and are doing so for the entire chain of applications.


How are you? This is a question only people can answer. In the future, however, objects will also “speak” and tell their user how they are. Effectively, the objects will have a measure of intelligence. So far, so good: but what will all this mean for everyday life? How are we to imagine the Internet of Things on a concrete level? “There are already some applications for the Internet of Things out there,” says Josef Bernhard, who has headed the RFID and Radio Systems group at Fraunhofer IIS for over 17 years. “And in the cities of the future, for example, street lights could send their power consumption values and information about their condition to the relevant municipal body, and garbage cans could tell the municipal waste organization how full they are.”

Save 99 percent of energy - with innovative wireless nodes

To help this vision become a reality, Josef Bernhard and his team have developed a wireless communications technology called MIOTY. Of course, it would also be possible for street lights and garbage cans to send information about their condition over the mobile phone network. However, this form of communication consumes a lot of energy, and batteries would not last for long. “Because our wireless node requires only one percent of the energy for transmission that is needed by communication over the mobile network, the battery last a hundred times longer. It will last ten to fifteen years, no problem,” explains Josef Bernhard. The range is also impressive: in rural areas, a wireless node fitted to a street lamp can trans- mit data to a receiver up to ten kilometers away; in the city, it manages two to five kilome- ters depending on how built up the neighborhood is. The receivers forward the data over the internet to a cloud, where all results are collected and software extracts the essential information out of the data. For example, the software could recognize how full the gar­ bage cans are and create an optimized route plan for the garbage trucks. The wireless nodes themselves are based on standard semiconductor components – what makes them special is how they transmit messages. Instead of bundling the entire information and sending it all as mobile radio does, the researchers divide it up into small packages, which are sent at differ- ent frequencies in staggered transmissions. This has several advantages: the transmission is less prone to interference, the energy consumption is lower, and the range is higher.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Application Center for Wireless Sensor Systems in Coburg are also working on applications for the city of tomorrow. One of the technologies they have been investigating is portable sensor boxes, which collect environmental data such as temperature, air pressure, and UV radiation via a smartphone app. “With our ENSIRO tech- nology, everyone can help to improve knowledge and planning in their city,” explains Prof. Thomas Wieland, head of the application center. A customer project is currently underway that monitors consumption points in a building; everyday objects for the most part. This enables items such as coffee vending machines, soap dispensers, and large potted plants to signal when they need to be refilled or watered – saving service staff the trouble of checking them regularly.

Manufacturing facilities that diagnose themselves

Smart cities are not the only area where the researchers at Fraunhofer IIS have much to offer as regards the Internet of Things. In the field of industrial applications, they are also developing various basic technologies to further advance the intelligence of objects. For ex- ample, they are developing special algorithms that allow machines and other manufacturing facilities to “feel” when they need repairs or when a component has to be replaced – and then report this immediately to the shift supervisor. In factories today, machines are generally checked at set intervals. Inevitably, however, tools wear down beforehand sometimes – or, conversely, components are replaced as a precaution during maintenance when they would actually last a good while longer. Moreover, each repair is associated with downtime, which must be kept as short as possible. To illustrate what this can mean: if the machines in an automotive production are idle for just a short while, losses can quickly run into millions of euros. The algorithms developed by scientists at Fraunhofer IIS’s EAS Design Automation Division in Dresden are able to ensure that these losses do not occur. “They identify problems before it becomes necessary to take the system offline, thus enabling machines to monitor themselves,” explains Dr. Olaf Enge­Rosenblatt, who is responsible for Condition Monitoring Systems at the division.


For factory operators, the advantages are clear: they have better control over the risk of breakdowns, need fewer spare parts, and can optimize maintenance planning. For example, they can schedule repairs for a time window in which the consequences of a machine being out of action are less serious. As well as giving production facilities a measure of intelligence, the algorithms also make them capable of learning. Over the course of time, the machines recognize not only that something is going wrong, but can also provide precise indications of what they need.

