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The Internet of Things (IoT) is having a major impact on almost every sector of the economy — from consumer electronics to retail technology to heavy industry. Networked devices that can send and receive data open up a wide range of possibilities for many types of automation, including off-site monitoring of machinery, remote control and new autonomous robotics.
The sciences are likely to be significantly impacted by the rise of IoT technology. In the near future, these devices may reshape how laboratories, researchers and educators approach their work.
The IoT in the Laboratory
Networked devices in the laboratory are nothing new. Conventional lab automation technology has long depended on wired and wireless connections to keep automated devices running smoothly and communicating with each other.
However, the IoT creates significant new opportunities for researchers. Several new IoT laboratory platforms add connectivity to physical processes through the use of sensors, monitors and similar devices. Individual IoT sensors can allow for automation-like services — remote control, notifications, data collection dashboards — without the typical investment and training necessary for laboratory automation.
For example, one laboratory may use an IoT sensor to monitor a test, providing researchers with an instant notification when the test is complete.
Another may be able to deploy IoT technology to track the health of laboratory equipment like an evaporative light scanning detector (ELSD). The sensor would provide real-time notice on potential issues the ELSD may have. This enables more effective preventive maintenance that can help laboratory technicians catch problems before they become major issues or interfere with research.
Machine health data could also enable predictive maintenance — a popular IoT application that uses AI and machine sensors to predict when upkeep is necessary. In practice, it can significantly reduce the barriers to entry for laboratory automation. In fields where this is less common, like life sciences, IoT can provide more targeted benefits without the same level of risk or high upfront costs that more conventional solutions may require.
Laboratories are currently facing a labour shortage of trained researchers and laboratory assistants, so this kind of automation can be a lifeline. Even if fewer workers are available and a full lab automation system wouldn’t be practical, rote and tedious tasks can be automated to some extent with an IoT solution.
Beyond Automation: Unique IoT Benefits
In some cases, IoT can also go above and beyond conventional automation by offering things that may not be possible or easy with older or more conventional laboratory automation technology.
Automatic data digitization could provide serious utility for researchers. With IoT technology, test instruments can automatically reveal the results they produce and the exact method researchers use — tracking things like the precise amount of fluid delivered by a micropipette for each trial.
Digitizing documents reduces the amount of labour needed in the lab and the risk of error. Manual transcription of results may result in mistakes, which can significantly change a study or experiment's results. The results will be difficult to reproduce and less useful as a result.
Digitized information would be available as soon as it is captured. Stored data could be instantly made available to research partners around the globe — facilitating communication and potentially reducing the time it takes to move from experimentation to publication.
This style of gathering information would also enable a data lake approach. It would allow labs to make the information available to collaborators, AI analysis modules and on-site informatics systems at the same time.
Centralizing data in this way can streamline the reporting process and help scientists get more value out of the information they collect.
Enabling New Study Data and Streamlined Data Gathering
The IoT is also likely to have a major impact on research that happens outside of laboratories — like medical studies that involve patients who will spend much of their time outside the controlled testing environment.
IoT in life sciences is likely to transform how researchers and doctors gather health data directly related to some of the hardest-to-treat conditions. For example, internet-connected wearables can provide better information to medical professionals. Some diseases are often difficult to observe in a trial or study environment. The continuous remote observation that health wearables provide could help.
The intensity of symptoms like motor fluctuations and tremors in Parkinson’s disease can vary significantly — both day to day and even hour to hour. The gold standard for home monitoring of these symptoms is patient-completed diaries, logs of regular entries that people record about their issues.
To provide the best information, patients and study participants recorded their symptoms often — sometimes as frequently as every two hours while they were awake. If an entry was missed, the diary owners had to backtrack later in the day, often producing less accurate information. The data gathered was also subjective, and patients could sometimes significantly underestimate the severity of their symptoms.
The use of motion-sensing wearables in these studies could continuously provide more objective and quantitative data — all without requiring any change of lifestyle on the study participants’ parts. Information gathered by wearables could also be delivered to researchers in real-time — providing a continuous stream of details on patient symptoms.
This allows people to update their symptom journals less frequently or not at all, depending on what information the researchers want to gather. If patients continue keeping a record, the wearables could help researchers draw new correlations between things like life events or exertion and symptom intensity.
More Trials will Include IoT Wearables
Researchers are already experimenting with the use of IoT in clinical trial design, with one metastudy finding 82 recent trials that had leveraged IoT, AI and similar technology in the trial’s methods.
IoT is also foundational to the new field of smart health studies — or research on the use of networked technology in medical care. The use of wearables and IoT technology has already had a significant impact on the health care industry — and some changes could make vast amounts of patient data available to researchers.
Some hospitals have begun to experiment with the use of IoT wearables for patient monitoring. This could help simplify the care of people who have been discharged from the hospital.
Patients with wearables wouldn’t need to return to the hospital for follow-up visits where they would have their vitals checked. If their health takes a turn for the worse while at home, doctors could also receive an instant alert from the wearable, allowing them to stage the fastest response possible.
De-identified patient data could also provide a valuable resource for public health researchers and other scientists.
IoT in the Sciences Could Transform Research
With the right IoT technology, researchers could streamline their work and gain access to new data. Wearables especially may provide researchers with a wealth of information on public health — potentially transforming how scientists approach their work.