Imagine being able to check your sailboat's humidity levels from your office, find out the grain levels in a silo in a back pasture, or even order a beer at a hockey game from the comfort of your seat and have it delivered to you.

These scenarios are all already reality, or close to it, thanks to a collection of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., companies working to bring the Internet of Things to daily life, and move the region ahead from its BlackBerry-dominated past.

The companies are at the forefront of an emerging market of technologies that are likely to be widely adopted and change the way we live. The Internet of Things (IoT) market could:

  • Be worth more than $6.5 billion in the next three years in Canada alone, according to industry research group IDC.  
  • Make daily life easier, and save you money on everything from insurance to heating costs to money spent on EpiPens.
  • Better track everything from food-borne illnesses to municipal water supply leaks.

"There was a time when everyone wanted to be connected, whether it's Facebook, Twitter or what have you, and now what we're discovering is that everything, similarly, wants to be connected," said Ric Asselstine, CEO of Terepac.

The Waterloo company has entered into a deal with the Port Credit Yacht Club in Mississauga to put sensors on sailboats that monitor everything from humidity to whether the boat is listing, and send notifications to the boat owner as well as the marina.

The connectivity of inanimate objects that Asselstine is referring to is what industry calls the Internet of Things. Essentially, IoT encompasses smart devices with sensors and electronics that can monitor and respond to real-time conditions, and transmit that data anywhere there's an internet connection.

'You go, "Wow, I didn't know that, and I didn't know that that was knowable."' - Ric Asselstine, Terepac CEO

As well as Terepac and its sailboat sensors, other Kitchener-Waterloo companies working on the IoT include Miovision, which makes responsive traffic light systems; Intelligent Mechatronics Systems, which makes connected car technology being used by the state of Oregon; blueRover, with everything from connected hockey arenas to connected restaurant kitchens; and Aterica, which makes a Bluetooth-connected EpiPen case with sensors and alerts. Even BlackBerry is in the game — the smartphone company purchased QNX in 2010 and has created an Internet of Things platform targeting connected cars and medical devices. 

Order a hockey stick to your seat during a game

BlueRover is a leader in the IoT market in Kitchener-Waterloo. The company, founded in 2006, does everything from connecting restaurant kitchens to monitoring municipal water systems through fire hydrants.

blueRover sensors

A blueRover sensor on the left and a blueRover hub on the right. The sensor sends a signal to the hub, which sends the information to a secure cloud. Users can access that information through a client area on their desktops or phones. Each hub can manage up to 64,000 sensors. (Andrea Bellemare/CBC)

But for the average Canadian, the connected arena it's testing out with the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers this coming fall is probably the most exciting. Rangers fans attending games can download an app, and once its installed, the blueRover technology in the arena can register the signals that fans send from their phones. Fans can participate in contests, order food, buy gear from their seats and even compete against other fans in arena-wide games.

"You can either yell in your phone, or shake it or draw shapes with your phone, and we read the sensors inside your phone and we correlate that to results that are shown up on the screen or on the ice," said blueRover CEO Loreto Saccucci. "You can guess who the stars are going to be, you can vote, real-time voting. You can order your food and be delivered to your seat, you can order a hockey stick or a hat and be delivered to your seat."

Saccucci says he's in discussions with arenas that host NHL teams to connect their facilities, but he wanted to make sure the system worked first at Rangers games.

In the meantime, he's busy working on all the other things his company has connected, like restaurant kitchens and chicken barns.

To connect those kitchens, the company installs a central blueRover hub in each kitchen along with an array of battery-powered RFID (radio frequency identification) sensors that relay information to the central hub. Each hub can handle up to 64,000 sensors. In a restaurant kitchen, that can mean sensors on everything from the fridge door, to the oven and dishwasher, all recording and relaying information and sending alerts if needed.  

BlueRover

An example of the client interface used by blueRover for the Internet of Things showing a connected Boston Pizza restaurant. Each coloured bubble represents a sensor, and displays real-time status information. (BlueRover)

The information from the blueRover hub is sent to a secure cloud, and from there, clients of blueRover can use the company's analytics software to sort through the data from their desktop computers, phones or tablets. The information that can be gleaned from all these sensors has proved to be popular — blueRover has connected restaurants for Boston Pizza, Tim Hortons, Burger King and McDonalds, as well as grocery stores like Whole Foods and specialty grocery stores.

Saccucci said last year that the company had revenue around the $20-million mark, though he declined to be more specific.

Connected sailboats

Terepac, for its part, will be outfitting the Port Credit Yacht Club for a trial this month.

Terepac, was founded in 2005, and includes six former BlackBerry employees working on encryption and security to keep data safe.

David Biesty, the company's vice president of manufacturing technology, is a sailor who wanted a way to monitor his boat remotely, and the idea of One Marine was born.  It's a remote sensor that monitors a host of boat information, from air temperature and humidity levels on board, to deck vibrations that could signal an intruder, to whether the boat is listing. The information is sent to the boat owner as well as the harbour master, providing real-time updates.

Terepac One Puck

This is Terepac's ONE puck, a sensor that registers information and transmits it through a cellular connection to a user's computer.

"If you instrument every yacht in the marina, you're able to mesh that with power management, so the marina and the individual can optimize the power that's going into their yacht," said Asselstine. "If they are willing to share the performance of their boat with the insurance company, the insurance company would be likely, much more likely to reduce their insurance rates if they have a responsible owner."

Asselstine says the yacht club has asked to keep the sensors in beyond the sailing season, because they've had instances where people were living on the boats while in dry dock.

But Terepac is expanding its sensor technology far beyond boats. Asselstine says they're working to get sensors on mining equipment, into automotive plants and even on municipal infrastructure within the next months. The company is currently in talks with three Ontario municipalities to provide sensors fitted to fire hydrants that can monitor municipal water pressure and detect leaks. Ultimately, connected systems will be able to save water and help target infrastructure repairs.

Asselstine wouldn't reveal which municipalities the company is talking to, but said they all had populations of over 100,000. BlueRover, which is working on a similar technology, has entered into a pilot project with the City of Guelph.

What is certain, though, is that that the IoT will change the way that companies and governments operate as new information is discovered from sensors on everything.

"What we're discovering is that there are several aha moments as soon as you get the data. You go, 'Wow, I didn't know that, and I didn't know that that was knowable,'" said Asselstine.  "I'm able to do positive things as a result of having that data."