Solving Our Biggest Global Challenges With Batteryless IoT Technology
As the scale of human civilization reaches a zenith that has never been witnessed before in history, we are seeing the rise of cataclysmic threats that are challenging the very foundations of the way we live. There is enormous pressure on humanity to rise up together to face these challenges with as much unanimity we can muster.
Our climate is changing. Our forests are shrinking. Our soils are dying. Our oceans are getting polluted at a terrifying rate. Our air has steadily become more and more poisonous over the past few decades. Microplastics have penetrated our biosphere to such an extent that they are now being found in breast milk. Flora and fauna are going extinct at an unprecedented rate. Economic disparities are worsening. People are becoming more depressed and addicted to substances. Anxiety and mental health issues are at an all time high. More people than ever before are obese and suffering from chronic health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, auto-immune diseases than ever before.
Ok. Let’s take a breath together.
That’s a lot of stuff to process. But here's the thing - we have to process it. There’s nobody coming to help us. We need to find a way to deal with these challenges by ourselves. This is not to say that the world has been on a doomsday trajectory - not at all - over the past few centuries we have managed to build a world that offers more stability, peace and wealth to its inhabitants than any past version ever could.
This is not an attempt to malign the role of industrialisation or economic development. Far from it. This is merely an attempt to take a careful and considered look at some of the biggest challenges confronting us as a species. And this is by no means a comprehensive list either. The idea is this - much like we have a tendency to procrastinate and avoid taking action as individuals, we also exhibit the same tendency as collectives. We tend to delay taking action until the consequences of not taking action become dire and immediate. With the laundry list of problems that are confronting us today, we simply can’t afford to be cavalier.
Sorry if that sounds like proselytising to you. But here’s the thing - we are not going on about these grim-sounding issues just to bum ourselves (and you) out. That’s not what we’re after. If anything, we love the modern world with all its amazing possibilities - this post is going to be an attempt to see how some of these modern possibilities could be used to turn things around and face these titanic challenges head-on.
In the last 10 years or so, the world has borne witness to an IoT revolution. The IoT revolution is the result of decades of work put into breaking the internet past the shackles of traditional computing devices and throwing open its enormous power into the wide open world.
The result of this revolution is plain to see in pretty much every walk of life - there’s not a single industry that hasn’t undergone a dramatic transformation thanks to the IoT revolution. To the uninitiated, the term IoT can seem a bit esoteric and hard to comprehend - but it’s quite simple really - IoT, or Internet of Things is nothing but a system of interconnected objects that are able to interact with each other and with the internet. Much like phones or computers, except with IoT, every kind of object is fair game - sneakers, pens, farm equipment - well you name it.
Why has IoT been so revolutionary to the way we go about our lives you ask?
Well, the answer is simple - all the artefacts of civilisation that we see around us - from buildings, to automobiles, all the way down to the simplest trappings of modern human life - are all a direct result of one thing - human intelligence. Any piece of technology or even an entire industry represents distilled intelligence and an incrementally increasing warehouse of information or knowledge.
This is why IoT is so powerful. It takes this precious commodity of intelligence and makes it millions of times less scarce than it has ever been before - i.e it makes intelligence or to be more specific, processing power, exponentially more abundant. This is why the effects of the IoT revolution have been so universal - across all areas, industries and levels of operation.
Any process, any industry, any application - regardless of its inner workings or intricacies, can always benefit from more intelligence and more data.
So how does all this work in real life?
Pretty simple really - at the core of any IoT network are a few basic components - there is the data gathering arm of the operation - which is facilitated by wireless sensors - these sensors, within the context of IoT systems, are called nodes. If we were to compare an IoT network to a biological neural network, these nodes perform the role of receptors - little cells in our body that can pick up sound, heat, touch etc. Similarly, wireless sensors are able to pick up various kinds of information from their environment.
Then, we have the processing arm of the operation - the backend. These can be understood as the brains behind IoT networks - they help IoT systems process the enormous amount of data gathered by the sensors. Today, thanks to an exponential rise in our processing capabilities over the past few years, we have seen a dramatic increase in the use of state-of-the-art technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Big Data in these backend systems. These systems are able to crunch tons of raw data and sort it into usable patterns that offer highly granular insights into the inner workings of the operation, whatever it may be.
