Internet of Things Device Self-Care — A Decentralized Approach

Usage of connected devices and application of sensors are rapidly changing every aspect of our lives. Gartner predicts around 20 billion connected devices by 2020. Clearly Internet of Things (IoT) continues to expand its reach in to our homes, factories and cities. However, large scale deployments of these devices (smart factories, smart grids, smart transportation, smart cities etc) often pose challenges for device maintenance and repair. Currently they are managed by IoT administrators manually which is very time consuming and operations intensive. As these devices breakdown, malfunction or compromised, we need better options for fast and reliable repair considering warranty and insurance options.

Heterogeneity of these devices with multiple vendors with different SLA’s (Service Level Agreements), long standing payment cycles and manual service management with different stakeholders, lack of trust between service providers and customers are some of the major challenges faced by IoT administrators/managers. Blockchain proves to be game changer to address these issues by decentralizing IoT and enabling smart devices as autonomous agents that could self-manage and reduce operation overheads. I will focus on an approach to IoT device self-care using distributed ledger technology (DLT) and blockchain.

Decentralizing IoT networks with Blockchain

Current IoT ecosystems rely on centralized, brokered communication models, otherwise known as the server/client paradigm. All devices are identified, authenticated and connected through cloud servers that sport huge processing and storage capacities. Connection between devices will have to exclusively go through the internet, even if they happen to be a few feet apart.

The traditional method of a broker-based networking system where devices rely on a central cloud server to identify and authenticate individual devices will no longer be sufficient in identifying, connecting, securing and managing a multitude of devices. This is where blockchain, with its distributed-ledger technology, emerges as the go-to technique to manage billions of network nodes and transactions with its enhanced computational requirements.

According to the report “Device Democracy — Saving the future of Internet of Things” , for a decentralized IoT, the blockchain is the framework facilitating transaction processing and coordination among interacting devices. Each manages its own roles and behavior, resulting in an “Internet of Decentralized, Autonomous Things” — and thus the democratization of the digital world

Device manufacturers and service providers could transfer maintenance ownership and responsibility to a community of self-maintaining devices, making the IoT future-proof and saving infrastructure costs on a massive scale, both during the life of a device and long past its obsolescence.

Devices on other hand are empowered to execute these digital contracts on their own, interact with peer devices and other stake holders on their own allowing them to function as self-maintaining and self-servicing devices.

It is imperative to create trust across various stakeholders to realize the true potential of autonomous things and blockchain with smart contracts do have the potential to achieve this vision.

Issues with device care in large scale IoT deployments

In a typical large scale IoT deployment scenario, one or group of administrators continuously monitors and manages all maintenance and repair operations. This process is time consuming with operational overheads due to

  1. Multiple Vendors

Large scale deployments for example smart city or smart factory will have different IoT devices procured from different vendors. Service level agreements vary across vendors and depends on maintenance plan opted in general. During maintenance, vendors and customers must adhere to service level agreements for service quality, payments, work approvals etc. This is a tedious task for both vendors and customers and often end up in poor support and long repair cycles.

2. Payment delays

Vendors often end up creating invoices on recurring basis for approval and payouts from customers. This is a time consuming and often involves additional operational overheads from both the parties thus reducing operational margin. Deviations in service quality from SLA’s and additional costs incurred during maintenance often creates a friction between vendors/service providers and customers.

3. Manual Service (Work Order) management

IoT device malfunction triggers a service initiation to vendors either directly from the device or from the administrator. IoT Administrators/personnel must manage and continuously monitor service agreements, coordinate with relevant stakeholders for warranties, claims and manage work orders. Manual approvals in case of additional works add up to delays in maintenance process.

Decentralized approach

A more decentralized approach for IoT device self-care involves device manufactures, service providers and customers creating service contracts, warranties and insurances on block chain and enabling IoT devices on the other hand execute smart contracts and interact with relevant stake holders to fulfill the contracts without any human intervention.

Often IoT device self-care involves coordination across multiple stake holders ranging from manufacturers, parts dealers, logistics providers, service providers etc , for the sake of simplicity , I will consider two stakeholders and present a sample flow for device self-care on blockchain .Stake holders include

1) IoT Service providers — entity which provides helpdesk, field personnel for repairs and raises invoices and collects payments for the work done

2) Large scale IoT deployment customers (Smart factory, Smart grids, Smart cities etc) — Consists of multiple stakeholders for IoT devices procurement, monitoring, contracts, invoices & payments.

Sample flow for device self care using blockchain
  1. Create Service smart contract

Service smart contracts are digital contracts added by Device manufacture/service provider and endorsed by customers on the blockchain. Service smart contract consists of maintenance plan, expiry date, payment terms, warranty etc

2. Detect IoT device failure

(Step 1) Malfunction in IoT device is detected by a sensor in the device or a system receiving no data/ malformed information from the device. Malfunction/anomaly detection is done using multiple methodologies and will not be discussed in this paper.

3. Initiate service ticket and inform service provider

(Step 2) IoT device executes digital contract on blockchain in case of malfunction, creates a transaction on blockchain and notifies helpdesk of service provider.

(Step 3) Helpdesk schedules service ticket and pass on to repair personnel.

(Step 4) Repair personnel completes job and update ledger on blockchain. This process might involve IoT devices procuring spare parts and getting them replaced by repair personnel.

4. Validate work done by repair personnel

(Step 5) Blockchain triggers a notification to IoT device, which validates the job done using set of rules. Post validation triggers a payment request to process payments.

5. Release Payments

(Steps 6 & 7) Payments are released either from device wallet or wallet linked to device(s). Blockchain allow to transfer payments without the need of intermediator. Blockchain will enable micro transactions thus reducing operation overheads and payment delays

Applicability to consumer IoT devices

Though I focused more on IoT device self-care for large scale deployments, the same can be applied to consumer IoT devices such as home appliances, wearable devices. Smart home devices could for example order spare parts in case of repair, track shipments, get them fixed by service personnel and pay using crypto wallet. Connected cars could schedule periodic maintenance on its own and pay from car wallet. However, scalability and performance issues on blockchain needs to be addressed for IoT devices to work with blockchain.

Technology Entrepreneur ,Architect, Full stack engineer