Seven IoT use-cases for a sustainable future
An increasing number of people are starting to get clued up on the various environmental challenges facing us as a global community. This has already been the case for a couple of decades, but today unlike any other time in the past, people are actually putting their money where their mouths are.
As a species, we have managed to organise the essentials of our life better than ever before. Today, at least those of us living in the developed world have more access to food, shelter and resources than any generation before. Today’s consumer wants to assert his convictions and concerns through his purchasing decisions.
In keeping with this growing demand, manufacturers and businesses have come up with all manner of ecology-focused initiatives and products in order to stay relevant to the modern consumer.
When the Internet of Things started taking off in a big way a few years ago, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the potential environmental applications. Cut to a few years later and we know today that the hype was not misguided. In recent years, IoT technology has emerged as a substantial force in our environmental efforts.
There are a number of ways in which IoT is being used towards sustainability. In this section below, we will explore some of the more popular and relatable IoT-based solutions in the market today.
1. Soil Conservation and Restoration
Desertification is a very real threat to the continued existence of life on this planet. In an earlier article, we’d covered this underreported issue in great detail.
The gist is this - when soils are rich in organic matter, the food that is grown in them is nutritionally dense and therefore, healthy. Conversely, when soils start losing organic content at a rapid rate, they lose their water holding capacity, leading to desertification. Moreover, food grown in these desertified soils is woefully short on vital nutrients that are essential for life to thrive at its best.
IoT sensors enable us to monitor various parameters in soil on a real-time basis, supplementing deficiencies and in turn, growing high-quality produce.
2. Smart Energy Management
Recent geopolitical events have placed an enormous strain on the global energy market. Human energy consumption is skyrocketing and demand has simply not been able to keep up. How we are going to navigate this energy shortfall is another topic for another day.
But there’s a bigger problem that confronts us now - even the energy that we produce isn’t used efficiently. At each stage of the energy generation and distribution process, there is enormous wastage and rectifiable losses.
Today, IoT systems are being used at various points along the energy production chain, in a bid to minimise losses and improve efficiency. Smart meters, smart grids, smart HVAC systems are all various use-cases that employ state-of-the-art IoT networks in order to regulate usage and make sure we don’t waste energy mindlessly.
Initially, these technologies were prohibitively expensive and only made economic sense for large-scale business and manufacturing operations. But today, thanks to the advent of cheap and reliable semiconductor chips, we are witnessing a large-scale adoption of these smart energy monitoring technologies even in residential buildings and small businesses.
Increasingly, as various smart city projects around the world come into their own, we will see these smart energy monitoring technologies play an even more prominent role in how energy is distributed and consumed.
3. Water management
Water is, along with air and food, is the most critical resource for life to thrive on this planet. For most of us in the developed world, we have long since gone past the stage where we need to fret about our water supply.
However, in economically challenged regions of our world, availability of clean drinking water is still an extremely precarious challenge. Millions of people around the world are hard-pressed to find high-quality, potable water, even today.
There are a number of ways in which IoT systems are being used to combat water scarcity and promote more sustainable water use - Most prominent among these technologies is smart water management.
Smart water management essentially refers to using IoT sensors in order to monitor real-time water usage and adjust the outflow of water accordingly. Needless to say, many of the technologies and manufacturing processes that enable the modern world are rather water intensive - Until we find alternative solutions, these processes will continue to remain water intensive. However, much like in the case of energy, there is a lot of wastage that can be avoided.
Today, thanks to the rapid advances that are being made in the IoT space, we are able to assemble solutions that can offer us a window into the intricacies of the water cycle. We are able to optimise solutions in accordance with best-practice recommendations and account for large volumes of water conserved in addition to dollars saved.
On a smaller scale, IoT-based smart water meters and smart taps are making it possible for the end-consumer to bring a degree of mindfulness and temperance to his/her personal water consumption.
A large section of the society, especially in the developed world, is highly primed to the threat of water scarcity and is keen to embrace solutions that promote the sustainable and sensible use of water.
In addition to just economising on water usage, there are a number of other ways in which IoT is being employed in this area - for instance, IoT sensors are being used to track the quality of water in real-time. IoT sensors today can alert us about dangerous levels of toxic materials or infective agents in our water, well before any untoward events occur. A notable example is a recent project which was developed in order to detect a harmful species of pneumonia-causing bacteria called Legionella in Britain.
4. Wildlife conservation
This is another new use-case that is fast becoming relevant in the eco-tech space. Increasingly, a number of conservation efforts targeted at endangered species have taken to using IoT sensors to track endangered animals.
Large carnivorous predators such as tigers and leopards are dying out very quickly. These apex predators have a massive influence on the ecosystems they inhabit. This means that any conservation effort is bound to take them and their population numbers into account, if it wants to be effective. The problem is that these animals are often very reclusive and in spite of their vulnerable living conditions, they are very hostile to interaction with humans. In these contexts, IoT collars and other IoT-based alarm systems have proved to be invaluable in directing conservation efforts.
Thanks to IoT systems, the personnel involved in these projects are able to have an easier time of monitoring the real-time numbers of these endangered species. In areas of the world where illegal poaching remains a major problem, these sensor-based systems can be remarkably effective in making sure unwanted threats to endangered populations are thwarted effectively.
Many cases in recent times have emerged, wherein wildlife authorities could plan a successful rescue operation after being alerted about an animal in distress. This has been possible primarily because batteryless sensors and self-powered MCUs have started cropping up in the market at reasonably affordable prices.