The third component of any IoT system is the actuation arm - so, we have collected an enormous amount of useful data and we have managed to process it in order to identify useful patterns and plan possible interventions - this arm of IoT systems is the bit that actuates these interventions. Again, innovations in robotics have fueled the emergence of highly sophisticated systems that are able to conduct a wide variety of interventions without the need for human labour.
Big Answer To Big Problems
Across various industries and sectors, IoT-powered connected technologies have been employed in various capacities to facilitate the development of highly-innovative strategies to counter age-old problems in highly effective ways.
Across the board, IoT technologies have brought about more efficiency, robustness and seamlessness which translates into higher savings and more effective solutions.
The question we are dealing with here is this - can IoT be used with the same level of efficacy in tackling the biggest problems of our time.
No reason why it can’t be.
When IoT technology began its surge a few years ago, there was almost a universal cry to try and use the technology to counter the biggest existential threats facing us today. And so, we started on the journey of finding more and more IoT-driven solutions to the challenges that define our era on this planet.
In the following sections, we will see how some of these solutions are poised to change the very way we approach these age-old problems and how some of these technologies are set to cause disruption at a scale that has never been seen before.
1. Energy Crisis
This is possibly the biggest and most crucial puzzle piece in the giant jigsaw of global existential threats facing humanity. In many ways, the heights that our civilization has reached in terms of industry and economy can all be attributed to this one thing - energy.
Energy security ranks as the highest priority in any country’s agenda, and for good reason. We might not know it because we’ve always lived in a world where flicking on a switch illuminates our room but we would pretty much have to go back to being cavemen if we can’t continue to meet our gigantic global energy demand.
Global energy demand has risen steadily over the past few years - there was a minor drop in the year 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic but it has rebounded with a vengeance - It is estimated that global energy demand is at 580 million terajoules - if that number doesn’t send your mind into waves of dizziness, here’s some perspective - that’s enough energy to power an Atlantic crossing on a Boeing aircraft 580 million times! Scary huh? What’s even scarier is that very soon, we will be needing a lot more energy. It is estimated that by the year 2040, we will need about 740 million terajoules a year - in global terms, 2040 isn’t that far away and that’s a heck of a lot of terajoules to rustle up.
What makes this problem even more complicated is that most of our energy today comes from oil and gas. In spite of a huge push from across the globe towards more sustainable forms of energy, fossil fuels still represent our bread and butter in terms of meeting our energy requirements. With concerns about ecological collapse and climate change mounting, there is all the more pressure on us as a global unit to come up with a solution to this problem.
We simply can not continue to depend on fossil fuels for our energy needs. As things stand, we will run out of fossil fuels very soon unless we find a way to diversify and do so fast, and at scale.
Now, that’s a massive problem and we haven’t solved it yet - not even close. But there’s another problem that makes this situation dire, that can actually be solved. And that problem is that of energy waste - we waste ungodly amounts of energy. One of the biggest reasons why we are constantly running short of energy is that we have so far not been able to operate at anything approaching a healthy level of energy efficiency. According to the 2050 Net Zero Emissions scenario, we are going to have to reach the 4% mark in terms of driving up our energy efficiency,
So how do we do this?
This is where IoT technology comes in - IoT-powered smart energy management has emerged as the number one candidate when it comes to finding novel ways to regulate our energy usage and minimise waste. After all, while we contend with the problem of finding how to generate more energy in a clean manner, it surely doesn’t hurt to find ways to use the energy we generate more efficiently.
Today, IoT technology is starting to be used along the energy supply chain, at various levels. Smart energy management, far from being a far-fetched and ambitious plan earmarked for the future, is starting to become the norm - featuring in pretty much every significant step of the energy chain - from production all the way to the end-consumer.
IoT-based smart energy management allows us to regulate the use of energy in real-time, minimising needless losses along the way. It does this by employing wireless sensors, which are able to obtain large amounts of highly granular data which is then used to design processes more intelligently from the ground up.
