3 things you never knew the Apple iPhone can do

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By Jonny Evans

For all the talk of the Apple [AAPL] adventures in mobile and the consumer product focus of the iDevice/iTunes combo, it's dead easy to neglect some of the more world-changing implementations of mobile technology. In tandem with the nascent Machine-to-machine (M2M) industry and the drive to smart cities, smartphones are already changing the world.

iPhone in agriculture

Look at that video above. It dates from 2009 and shows LoadOut Technologies' iPhone-based grain-loading controls in action. The iPhone here is controlling just how much grain is loaded onto those big trucks. Which is cool in a "look at me I've got a robot" kind of a way, but there's more.

In South Korea this year, melon farmers are installing monitoring systems in 1,000 geographically-dispersed greenhouses. These monitoring systems can be controlled remotely and allow farmers to control feed, watch growth, water plants and more. Greenhouses can be many miles away from a farmer's HQ, so these systems -- accessible via a smartphone or PC -- will deliver real productivity advantages. Or at least give early-rising agriculturalists the chance to take a nap.

A firm called Trimble produces a range of remotely-controlled devices which allow farmers centralized monitoring of seeding systems. These controls aren't just about casting your seed, they're also keeping an eye on growth and more. And because they can be controlled via a Web interface, an iPhone (or other device) suddenly becomes a tool for making the food you eat. I think that's pretty interesting, and hope you do, too.

These are all fascinating solutions as machine-to -machine technologies impact agriculture. These solutions are especially useful in developing economies, where mobile phone use extends to maybe 50 percent of the population (ITU) while fixed broadband and telephony reaches a fraction of that.

This is why 3G networks are springing up across these territories, as infrastructure managers recognize the potential for mobile broadband to deliver significant savings in terms of the cost of installation of fixed systems.

It's good for farmers, too, who, let's face it, are under constant pressure by the big supermarket brands to deliver crops at prices they can't afford to deliver them at. Perhaps, just perhaps, such productivity improvements will help some independent farmers resist the inevitable move toward completely centralized control of food production.

iPhone in medicine

The iPhone's impact on healthcare's pretty widely-known. There's already over 12,000 health-related apps for Apple devices (Mobile Health News). And hospitals across the planet are installing intelligent patient monitoring systems, including 159 of 164 Houston Healthcare hospitals. Such systems offer real-time machine test read-outs to monitoring stations, allow patient access to multimedia, entertainment and up-to-the minute patient records.

It goes much further: In the UK, City University and The Stroke Association are testing iPad/Wii apps to allow stroke victims suffering aphasia (which affects 250,000 in the UK) to communicate with gestures.

There's a few other interesting nuggets I've come across while researching this little slice of "we're already in the Jetsons" prose:

-- 98 percent of US physicians already use mobile solutions (Spyglass).

-- 79 percent of doctors prefer the iPad (Aptilon).

The end result?

The installed base of M2M-connected healthcare devices will exceed 774 million by 2020. (Machina Research). And there's a pretty good chance, given the medical industry preference for the secure walled garden offered by Apple products, that iPhones (and iPads, obviously) will be part of this mix. One system I read about consists of a watch, worn by the patient, that on the press of a single help button will send emails, voice calls and SMS messages to an entire medical team, escalating the contacts reached to scale with the severity of the emergency. These solutions can boost response times to patient emergency and save lives.

And don't even get me started talking about the value of the 'Find My iPhone' feature to families trying to trace the movement of a straying Alzheimer's patient (assuming they're carrying the thing). According to Omnilink systems, 50 percent of Alzheimer's patients will die or become injured if they aren't found within 24-hours.

That's a pretty big ripple effect for the product, don't you think? The potential to help save lives. What else can it do?

iPhone at war

Death they say is life's twin. We all -- to a greater or a lesser extent -- allow our fear of our own mortality to inform our relationships with those around us, ourselves, and the external world.

We can't help ourselves. We're human. We want to be here and in most cases the omnipresence of the great taboo makes us feel a little anxious. And that's alright. We're built that way. But, sadly and in common with the existential truth at the heart of humanity, you can use an iPhone to save lives, and take them, too. I prefer the first use, others see value in the second.

It began small. Way back in May 2009 it was revealed the US Army was using the iPhone and iPod touch as communication/translation devices to help communicate with locals.

At that time the Marine Corps was working on a bunch of app-based iPhone solutions to enable soldiers to upload images of captives to a central database. These things are being used to guide bomb-disabling robots and to view remote video from drones.

Later that year, US defense giant, Raytheon, introduced a range of iPhone apps, such as One Force Tracker (OFT) software lets soldiers track whereabouts of allies and adversaries on maps in real time.

Warfare projects hit a wall of course because defense chiefs want to be able to use iPhones on secured private communication networks (specifically the DOD's Global Information Grid), rather than on those hackable and unreliable consumer networks, which are probably disabled during a warfare situation anyway.

Then last year the Defense Department -- via the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) -- began to authorize the use of Android and iPhone software militarywide, reports the Air Force Times.

Also last year, Boeing and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology commenced development of an iPhone app that may one day be used by the US military to fly unmanned aerial vehicles, InformationWeek reported.

And in future? It isn't so hard to imagine M2M technology being used to control and maneuver battlefield systems en masse, as the age of Robot Wars seems closer each day. (Don't believe me, just look at the video above concerning Tactical Nav, which uses GPS and the iPhone camera to chart coordinates and guide artillery fire.)

So there's three ways the iPhone is changing the way we live today: the food we eat; healing the sick; and making war. These impacts have taken just five years to evolve. This is only a beginning.

Got a story? Drop me a line via Twitter or in comments below and let me know. I'd like it if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when these items are published here first on Computerworld.     

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