Mohawk researcher reflects on a year of IoT innovation
A year since his lab was launched, Canada’s first Industrial Research Chair for IIoT Applications, Dr. Esteve Hassan looks back on the lab’s impact to date on industry innovation
The Internet of Things (IoT), a vast network of almost 30 billion connected devices, has recently been called more vital than ever in helping the world respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. From tracking the patient data collected during temperature checks to helping remote workers monitor the performance of factory-floor equipment, IoT is living up to its promise as a transformative technology for industry and consumers alike.
The wide range of uses for IoT technology, especially the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) isn’t surprising to Dr. Esteve Hassan, who has been intrigued by the potential of the technology since he first came across it in 2010. As Canada’s first Industrial Research Chair for IIoT Applications, he’s been keeping track of the growth in the usage of the technology and fine-tuning his strategy as to how to help companies be more effective in their adoption of IIoT
The difference between Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) versus Internet of Things (IoT) is slight but significant, explains Dr. Hassan. IoT is most commonly used for consumer devices- a smart thermostat or a FitBit that is collecting data to enhance a person’s day-to-day life. IIoT focuses on how the technology is used in a complex manufacturing or industrial setting, looking at the interplay of technology, monitoring and data across multiple devices, situations and use cases.
“IoT technology offers significant benefits to industry partners who want to become more efficient and effective in their operations,” says Dr. Hassan. “But resolving key challenges is essential to enabling IoT solutions to satisfy the majority of industrial entities”
“But IoT in the industrial context is not as simple as installing a sensor and monitoring the data. In particular, developers and users need an accepted set of core standards and familiarity with how to do business in a connected industry network- knowledge that makes this game-changing technology out of reach for the average Canadian company.”
Resolving these key challenges for small- and medium-sized companies was exactly what motivated Dr. Hassan to establish Mohawk’s Sensor Systems and Internet of Things (IoT) Lab a year ago.
”As a college researcher, I’ve seen first-hand the impact of applied research and the value that our partners get when we can accelerate the use of technology. When NSERC announced my chair position last year, I remember thinking, ‘How fast can I get moving on this? How fast can I start helping companies?’”
An industry outpouring of support
The $1 million of funding from NSERC gave Dr. Hassan the green light to acquire a wide range of IoT technology.
With the backing of industry leaders such as CareGo, TruckSail, Merq, Brigade Electronics Inc, IBM, MTech Hub, IoT Foundry and Siemens Canada, Dr. Hassan began equipping the applied research lab with the latest in sensor and IoT software and hardware.
Siemens Canada provided access to Mindsphere- a cloud-based IoT operating system- for students working in the Mohawk’s Sensor Systems and Internet of Things (IoT) Lab. Keysight Inc. and Gap Wireless provided training sessions for the students that integrated hands-on industry relevant experiences and real-world applications in IoT design and testing using sensor kits and problem-based learning assignments.
Brigade Electronics Inc. provided radar sensor units to support research activities in the area of truck road safety while partner Quaenet contributed 10 LoRA Gateways for use by the research team- a crucial technology that allows sensors to transmit data for long range and low power to the cloud.
They were joined by Xilinx Inc, who stepped up to provide thousands of dollars worth of hardware and software tools to support research projects that require programmable logic devices with superior AI capabilities. Additionally, IoT device-company Zolertia provided hardware to support the design and creation of new IoT connected products.
Training an IoT-ready workforce
The value for an industry partner in being involved in applied research is three-fold, explains Jeffrey McIsaac, Mohawk’s Dean of Applied Research
“First of all, they get to see the results of the project in a way that creates meaningful impact for their organization;” he says, “Second, they get to contribute to the development of crucial industry projects that will advance the sector as a whole. Finally, they are helping equip students, the next generation of their workforce, with in-demand skills and knowledge.”
The training of students as research assistants, is what Dr. Hassan- who spent 9 years teaching at Mohawk and at other post-secondary institutions- refers to as his “favourite part”.