IoT technology is being used towards smart energy management in a number of ways - Smart grids are increasingly replacing old fashioned power grids and they are showing some incredible results in terms of efficiency and cost savings. Likewise, smart homes, smart factories, smart energy monitoring systems etc are being deployed to great effect. Overall, the promise that IoT technology holds in this area is incredible, to say the least.
With modern energy-harvesting powered sensors and MCUs, we are able to create low-cost solutions that allow even domestic settings to make use of this incredible technology. While factories and other industrial settings are benefiting from large scale IoT deployments, the real revolution is how smart switches, batteryless IoT devices and smart power meters are saving us precious watts here and there, across the globe.
After all, every drop counts.
2. Health Crisis
We are facing a health crisis of monumental proportions. Chronic disease is on the rise. More and more children are being born with autoimmune conditions and metabolic defects. Public health is in awful shape with an increasingly exhausted medical workforce and a health infrastructure that’s bulging at the seams and crumbling around its outdated practices.
It is in this context that IoT-powered health solutions have emerged as a hugely promising solution for the near future. Over the last few years, there has been an enormous surge of interest in using IoT technologies and modern IoT infrastructure such as wireless sensors, batteryless MCUs etc to create innovative healthcare solutions that would serve to increase patient autonomy as well as reduce the burden on the overtaxed healthcare systems of the world.
We are seeing the rise of incredible innovations such as wearable health trackers, fall detection systems, Real-time monitoring systems such as continuous fever monitoring and continuous glucose monitoring are allowing patients to take control of their health in a way that has never been possible before.
More importantly, using IoT-based connected technologies in healthcare allows healthcare professionals to monitor the health status of their patients remotely, reducing the burden on an overworked and fatigued system that has had to deal with more than its fair share during the pandemic.
But it's not just health monitors and trackers. There are a number of other ways in which IoT is being used in the healthcare space - a number of “smart” healthcare products have emerged in the market such as smart inhalers, smart bandages, smart pill boxes etc, which harness the power of IoT to improve health outcomes by driving compliance, safety and early detection.
In fact, this revolution isn’t limited just to physical health - it has penetrated the mental health space as well, with IoT solutions being used to track depression and mood levels.
There are also a number of ways in which IoT technology is being used to promote health in indirect ways. For instance, when IoT technology is used in smart farms to grow better food or in smart cities to improve waste management and improve air quality, it is actually contributing to improved health outcomes in a holistic way.
As we move further into the future, the role of IoT in the health space is only set to grow.
Pollution is one of the biggest concerns of our time. Rampant industrialisation has meant that we’ve had to contend with the gradual worsening of environmental conditions around us. As we’ve gone about building a global civilisation with trillions of moving pieces, we’ve had to resign ourselves to being helpless about the unsavoury side effect of worsening pollution.
Soil, water and air pollution together account for a whole lot of chronic illnesses that we find ourselves facing today. After all, it’s not rocket science is it? As living organisms, our well-being is directly related to how rich and healthy our ecosystems are. Today, our environment is extremely polluted due to the rise in consumerism and we are paying a huge price for that - for instance, there are so many microplastics in the ocean today that doctors have found significant concentrations of microplastics in women’s breast milk.
With an unprecedented chunk of the global populace being able to afford some form of personal transportation, we have also seen a huge rise in air pollution which is affecting the respiratory health of the human race in a massive way - this is another sign that bodes terribly for the long term well-being of our species.
In this regard, we are looking at some pretty radical and powerful solutions to counter the potentially devastating consequences of environmental pollution - IoT technology is being used in a number of ingenious ways in the fight against air and water pollution.
For example, in a number of smart city projects around the world, batteryless IoT sensors are being used to track air pollution in real-time allowing citizens to stay informed about the quality of the air that they are breathing - Real-time pollution monitoring also allows city authorities to take mitigative measures against air pollution when it reaches dangerous levels.
The same principle is being used in the fight against water pollution and soil pollution. For instance, soil sensors are being used to detect the presence of hazardous inorganic poisons and heavy metals in soils - This allows us to make sure that the food we grow is not rising out of a toxic substrate.
Likewise, there are many regions of the world where due to faulty infrastructure and poor civic regulation, there is a major issue with industrial effluents and hazardous waste finding its way into drinking water sources. Today, thanks to the advent of inexpensive water quality sensors, we are able to set up systems that monitor the quality of water in real-time. Thanks to IoT based pollution-monitoring systems we are able to implement feedback loops that allow us to actuate ameliorating measures.