© Fraunhofer IIS/David Hartfiel
Flexibel und wartungsarm: Kommissionierregal mit drahtlos vernetzten s-net®-Sensorknoten. Ein Display und die Bestätigungsknöpfe erlauben eine einfache Verwaltung von Pickaufträgen.
© Fraunhofer IIS/Fabian Leander Sinzinger
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The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) - process in factories become transparent

When we talk about the Internet of Things for any length of time, then we inevitably get on to the subject of Industry 4.0 – after all, the two topics are virtually inextricable. As Industry 4.0 takes hold, factory workflows will become transparent and products will control their manufacture themselves. That only works, however, if workpieces possess information about themselves and can communicate with other objects and with their environment. This is where the s-net® communications technology developed by researchers at Fraunhofer IIS comes in. “s-net® allows products, for instance, to monitor themselves and to control their manufacture – and to do so energy­efficiently,” says Jürgen Hupp, who heads the Communication Networks department at Fraunhofer IIS. “In addition, the individual wireless nodes network with each other autonomously.” In everyday terms, that means: if you attach the wireless nodes to a workpiece, they connect autonomously to the network and forward on data recorded by sensors: things such as temperature or vibration strength. However, this is not the limit of the technology’s potential by any means: even when it comes to tracking – in other words, determining the position of workpieces on the factory grounds – s-net® provides useful services. Using anchor nodes with fixed positions, the mobile nodes attached to the workpieces can determine where they currently are and send this data to a receiver. In the future, s-net® will even be able to make manufacturing itself easier, as the wireless nodes on products will enable them to become intelligent. For example, s­net® will allow a product to light up the shelves containing the parts to be fitted when it arrives at an assembly cell. The wireless nodes then know which production step is due and when. Currently the scientists are using s-net® to monitor the condition of cargo in sea containers by means of wireless nodes on the pallets. These nodes network with each other autonomously in the container and deliver the information from the pallet to a telematics box outside the container. As the transmission path from the nodes to the box contains many obstacles, most nodes do not send their data directly to the box, but send it first to other nodes who then forward it. This is sometimes referred to as multi-hop communication.

Logistics goods reveal their identity at entrance to warehouse

The advantages of objects revealing information about themselves and their condition are not restricted to shipping containers, but apply to large warehouses as well. After all, these places are full of hustle and bustle, as one forklift truck after another carries pallets loaded to the brim with goods into the warehouse. Logisticians would love to know at a stroke what is stacked on the pallets without having to unload everything and check. This is hardly surprising: pallets can be loaded with a large number of parts. For this reason, manufacturers provide the individual products with RFID chips. If a forklift drives into the hall, it passes a special gate to which a reader is attached. The reader sends a signal to the chips via an an- tenna, and the chips “wake up” and send their ID number back. It is a very practical system. However, there has been a recurring problem with RFID chips being so buried and hidden on the pallet that the reader does not get the signal. To remedy this problem, researchers from Fraunhofer IIS have optimized the process: “We’ve replaced the simple antenna on the reader with our innovative multi­beam antenna,” explains Dr. Mario Schühler, whose group researches antenna technologies at the institute. “In the multi-beam antenna, several antennas are effectively merged together, sending out beams in five different directions.” It reads the pallet from the front as it approaches the gate, then from various directions from the side, and finally from the back. This means it can reach RFID chips that conventional antennas would miss and also assign directionality to the objects. Another advantage is that the multi-beam antenna can be used worldwide. Although the U.S., Europe, and Japan all work with different frequencies for reading data, the antenna works for all frequency ranges.

Monitoring and optimizing »object taxis« in factories

Once the products have passed through this incoming control at the warehouse, they are often brought to where they are needed on little tow trains. But which routes should these industrial vehicles take? At what times are there bottlenecks? How can the process be optimized? The positioning technology awiloc® answers precisely these kinds of questions. Small boxes travel on the vehicle and continuously record their location. “The big advantage of the technology is that it is designed for use with existing structures, making it very easy to install,” says Steffen Meyer, who heads the Cooperative Systems and Positioning group at Fraunhofer IIS. In the case of industrial vehicles, this means: the positioning is based on WLAN, which many companies already have in place. Before the system can get started, the researchers drive the various routes and create a typical signal strength pattern. How strongly are the different stations signaling at which point? Based on this reference data, the system recognizes where the box – and therefore the vehicle – is. The researchers can use awiloc® to record the actual situation. They then work with their colleagues in the Supply Chain Services (SCS) working group at Fraunhofer IIS to figure out how to optimize the journeys.

On October 15, 2015, the positioning technology awiloc® received second prize in the Impact Delivered category at the annual EARTO awards, which have been acknowledging outstanding examples of applied research since 2009. EARTO selects projects with the poten­ tial to initiate a transformation in society or business. And that is certainly the case with all Fraunhofer IIS’s developments relating to the Internet of Things.