Sustainable IoT - Batteryless Microcontrollers Lead The Charge
We are facing an increasing number of grave challenges as a global unit - cries of alarm and anguish seem to be emanating from everywhere, as we are having to come to grips with the damage of the past 200 years or so of untrammelled and disorganised industrial growth.
Our response, as a species, to these large-scale threats has, so far, ranged from passable to utterly disappointing. And fair enough - the sheer scale of these issues is such that the easiest and often, the only response, seems to be denial.
The Internet of Things has emerged as a bastion of hope for humanity in our fight against some of the most perilous existential threats the human race has ever had to deal with. Today, IoT-enabled connected technologies are our best hope in the fight against some of the most pressing issues of our time including soil degradation, climate change, waste management and air pollution.
IoT sensors and wireless networks have allowed us access to an unimaginable level of real-time intelligence, which has brought about an incredible amount of sophistication and efficiency to enterprise across nearly all areas of human activity.
Disconnectedness at the heart
In many ways, this modern industrial era of ours started with the advent of the industrial revolution in Western Europe in the 18th century. The years since have been a blur of rampant economic growth and massive industrialisation across the world.
This is by no means an attempt to baulk at the achievements of these centuries - hundreds of millions of people have emerged out of poverty and it has brought in a level of comfort, order and convenience to life that was previously simply unimaginable.
However, this growth has not been without its costs - the sort of things that have taken place on this planet in these couple of hundred years have no precedent. We have simply pushed the boundaries so far that there is no way we can look to history to make pertinent decisions anymore.
The sort of problems we face today are so novel, so unprecedented, that we are simply bereft of any historical wisdom in tackling them.
How did we get here?
The main problem has been a lack of coordination. The massive industrial growth of the modern era has not been a slow, steady, harmonious and holistic process. Conversely, it has been haphazard, lopsided, erratic and spiky.
In other words, we have grown so big, so toweringly huge as a civilisation, that our own powers of management and organisation have been utterly dwarfed. There is simply no person, company, country or world body that is nearly big enough to assert itself over the entire enterprise of human civilization and correct its course.
We are a fast moving steamer that is travelling so fast that it's nearly impossible for anyone to helm the ship.
The various components that run this global enterprise are all disconnected from one another - haphazardly pursuing their own individual agendas, setting us on a collision course with fate. These individual components are often so big by themselves that there is simply no person or group of people that can steer them. It’s almost as if they have a mind of their own.
It is a problem of disjointedness. Disconnectedness. A lack of intelligence on our part, in playing the role of the most cerebrally advanced species on this planet.
The case that is being advanced here is that maybe, just maybe, IoT technology with its tremendous possibilities, can help us remedy this haphazard and ungainly system we’ve created.
If the problem is that of disconnectedness and a general lack of intelligence, then IoT technology is perhaps the perfect solution? After all, this is exactly what IoT brings to the table - more connectedness and more intelligence.
Stripped to their core functionality, sensors, microcontrollers and wireless networks, AI etc. are all about providing purpose-built intelligence capabilities in order to enable a high level of connectivity.
IoT Enabled Connected Technology
Connected technology has witnessed such humongous growth over the past few years primarily because of the sheer breadth and scope of possibilities that it enables - the sky is truly the limit for all the things IoT technology can make possible - the basic schematic of an IoT network can be implemented across such a wide variety of use-cases and applications that it almost presents an impossible challenge when one has to explain it someone who has no clue about IoT.
In many ways, the IoT is almost exactly tailor made to solve the problem that was highlighted earlier - the problem of disjointedness.
In its essence, IoT technology is all about creating connections. Creating more intelligent frameworks. Increasing efficiency and reducing wastage through parsimony and granularity.
IoT networks, both big and small, are like nervous systems. They have millions of nodes which are all connected to one another. Information gathering nodes that are all interconnected, creating a dense, intelligence-rich network.
In the case of IoT, this has allowed us to usher in an era of liquid, sensor-enabled intelligence that has been harnessed to streamline all manner of processes.
The effects of this transformation are plain to see in all the industries of the world - The last few years have witnessed IoT technology dramatically altering the way we deliver healthcare, grow food, manufacture goods and engage with our devices.