“We hired 11 students to work in the lab over the past year. I’m most proud of the students and the experience that we’ve created for them. We make an investment in the training and education of our students. When they come to work in the lab, they really learn something about the new technology. IoT is the future- it’s an important part of the future of industry.”
Dr. Hassan also recently launched the Mohawk IoT Expert Board, leveraging expertise from colleagues from across the college to enhance the college’s IoT curriculum and support industry projects.
Dr. Hassan’s commitment to educating students extends beyond Mohawk; as the educational advisor for of the IoT Quick Start Program, developed by MTechHub and the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), his expertise is being used to offering students the opportunity to expand their knowledge and skills in the IoT space.
The program, with its focus on work-integrated learning, leverages MTechHub’s IoT in a Box program, designed to help manufacturers transform their shop floor with IoT. For students, the IoT Quick Start Program combines hands on learning with self- directed learning and then matches students with companies that are invested in providing co-op placements for post- secondary students – with a goal of developing future talent in IIoT technology.
The lab’s distinct focus on the industrial applications of IoT has made it an in-demand resource for local companies.
“Half of my time as a chair is committed to develop innovative ideas and resources that will benefit the industry as a whole- the other half is focused on applied research projects for industrial partners,” says Dr. Hassan. “Our research agenda is constantly being driven by current and emerging needs.”
The range of applied research partners for the lab reflects the diverse industry sectors that can benefit from the technology. Gayle Andrus, owner of Hamilton, Ontario-based Truck Sail Inc supported Mohawk’s application for the NSERC Chair position and was one of the first applied research industry partners to work with Dr. Hassan.
Truck Sail Inc. manufactures aerodynamic devices for transport trailers and straight trucks. Their business is focused primarily on producing trailer skirts and boattails that can reduce drag and achieve significant fuel savings. With the industry’s focus on using technology to reduce accidents and fatalities, the company wanted to discover if safety sensors could be added to their trailer skirts. The company’s vision was that these sensors could help monitor a truck’s blinds spots and notify the driver of potential risks.
"It is so easy to map out something in theory and to see it in the lab, but in the trucking industry, there is a big difference between theory and lab and actually getting something to work out in the parking lot and then the roadways,” says Andrus.
Andrus worked with the research team to develop the successful prototypes of their product- from sensor development to implementing the prototype software/hardware system that can allow the driver to safety control the skirt and boat tail systems while the truck is in motion.
“The expertise at the lab allowed us to cross over the manufacturing and advanced manufacturing divide,” Says Andrus. We became, in effect, a tech company."
Dr. Hassan points to a similar result in the lab’s project with Schuyler Farms Limited to leverage IoT technology to provide localized environmental monitoring at five apple orchard sites. The research lab developed a live, web-accessible display of all the data collected during the monitoring, making it possible for them to track weather trends, and receive important alerts.
“We helped Schuyler Farms make the transition to a smart farm. They can now use IoT technology to increase accuracy and precision of crop monitoring.”
In addition to the funding support provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council (NSERC), Dr. Hassan has also been supported with funding from the Ontario Centre of Excellence (OCE) and Fed Dev Ontario through the Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing Innovation (SONAMI).
Future projects are in the works to leverage the expertise at MEDIC (mHealth and ehealth Development and Innovation Centre) and the Energy and Power Innovation Centre (EPIC). Dr. Hassan is also planning on continuing research collaborations with the college’s Additive Manufacturing Innovation Centre.
Dr. Hassan anticipates that year two in the lab will be even busier than the past year, spurred by the increased interest in IoT and a need for companies to recover from the economic impact of COVID-19. He plans on establishing new strategic industry partnerships and expand his research focus to produce IoT-based innovative machine learning and predictive maintenance solutions.
“It’s an automated future. We’ve witnessed this firsthand over the last few months as we’ve been physically distanced from each other and required to work remotely. IoT can help keep companies going with minimal, in-person oversight. That’s the power of technology.”