Batteryless sensors have allowed IoT-based pollution monitoring systems to spread their wings beyond their traditional limits - today, thanks to self-powered IoT systems we are able to deploy these smart pollution monitoring systems in very remote locations. This is a promising development which augurs well as we head into a future with a burgeoning population, where it is going to be imperative that we come up with an effective solution against environmental pollution.
4. Waste Management
IoT-technology is enabling a pretty novel use-case around the world called smart waste management. This one is a sort of extension of the previous problem that we looked at - An increasing proportion of the global population is moving into urban areas. And thanks to our increasingly globalised economy, consumer consumption is at an all time high - what this means is that we are generating more waste than ever before, especially in densely populated durban centres.
The scale of waste production is rising exponentially and we are going to have to come up with pretty ingenious and effective solutions if we are to keep up with the increasing scale of waste production,
This is where IoT-based smart waste management comes into play - this is yet another area where the enormous potential of connected technology is being used to great effect to tackle a major problem of our times.
Urban conurbations are turning to batteryless IoT technology and wireless sensors to solve this rather pervasive problem - The basic blueprint of how IoT technology is being used in this case is not different from any other IoT use case. In essence, IoT is being used to drive communication between various sub-systems and derive actionable insights using rich data-sets.
How does this look in practice with respect to urban waste management?
For example, let’s take the case of garbage trucks - Often garbage trucks have to make regular waste collection trips across various locations - many times, these trips turn out to be for nothing because the bins and receptacles aren’t filled with waste yet. This is an area where IoT technology is being used to great effect to drive efficiency and optimal resource allocation. How, you ask? Batteryless waste level sensors are being used to detect fill-levels in waste canisters and garbage receptacles so the trucks can make trips only when necessary.
IoT sensors are also being used in various other capacities to aid safe waste disposal and effective recycling.
5. Climate Change
Climate Change is probably the big daddy of all global challenges that confront us. As a species, this is a problem that probably outshines all others in its gravity and magnitude. We have yet to come up with a robust enough solution against this challenge and that’s something that’s been weighing on our collective conscience for a few decades already.
IoT technology has been touted as a major breakthrough in the fight against climate change. In 2015 estimated that modern connected technology could make for a staggering 15% drop in global emissions by 2035. So, how does this work?
How is IoT helping against climate change?
In a number of ways actually - Firstly, there’s smart energy management which we already spoke about earlier. Thanks to IoT based smart energy management, consumers are able to save precious watts on their personal electricity usages and so are bigger users such as industrial plants etc - this means that lesser electricity is wasted and therefore, lesser electricity needs to be generated. So, fewer emissions.
Also, IoT is being used by scientists along with AI to create predictive models about the course of climate change, which is proving to be indispensable in crafting strategies and long term management plans against erratic weather patterns that are starting to become commonplace in various parts of the world.
Moreover, IoT technology is also being used against deforestation. Smart forests are allowing conservationists to use wireless IoT sensors to track forests in real-time so as to cut down the harmful impact of illegal felling and other such activities that result in loss of forest cover.
Preserving our forest cover forms our biggest hope against rising global temperatures. And IoT is proving a major ally in this fight.
The Internet of things represents the cutting edge of information technology. Wireless sensors and batteryless microcontrollers have changed the entire landscape of the modern tech world - Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a single industry that has not been utterly transformed by the power of IoT.
It is then natural that we try to solve some of the biggest problems facing us as a species using this technology - and that’s exactly what’s happening. As we spoke about earlier, we are confronted by some pretty titanic challenges on this planet today - and connected technologies can be a source of great hope to us if we wield them correctly against some of these challenges.
While some of the solutions we presented might not seem like they’re enough by themselves to solve our global problems, it might be prudent to bear in mind that IoT technologies are still very much in their infancy; as the years pass and the technology matures, there is no telling how much we will be able to achieve using IoT sensors.
Until then, this much is clear - Armed with IoT, there is still hope for us to create a beautiful future for this planet where technology and ecology can co-exist in harmony!