Orange and SmartKey Unlock Blockchain of Things

Blockchain speeds ahead, enabling faster emergency responses

Blockchain technology has held huge promise in Internet of things (IoT) systems for a long time, but has yet to be widely adopted into them. For many users of IoT, the positioning of blockchain providers in and around the cryptocurrency world can get in the way. These users — particularly in industrial IoT — are generally mainly interested in a solid technology providing a high degree of security, rather than the more visionary aspects of blockchain, which are the source of so much hype and volatility in the industry.

So I was especially interested to see that Orange Poland is now working with SmartKey to create what it calls “blockchain of things” SIM cards for smart city services. The leading use is access control, so that city staff and emergency services’ vehicles have immediate access to sites by automatically activating entry barriers and gates. It’s expected that this will cut response times and help to save lives.

The system is built on Orange’s Live Objects IoT platform, which has more than 2 million machine-to-machine SIM cards registered in Poland. The platform manages the IoT devices involved, including the connection between an emergency vehicle and the controller of a barrier or gate. The blockchain provides virtual keys that give temporary permission for one IoT device to activate another, according to rules set in the IoT platform by the organizations using it. This communication and permission between devices is the novel aspect of the platform.

The roll-out of this blockchain-based IoT system follows an earlier pilot, known as Rescue without Barriers, which involved integrating SmartKey’s blockchain with Orange’s IoT platform and testing the application. Orange plans to provide the access control service in 80 cities in Poland, before eventually offering it internationally.

Access control for moving vehicles is seen as one of the more technically challenging functions of this system, so now that it’s up and running, the two companies expect to develop many other uses. These include control of traffic lights for emergency vehicles, parking, public transport and loading and refuelling commercial vehicles, among others.

There are still other areas for further technical development. The system uses the Message Queuing Telemetry Transport protocol for messaging between devices and the platform, and one area of work aims to tighten and guarantee latency, so that the system doesn’t introduce unwanted delays. Another area of focus is automatic failover in the event of network problems or a platform outage.

In my view, this initiative is a good demonstration of the benefits of blockchain within IoT systems. The direct contact between IoT devices is an early example of something that has been talked about for some time, but not often seen in the wild. It opens up many possibilities and neatly avoids the distraction of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency markets.

However, the more applications are added to the system, the more it will need to be extremely robust. A city can’t afford to stop working because of a single point of failure, like a network outage. But that should be seen as an opportunity to work with other mobile operators — either for national roaming or integrating with their IoT systems — as well as with many other IoT suppliers.

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