When a massive tsunami hit Japan in March 2011, crippling several of the country's nuclear reactors in Fukashima, the most detailed information about the spread of radiation did not come from government sources, but from web-connected Geiger counters in people's homes.

Using a web development platform called Pachube (now known as Cosm), developers were able to create applications that aggregated real-time Geiger counter data, along with location and wind speed/direction, to produce a map of where the the highest levels of radiation were and where it might spread due to the wind.

This is a real-life example of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, the technology behind the Internet of Things that could enable smart cities of the future. M2M allows electronic devices to communicate with one another via SIM cards that can connect to wireless sensors and the mobile internet for management and monitoring, and to provide services.

Momentum behind the technology has been growing at a rapid pace, due to the falling cost of sensors and processors and the introduction of operational smart meters that allow people to monitor and control their energy use, proving that M2M is more than just a pipe dream.

However, the Internet of Things is about much more than just home energy monitoring – it has a role to play in applications and services as diverse as remote health monitoring and diagnosis, dynamic energy loading, and traffic management and road pricing.

For example, US-based company Vitality GlowCaps offers a connected pillbox that reminds patients to take their medication by flashing and playing a ring tone, automatically orders refills from the local pharmacy, and keeps the doctor updated on the patient's adherence to prescriptions.

Logistics firms such as UPS use M2M in their vehicle fleets to optimise driving routes and provide live package tracking information for customers, while several insurance companies now offer usage-based insurance packages which set rates based on actual driving habits.

Forecasts by analysts promise anything from 12 billion to 50 billion connected devices worldwide by 2020 – up from just 1 billion in 2010 – and in the UK, the public and private sector alike are investing in the sensors and networking equipment needed to make future connected cities a reality.

The government recently signed a partnership with chip manufacturer Intel to turn London into a testbed for smart technologies ahead of the Olympics, and is also backing a new smart cities consortium led by Living PlanIT to develop applications that will enable communities to live and work in “an intelligent, efficient and sustainable urban environment”.

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) has launched a competition urging local authorities to turn their cities into “smart cities” by integrating transport, communications and other city infrastructure, for the chance to win £24 million of government investment.

Meanwhile, chip manufacturers such as Intel and ARM have been investing in M2M processors, and telcos have also been getting involved, with Telefonica UK signing a deal with software developer Jasper Wireless to deploy an M2M management platform last month, and Deutsche Telekom launching the first online marketplace for M2M technologies.

Even the academics are playing their part; computer scientists at the University of Glasgow recently announced plans to develop an internet search engine that uses sensors located in the physical world to provide answers to search queries.

Unlocking data

While the industry is tackling many of the technological challenges thrown up by the Internet of Things, one of the biggest barriers to M2M growth is the shortage of accessible data. Putting sensors in appliances is all very well, but if that data cannot move outside the building it becomes difficult to exploit.

According to Maurizio Pilu, Lead Technologist (Digital) at the TSB, developers need to provide incentives for organisations to unlock data by demonstrating how it can be used to create new applications and services through APIs and other mechanisms.

“You have to unlock data, you have to break silos, you have to think about service enablement on top of that data, and you have to think about what you can do with that service enablement to think up new applications and services that were not possible before,” he said.