If you’ve kept up to date with the latest gadgets for home security, entertainment, lighting or kitchen appliances, you’ve probably come across the term “Internet of Things” (IoT). But what is the Internet of Things exactly, and is it safe to use?

The simplest Internet of Things definition would go something like this: “the extension of internet connectivity to everyday objects such as speakers, ice boxes, or microwave ovens.” The idea is that, by connecting these devices up to the broader web, manufacturers can give users extra capabilities and make their products generally “smarter”. But that’s just a general internet of things definition.

In reality, the answer to what is the internet of things is much more complex, interesting and – potentially – game-changing. So lets drill down into some areas where internet of things devices are making a huge difference to get a handle on what it’s all about.

IoT smart home applications

It turns out that there are numerous far-reaching Internet of Things applications. But the most immediate and possibly most exciting applications for everyday users can be found at the heart of the home.

If you’ve renovated your home recently or bought a new high-end appliance, you might have seen the “smart” label applied to appliances. From Smart TVs to Smart Air Con units, home essentials are being rebranded at breakneck pace as internet of things devices.

This isn’t just an advertising gimmick. These devices often have impressive features thanks to IoT functionality. For instance, Philips Hue Lighting systems let you change their color via your smartphone, and set up routines which automate lighting. HiSense have come up with portable air con units which have wi-fi compatibility, while companies like iSmartAlarm have come up with smart security systems as well.

The idea behind an IoT smart home is that devices like this can be tied together via hubs like Amazon’s Echo, Logitech’s Harmony controllers or Google Home (along with ordinary smartphones). So you can control anything that happens within your walls, often via voice commands.

The uses of IoT in healthcare

While IoT smart home tech is making it easier to control the devices we use at home, there are some even more dramatic (and even life-saving) Internet of Things applications in the healthcare sector.

Some of the most exciting involve remote health monitoring. For example, those with high blood pressure or heart problems can use sensor devices to track their health, and this data can be delivered to their physician instantly. Telehealth devices also allow experts to monitor patients with reduced mobility, reducing the need for difficult hospital visits.

Hospitals themselves have also pioneered uses for IoT in healthcare, creating systems to instantly flag up bed vacancies, providing advance warnings of issues with complex medical equipment and assisting with drug management to ensure that stocks of vital medicine are kept at the optimum level.

So IoT in healthcare is serving a dual function: enhancing the ability of patients to live independently and own their own health, while giving doctors extra tools to work effectively.

How IoT wearables are changing the way we live

Wearables have become a hot topic in recent years, with the introduction of ambitious projects like Google Glass, the rise of fitness trackers and the triumph of Apple’s smart watches. And many of these wearable products are incorporating IoT frameworks to deliver a range of radical features.

Many of the most exciting applications for IoT wearables can be found in professional environments. To take one example, workers on demanding oil and gas projects are using wearable cameras and analytical tools to communicate with control teams and assess things like pipeline damage.

On a more mundane level, smart technology is becoming routine as a means of communication, allowing everyone to receive messages or calls, even without a phone in their pocket. And wearables are also making waves in the payments sector, both among sales staff and buyers. When swiping a wearable device acts like a traditional payment, queues at sales registers could become a thing of the past.

The benefits of IoT smart city technology

So far, we’ve mainly considered internet of things devices which enhance the abilities of individuals, whether they are home owners, doctors or engineers. But there’s a much broader way to use IoT frameworks which is being embraced across the world: IoT smart city applications.

“Smart cities” differ from normal communities in many ways. Most importantly, they incorporate sophisticated sensors into the way urban services are provided. This provides an unprecedented amount of information to managers and companies who keep towns running.

This could mean monitoring the health of hundreds of thousands of people to prevent epidemics, or to sense bush fires as soon as they break out, keeping neighborhoods safe. Smart water meters can help utilities improve the way they detect leaks or supply customers, while traffic signals can be hooked up to IoT frameworks, allowing city technicians to calibrate the flow of vehicles through downtown areas.

The overarching concept is that by collecting high-quality data, cities can learn more about how critical systems are operating and deal with problems in real time. That’s only really been possible since the IoT came about.

The many uses of industrial IoT

The collection and mobilization of data collected by IoT devices isn’t limited to urban authorities. It’s also being rapidly integrated into industrial settings of all kinds. In fact, the use of IoT technology was largely driven by large-scale industrial users such as power generators or water companies, and they continue to lead the way.

In many manufacturing companies, internet of things devices are now crucial parts of their production, storage and ordering systems. Manufacturing lines are dictated by quotas derived from real-time sensors, stock can be instantly located even in massive warehouses, and staff can be deployed to make the best use of their skills.

Industrial IoT devices also make it much easier to detect faults when they occur. This can be particularly useful in challenging environments, from sewage networks to nuclear reactor cores. Where staff may find it difficult to assess damaged facilities, IoT devices can do so automatically.

Hardly any industrial sector has been left untouched by the Internet of Things, and the reasons are obvious. Industrial organizations want control without sacrificing efficiency. Industrial IoT devices let them calibrate their production systems as circumstances change, while putting them more in control than ever.

Boosting productivity with IoT in agriculture

You might think that Internet of Things applications are more suited to indoor settings like factories or hospitals, but this isn’t exactly true. Actually, agricultural businesses are some of the most innovative users of the technology. IoT in agriculture could be the most revolutionary application of all.

IoT and agriculture are a natural fit because growing crops requires a deep knowledge of things like soil nutrients, moisture, temperature and humidity. Each crop has its own needs regarding nutrients and responds differently to tools like pesticides or fertilizers (if farmers choose to use them). IoT technology makes it much easier to analyze soil and the environment to ensure that each seedling gets the attention it needs.

Similarly, when watering systems are connecting to IoT frameworks, farmers can ensure that each field receives the water it needs, and that water is used as efficiently as possible. In a world of worsening water stress due to climate change, this kind of efficiency-boosting tech is essential.

And the benefits of IoT in agriculture aren’t likely to be recouped by large farms alone. Small organic growers have found benefits of using remote sensors to keep their land pest and weed-free, while minimizing the need for vehicle usage. At times, the news isn’t all good for the environment, but uses of IoT in agriculture seem to be a positive development, promising more efficient food production and resource consumption.

How to safely reap the benefits of the Internet of Things

As we’ve seen, the IoT has some exciting potential applications. But it’s important to note that many experts have expressed concern about the security implications of the technology.

So, if you intend to use IoT smart home tech or implement industrial IoT, it pays to consider security when you do so. In this context, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are an effective tool to insulate your home or business from external threats, along with basic security measures like training staff to use passwords safely. And keeping anti-virus patches up to date is also vital.

But the real story isn’t that the IoT is vulnerable. It’s that the Internet of Things holds huge potential, both for our homes, cities, farms and factories.