Sep 5, 2023

6 min read

Batteryless IoT - What It Is And Why It Matters

Over the past decade, we’ve all seen how dramatically IoT-enabled connected technologies have changed the entire tech landscape. Today, IoT sensors are being deployed in all kinds of objects, bringing about an age of unprecedented connectivity and seamless data-transfer.

From healthcare to agriculture and everything in between, there is no field of human enterprise today that has not benefited in some way from this IoT revolution. IoT sensors confer a huge array of capabilities to systems in which they are deployed, enabling functionalities and features that were previously unheard of. 

In this post, we’ll explore a trend that is quite possibly the biggest thing to happen in the world of IoT in its brief history - batteryless IoT. 

IoT technology in a nutshell

IoT technology essentially works by taking a bunch of sensors which are all designed to gather various kinds of data from their environments and connecting them together as part of a highly capable network. 

This is the basic schema that underlies pretty much any IoT solution - the nature of data gathered and the sophistication of the backend systems might change - but this is the basic blueprint. 

This is probably the simplest way to understand why IoT technology is finding the sort of universal acclaim and acceptance that it is - deploying large numbers of sensors within any environment allows us to track various parameters within that environment in real-time. Armed with these large data-rich sets, we are then able to tweak the various decisions that are made at various levels of the system’s operational hierarchy. 

Let’s take the example of a smart building - these buildings are equipped with sensors that are able to track variables like temperature and ambient humidity in real-time, allowing for automated climate control that makes for incredible energy savings. This is a classic example of using big-data to design better systems and in turn, cut down on resource expenditure. 

This model can be scaled up or down and made to order based on the particular use-case. The sky is truly the limit for the kinds of applications that can be spawned from this basic framework. Today, the market bears testament to this immense range of IoT technology - we have all sorts of cheap, robust sensors that are purpose-built to track various kinds of parameters. The key point here is that we have been able to bring the average price of these sensors down by quite a significant chunk from where they were just a decade ago.

Powering a trillion sensors

Today, IoT is going batteryless. This is monumental for a number of reasons which we’ll look at a little later. Until recently, the IoT industry was left with no choice but to use tiny batteries to power node devices. However, this came with a laundry list of problems - firstly, there was the environmental impact. Batteries are notoriously harsh on the ecosystem and to make matters worse, they also have a spotty human rights record. Perhaps most importantly however, they presented a huge logistical challenge. Batteries were a huge limiting factor on where sensors could go. There was also the cost of maintenance and battery replacements which ate into profit margins. 

When energy harvesting powered sensors first entered the market, they were seen as nothing short of revolutionary. Energy harvesting essentially means collecting stray electromagnetic energy from the surroundings and converting into usable wattage. As of today, there are a number of different energy harvesting methods used in IoT products - RF energy harvesting, solar energy harvesting, piezoelectric energy harvesting etc. Energy harvesting allows small IoT devices to be self-powered and completely eliminates the need for batteries. 

Batteryless sensors come with a serious list of advantages over their traditional, battery-powered competitors. Firstly, they are cheaper to build around - because they eliminate the need to design around a battery, they account for a significant cutdown on bill of material costs. They’re also much easier to maintain because they don’t require battery replacements. This allows for a wider range of use-cases, allowing for sensors to be deployed in remote or hard to reach locations - places where battery replacements would simply be untenable - like inside the human body or large-scale factory equipment. 

This was a huge bottleneck that IoT technology had to contend with in its early years. Innovations were stymied by this battery bottleneck and the technology couldn’t really be developed to its full potential. Energy harvesting based solutions changed this landscape and flipped it on its head - with batteryless IoT, a large part of the challenges that held IoT’s growth thus far would be circumvented. With batteryless, the Internet of Things could now truly spread its wings and take off. 

Green IoT

We are in the midst of an ecological crisis today. Human population on earth is well past the 8 billion mark and it’s not going to slow down anytime soon. Water pollution, soil desertification, air pollution, climate change, food shortage, deforestation and mass extinction are just some of the issues that we face as a global unit. 

There seems to be a good level of awareness among today’s public that decisive action is required from us if we are to meet these challenges and overcome them. 

In this context, batteryless IoT has emerged as a powerful tool in our hands. In addition to being a much more eco-friendly option, batteryless sensors are also being used as part of other solutions aimed at promoting sustainability and reversing environmental damage. 

As we scramble to find newer and more optimised ways of structuring the environment around us, batteryless IoT is going to play an increasingly important role in our lives. Let’s take the example of smart homes from a sustainability perspective - a home equipped with a batteryless IoT solution would have various kinds of dedicated sensors that work together with a backend artificial intelligence to track all sorts of parameters such as ambient temperature, humidity, movement etc. This allows the system to detect aberrational patterns and actuate interventions that promote sustainability. 

For example, energy shortage is a major challenge that we are facing today. Most energy in the world is still produced from oil and gas. A lot of the energy that we generate goes to waste, as it is transmitted from the plant to our homes. Batteryless IoT can be used in smart homes along with other smart, IoT-equipped devices such as smart lights etc to track power consumption in real time and cut down on avoidable energy waste. 

The same principle can also be applied in industrial settings to make sure that we don’t lose precious resources any more than we have to. 

Looking ahead

Batteryless IoT is taking off in a massive way and it looks like this trend isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Today, batteryless sensors are being featured in all kinds of solutions like health monitors, smart farms, predictive maintenance systems, smart homes etc. 

Energy harvesting has emerged as the gold standard for powering IoT node devices and this is allowing batteryless IoT to grow even faster than expected. As more research is done on energy harvesting solutions, we’ll probably be able to take even larger devices off the grid - we don’t know how long it will take but it’s definitely a sign that bodes well for the future of life on this planet.

About the author

Abishek Swaminathen

Senior Content Manager

Abishek is ONiO’s senior content manager. A medical doctor by profession, he stumbled onto a writing career almost by accident, as it were. Words have enthralled Abishek since the day he first held a book and at ONiO, he channels his inner wordsmith towards providing our subscribers with regular doses of fun and informative content.

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