The Internet of Things (IoT) is predicated on the ability to monitor, measure, process and analyse parameter data such as moisture, pressure, speed, and movement. Unlike Cognitive AI that concept is hard to hype, says freelance writer, Bob Emmerson. Moreover, it’s hard to summarise what is meant by Internet of Things to a lay audience. Try it. Nevertheless, that amorphous ability is bringing tangible results in energy management, resource conservation, waste management, air quality monitoring, and smart agriculture.
The IoT wasn’t designed to save the world, but Nordic Semiconductor believes that we won’t solve many of the world’s major environmental (climate change, freshwater) and societal issues (aging populations, feeding a record global population) without it. The technology will do it mainly in a million small ways that could prevent the planet from passing a tipping point. The company is upfront with its conviction, which should not be confused with greenwashing, i.e., making broad sustainability claims without evidence.
But and it is a big but the industry needs to be upfront about the negative impact of various IoT developments. The energy consumed by the internet and the cloud infrastructure required to support IoT applications should be considered. In addition, there is the impact of the batteries that power the low-power devices. Exotic materials such as lithium must be mined, the batteries must be fabricated, be distributed around the world, and then be safely disposed.
Billions of connections
Billions of wireless and cellular sensors will connect tomorrow’s world. Cisco estimates that within a decade the figure could exceed 50 billion and many of those will be powered by batteries. Even if they function for a decade, millions will need to be changed every day. Deployment will be facilitated by 5G’s mMTC (Massive Machine-Type Communications) service that supports over one million devices per square kilometre.
To overcome this challenge, tomorrow’s wireless sensors will need to harvest energy from the environment, employ clever chips to frugally manage the power budget, and ensure that cellular IoT connectivity makes the most of every microwatt. Constant battery replacements would decline, and a different, more sustainable future could be realised.
The hydrogen smart meter economy represents a similar challenge. Pilot schemes with hydrogen blending are underway as a means to meet carbon-emission targets. Unfortunately no domestic hydrogen meters are currently available to measure and charge for gas usage. Conventional meters measure gas flow using a mechanical system based on a diaphragm. Because of the small hydrogen molecular size, hydrogen diaphragm meters would need to be about three times bigger and that is an impractical, costly limitation.
Ultrasonics and energy harvesting
One option is to replace mechanical diaphragm meters with ultrasonic devices. But because the speed of sound in hydrogen is around three times faster than that in natural gas, significantly better timing precision is needed. U.K.-based MeterTech has responded to this challenge and launched a smart meter that uses advanced ultrasonic functionality to make hydrogen metering practical.
Devices that harvest energy and meters that measure consumption at ultrasonic speeds are just two examples of the many ways that IoT is creating new technologies and enabling fundamental changes in the way environment issues are being addressed. In addition, IoT continues to provide accurate, timely information and intelligence on the full range of environmental parametres.
The auhtor is Bob Emmerson, a freelance writer, an English national who lives in the Netherlands.