5. Waste Management
The UN estimates that by 2050, we will produce about 70% more solid waste than we do today. THis poses an incredible logistical and ecological challenge to mankind. As more and more people congregate in the various urban conurbations of the world, we will have to surmount ever-rising challenges in terms of waste management.
Existing garbage infrastructure including large bins and landfills are fast filling up, what with the tons and tons of waste that we produce every day - within a few years, we are looking at a situation where increasing levels of toxic waste could start to cause serious public health problems.
It is in this context that IoT-based waste management systems have come into the spotlight in recent years. Today, smart waste management is predominantly looked at as a municipality level endeavour that has exceptional potential on that scale - however, with the sort of state-of-the-art IoT systems that we are able to put together these days, IoT-based waste management systems also have exceptional promise when it comes to dealing with waste-disposal at an enterprise level.
Here’s an example - say you are a mid-scale industrial operation. You would typically have a garbage truck scheduled to pick up waste from your facility, say 5 days a week. The amount of waste that the enterprise generates is a variable entity that we have traditionally not been able to account for. This means that sometimes, the garbage disposal truck is running half empty and some other times, due to increased production, they are made to go on multiple trips.
Either situation represents a gross misallocation of resources - translating to a higher burden of cost to the company - but more importantly, a gross over-expenditure of precious and finite resources.
With IoT-based smart technology, garbage disposal systems can be engineered to work in a much more intuitive, efficient and smart manner - for instance, today, we have systems that are able to monitor large waste-disposal containers in real-time, alerting facility managers when they are about to get filled. Subsequently, it is possible to tailor-make plans to have the waste disposed off properly, pre-empting any public health hazard before it occurs. Moreover, such a system also makes a lot of financial sense for the facility.
The system is able to scour waste-receptacles for highly granular data that is made available to the operations side of the business, translating into higher efficiency, fewer trips and therefore, more profit.
The same principle can be extrapolated and applied to waste management on a residential level as well.
6. Precision agriculture
Food security is one of our biggest collective challenges as we march ahead into the future. With the global human population skyrocketing at an unimaginable rate, an enormous strain is being placed on our agricultural soils, which are already in pretty bad shape thanks to decades of relentless overfarming and exorbitant chemical use.
If we are to feed this growing population of 8 Billion plus people, we are going to have to find ways to increase the efficiency of food production drastically, without compromising on the quality of our soils.
Precision farming using IoT technology has emerged as a desirable option against this backdrop.
Precision farming or smart farming essentially refers to an agricultural operation that is designed from the ground-up to have a highly sophisticated IoT-based system overlooking various aspects of its inner workings.
Today, we have all manner of sensors - pressure sensors, humidity sensors, soil pH sensors, temperature sensors, NPK sensors etc - that are being deployed en-masse in tandem with AI systems, in farms around the world.
Thanks to these technologies, farmers are able to find a peep-hole into the inner workings of their operations, allowing them to calibrate their interventions in a highly precise and controlled manner.
With tons of real-time data pouring into the system across various parameters and variables, the farmer is now able to obtain a level of insight into his crops, which further increases yields and helps circumvent losses due to undesirable events such as floods, poor weather, natural calamities etc.
More importantly, when crops are grown with this level of precision, it becomes easier to ensure that they reach the end-consumer’s plates with a healthy nutrient profile. With fears about the declining nutritional quality of food increasing manifold among people, precision agriculture has emerged as a strong use-case for modern IoT-based technologies.
The impact of using these systems extends beyond short-term benefits- like we mentioned earlier in this article and in earlier posts, the entire ecosystem works as one whole - when human agricultural practices start becoming detrimental to soil quality, this precarious ecological balance goes haywire, causing mass extinctions and perhaps more relevantly to us, desertification.
When we adopt highly-precise agricultural methods by employing these smart farming technologies, we are also giving ourselves the best chance to use our soil equitably and retain its intactness for longer.
7. Batteryless technology
This one is slightly different compared to the other use cases we’ve mentioned in this article. Firstly because, this is not so much a use-case as it is a new technological standard within the world of IoT devices and microelectronics.
Energy harvesting has now emerged as the power solution of choice for IoT devices. Before energy harvesting became the rage that it now is within the IoT world, we looked to batteries of various ilks to power our nifty IoT-tech.
However, batteries represent an ecological threat so vast in its scope and destructiveness, that the other ecological threats we’ve mentioned in this post so far seem trivial.
If IoT truly realises its massive potential and continues to remain predominantly battery-powered, that would lead to some pretty grim consequences. First of all, batteries are produced in a hugely problematic way, employing large numbers of child labourers and often destroying entire ecosystems in the process. And that’s not all. At the end of their use cycle, they present another massive problem - safe disposal. As we’d mentioned earlier in the waste management section, this is a problem easier spoken about than dealt with.
This is why batteryless IoT has emerged as such a beacon of hope for so many industry insiders and onlookers alike. Today, thanks to energy harvesting technologies like piezoelectric energy harvesting and RF energy harvesting, we are able to create fully functional IoT microelectronics such as MCUs and various kinds of dedicated sensors that are 100% self-powered - i.e. at the end of their life cycle, there will be no batteries that go into our landfills.
More than just the tangible and immediate benefits that batteryless IoT brings to the table, there is the immeasurable hope that it gives to those in pursuit of more sustainable power solutions on a larger scale. Granted, as things stand today, we will not be able to power entire neighbourhoods or even a factory with energy harvesting technology - but here’s the thing - every last coin cell counts. Every little battery that we save from ending up in landfills is making the world a better place, while also serving as a massive inspiration for future innovations, which could possibly go even further and bring about even greater ecological and economic benefits.