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Tao Bao and the Internet of Things

There are thousands of electric-powered delivery vehicles in Beijing, adding another hazard to a walk across the street. These one-man bicycle-cum-carts are piloted by intense men (and a few women) delivering everything an urban population desires: perfume, pullovers, pillows and pizza. Ad hoc delivery zones have popped up around apartments and office buildings.

The explosion of these delivery services, coupled with the growth of online mega-retailer “Tao Bao,” is another manifestation of the pervasive growth of the Internet of Things (IoT). Nowhere is this more evident than in metropolitan China where connectedness has re-shaped modern life.

IoT at Work
IoT at Work

Beijing, China

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“DiDi ate Uber,” LiHua said, looking down and scrolling on her phone.1

“Really?” I asked. “When?”

“A few months ago. Imagine that only a few years before, there was no DiDi. Now it’s the biggest car service company in China.”

“Wow. That’s amazing. Did you call our car?”

“Yes,” she answered, brushing aside her hair as she stepped towards the curb and peered into the oncoming traffic. “A black Honda, license number ends with ZQ4. I asked for a bigger car because American friends are bigger.”

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“Hah!” I replied. “Very funny.”

The car arrived, a Honda Pilot, and we climbed in. I was, in fact, grateful for the bigger vehicle and extra legroom, having just spent the last 14 hours squeezed into an aluminum tube. We reached our destination and my friend tapped her phone to pay the driver; the ride from the airport cost 80 RMB, about 12 bucks.

Through car-hiring services like DiDi and Wechat, China’s economy is quickly becoming cashless, a manifestation of the growth of the Internet of Things or “IoT.”

Package Pickup in Peking
Package Pickup in Peking

Newark, New Jersey

The IEEE has recently launched a technical community delving into IoT, also known as Cyber-Physical Systems and various other monikers, all describing massive development in connectivity, control, sensing and communications.

The initiative, led by the Communications Society, is a membership-based committee composed of various representatives from other societies, including EMC, Consumer Products, Computers and others. Every segment of our modern world will be touched by and benefit from the growth of IoT. It’s not excessive hyperbole to posit that every technical and social aspect of our lives can construed to be a subset of IoT.

With over 300 different organizations trying to claim the leadership of the IoT space, the IEEE represents a strong brand with broad technical coverage across its 500,000 members. The initiative was born out of “IEEE Corporate” and is now a stand-alone entity with specific aims and objectives, including conferences, summits, publications and related activities.

It is estimated that the global “Digital Economy,” represented by the likes of Google, Amazon, TaoBao, Uber and others represents 40% of the equity of the planet. This is an astonishing fact and creates some challenges for picking what part of the IoT can be managed and built. The challenges are many, so are the threats.

Down on the Farm

The sectors under the IoT umbrella are many and varied. Consider agriculture, for example: The automation of farming has reduced the farm working population to about one percent of the US population. Highly mechanized tractors and combines roam the heartland, GPS-positioned and networked into the cell system (IoT is a huge growth sector for the carriers as machine-to-machine connections outstrip ordinary voice calls). The systems convey information regarding crop production, machine performance, local moisture conditions, fuel consumption—every imaginable critical farming parameter—into centralized databases for processing and storage. The result is a fine-tuned approach to information-based planning and production.

The need for intensive data processing has evolved computer networks as well as the evolution of information systems rapidly advances. The development of information systems continually changes. Whereas much of this information processing has moved to the Cloud, the need to reduce latency has pushed some of this processing away from the center of the cloud to the periphery. The architecture for processing and communications on the edge of the Cloud has been coined “Fog Computing.”

A similar framework in the agriculture sector can be applied to the eventual widespread rolling out of driverless cars. Connected vehicles will share information about instantaneous traffic, road hazards, weather, icing conditions and fuel consumption to central computers.2 An immediate application of this is fleet management, such as the delivery vehicles in Beijing. Perhaps, one day, the couriers that pilot the little carts circling the Forbidden City won’t be flesh and blood.

Even Uber is, reportedly, investigating the use of driverless cars.

Blacksburg, Virginia

Which brings up the compliance community. With the automation, control, communications, data processing and information collection, the compliance issues will be enormous. The potential for interference and spectrum contention, for example, means that RF guys will be busy for a long time. The implementation of hazards-based safety analysis will be critical for minimizing the potential safety problems in autonomous systems.

Virginia Tech recently piloted a program that delivers Chipotle burritos to students on the campus via drones. The system apparently deploys burrito trucks that load the burrito onto an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) which then flies to a kiosk where hungry future engineers can receive a steamy beef and cheese food bomb. Nevermind the long-term hazard of a burrito-laden diet, any autonomous system needs to have tight safeguards to guard against small and large disasters.


“Hackers Hijack Video Cameras” is the headline of a recent Wall Street Journal piece.3 Physical security is just part of the potential Achilles’ heel of the IoT. According to the article, hackers attacked an estimated 1 million Internet-connected cameras and digital video recorders. By taking advantage of these devices, which were typically sold to consumers and were running outdated firmware, the hackers managed to stream upwards of 700 gigabits per second from victim websites, a data “equivalent to 140,000 high definition movies streaming at once.”

That’s a lot of data. A large part of the challenge is to get consumers and Netizens to update firmware. As a user that routinely dismisses update reminders to my own devices, I count as one of the guilty many. “There are tens and tens of millions of these embedded devices out there, but they ship by default with poor security.” Many of the compromised devices had no or very weak passwords. In orchestrating these attacks, hackers turn these devices into virtual data sorcerer’s apprentices.

Go Around, Come Around

It may be a little ironic that the manufacturer of many of the compromised cameras–which are largely sold online through retailers like Amazon and its Chinese counterpart, TaoBao– is the Chinese firm Dahua. So it’s entirely possible that some of those compromised cameras and DVRs were delivered by the same motorized delivery carts that ply the streets of Beijing.  Without a doubt, the IoT is a big enabler. In any event, the challenges are big, the opportunities bigger, but that’s the reality of the Internet of Things.


  2. Apparently, in order to ‘train’ computers to drive autonomous vehicle, developers are using video gaming algorithms like “Grand Theft Auto to simulate urban dangers. (NPR’s “Wait-Wait Don’t Tell Me.” September 14, 2016)
  3. Wall Street Journal. September 30, 2016


author_violette-mike2Mike Violette is founder of Washington Laboratories and American Certification Body. Mike can be reached at

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