Will that M2M solution work? AT&T is hacking the answer

Will that M2M solution work? AT&T is hacking the answer

3D printer scan, via AT&T

It's easy to get excited about machine-to-machine solutions for optimizing energy consumption, getting more efficient about waste management, conserving water and all manner of "smart" applications.

Figuring out whether an idea will work in the real world is far more difficult, but that's the mission of the AT&T Foundry, a network of five prototyping centers where customers and partners can mock up M2M ideas.

The Foundry is financed with $100 million from AT&T and "sponsors" including Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, Amdocs, Intel and Microsoft. Since it was created three years ago, it has started more than 200 projects and deployed dozens of new apps and services, according to the Foundry's website.

"The concept came out of our corporation's desire to be able to do things faster and accelerate the idea of ideation and getting things to market," said Craig Lee, director of the AT&T M2M Foundry in Plano, Texas. There are two separate operations in Plano, along with operations in Israel, Atlanta and Palo Alto, Calif.

To be clear, the AT&T Foundry network isn't just focused on applications for sustainability or green business purposes: It also has a hand in practical research being conducted into broader m-health or near-field communications tasks.

From idea to working prototype in one hour

But Lee said many prototypes being considered for the Plano M2M facility have an efficiency or green twist. One new example is a "smart garbage" application that could help businesses or municipal governments optimize trash pick-up schedules. Barcelona, Spain, is piloting a similar idea in the real world.

The solution mocked up by AT&T Foundry team includes wireless sensors that can be placed on trash bins to monitor how heavy or full they have become, so drivers assigned to fixed routes know whether it's worth making a stop at certain locations, cutting down on fuel consumption. Alternatively, the technology can alert managers if someone is trying to tamper with the contents of a container or whether some sort of other service or maintenance is required.AT&T Foundry

The prototype requested by a shredding company was up and running in less than one hour, Lee said. "Instead of spinning up a pilot, we can quickly determine whether an idea is workable and provide early feedback," he said.

These projects are very much a collaborative effort. The organizations hoping to investigate a concept are generally nominated by one of AT&T's business divisions and then assigned to an AT&T Foundry location where the appropriate technologies and skill sets are available (the focus of each is slightly different) for them to tap.

"Generally, they will be folks who are coaches, who will interact with customers and partners. We set up a collaborative physical space. No one has an office, everything is on wheels and it has a small startup feel to it," Lee said.

In the Plano location, for example, a staff of six very specialized M2M engineers can handle several prototyping assignments simultaneously. Their skills include experience in radio frequency technologies, circuit board design, firmware development, chassis and housing design, and application development.

Organizations working with AT&T also gain access to components, testing equipment and resources available to aid with creation, including high-end 3-D printers, printed circuit boards and other custom antennae to bring up a piece of equipment and make it "think" it is a cellular site.

"We have a 'maker' building philosophy," Lee said.

The process is intended to answer questions such as whether data monitoring intervals are appropriate, what environmental factors might interfere with communications, the potential cost of using certain approaches (such as energy harvesting versus batteries) or how long a solution might be viable in the field before the batteries should be replaced.

Roughly speaking, each project takes 10 to 12 weeks to complete, before a determination can be made about next steps.

"Maybe we won't be able to succeed half of the time, but those failures are also a good thing," Lee said. "Ultimately, we were able to prove out the feasibility of the concept."

Other places to test M2M ideas

AT&T isn't the only large high-tech company dedicating resources to research and development focused on the Internet of Things (and incubators are all over the United States and world at the federal and local level).M2M under the microscope

Another corporation with a particular focus on this is Cisco, which in late July announced its intention to open an 18,500-square-foot Global Internet of Everything Center in Barcelona as part of a new Smart City Campus. The company intends to invest $30 million in the campus between 2015 and 2020 on IT equipment, restoration and talent. Cisco is building five IoE centers around the world. Current centers are in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Songdo, South Korea, with planned facilities in Germany and Canada.

"Global IoE innovation centers — like the one just announced for Barcelona — will support customers, partners, start-ups, governments, research bodies and academia," said Anil Menon, president of Smart and Connected Communities and Cisco deputy chief globalization officer, in a statement. "These centers represent powerful hubs capable of galvanizing innovative thinking into influential new strategies for defining and building the next iteration of our cities and of our world."

A corporate-sponsored, non-profit center for emerging smart city technologies is being built in San Jose, Calif., by Prospect Silicon Valley with the idea of helping create a demonstration center for next-generation urban applications and services as they evolve, such as solar power management system, energy efficiency applications, smart grid storage and so forth.

The $12 million, 22,000-square-foot facility is being backed by sponsors including Applied Materials Foundation, BMW, Bright Green San Jose, Cisco, Continental, DENSO, Siemens, Toyota and Wells Fargo. Arup, Cooley, Faurecia and Transportation Technology Ventures also have pledged support.

Learn more about sustainability and technology at VERGE SF, Oct. 27-30. Top image of a 3D printer scan vai AT&T