However, much more pertinently to us as a global collective, IoT technology has allowed us to come up with realistic and actionable plans against some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time.
Sensor Powered Intelligence
We saw how a lot of our global problems are a result of a staggeringly colossal civilisation that is haphazard and too big to be steered by human intelligence. It is in this context that IoT holds so much promise for us - at its core, IoT is all about commodifying and packaging machine-powered intelligence.
All IoT solutions can be seen as packaged intelligence, purpose-built to serve a particular application or need.
To continue with the nervous system analogy, wireless sensors act as nodes - much like the receptors on our skin or eyes - they scour the environment for information and transmit it to the central system. The more granular and refined this process gets, the better the results.
This information is then processed by sophisticated AIs which work much like our brain does - scanning and organising the random information in order to consolidate the findings into actionable insights. Again, the more astute and multifaceted these systems are, the better they will be at driving efficiency gains.
This is just an uber simplified schema that represents the basic functioning of all IoT networks - depending on the nature and complexity of the intended application, the specific IoT network takes various forms, sometimes including several automatised actuators and relay modules.
Sustainability is a term that is thrown around so much that it has become what linguists call a floating signifier - a term that is so nebulous in its meaning and definition that it almost means what you want it to mean.
So, what is sustainability then?
All life forms have an innate drive that propels them to go on living. All life forms act in a manner that is conducive to the sustained wellbeing of themselves, their kind and their larger habitat.
Human beings are no different. For all our cerebral capacity and incredible technological sophistication, we are still at the mercy of environmental conditions, in order to carry on living. Unlike other creatures on the planet, we have the ability to shape our environment rather than just being shaped by it.
Although we can shape our environment and in a way, be the masters of our own fate, we still need an environment - there are still a number of indispensable prerequisites for our life on earth - such as water, air, food and sunlight, just to name the most essential.
Looking at human civilization and the manic trajectory it has taken in recent decades, one simply has no choice but to arrive at the conclusion that we have forgotten this simple fact.
We need clarion calls and slogans about sustainability simply because we have lost touch with reality to the extent that the basic tenets of existence - the basic building blocks that enable life to thrive, have been forgotten about. Grossly neglected to the point where the rich tapestry of life on this planet faces all out destruction.
One could almost be forgiven for taking a hilariously comical perspective at this entire debacle - the species that is endowed with enough intelligence to understand calculus and build Los Angeles is also, literally, the only one on the planet that is stupid enough to poison the very water that it drinks and destroy the very soil that it lives off.
So, sustainability, boiled down to its essence, can be defined as that which ensures the sustained continuation of life on this planet. In a nutshell, all we’re trying to do by being sustainable is to find very clever ways to do what the insects and amphibians of the world have always been doing, without a second thought - just keep our planet conducive for our own kind to thrive and multiply!
How IoT Fits Into Our Sustainability Drive
In the past few years, IoT technology has really taken the world by storm. In just a few years, it has transformed the face of nearly every industry on the planet. Today, wireless sensors are able to offer us bespoke solutions that allow us to use our incredible data-processing capabilities to achieve highly granular insight into nearly any process imaginable.
Wireless sensors have become so cheap and reliable these days that there is practically no limit for what can be achieved using their potential. For years now, some of the best minds on the planet have worked together to figure out how IoT technology could be used to address some of the biggest ecological issues facing us today.
The specific applications may be many and varied, but the core idea is always the same - IoT networks allow us to peer deep into the innards of any process - giving us valuable insights into its inner workings and intricacies. These insights facilitate interventions that are highly effective and economical.
Smart farming is an IoT-enabled use-case that is a great example of achieving sustainability through sensor-driven intelligence. Now more than ever, our food supply chain is hanging precariously by a thread - the recent conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated just how fragile global food supply is. Wireless sensors enable us to measure various parameters such as ambient humidity, temperature, soil moisture, mineral content etc in real time and use this data to strategize in order to obtain the highest yields at the lowest cost.
The same principle is used in promoting sustainability in a variety of avenues - be it smart waste management, smart water management or smart energy management.
In all these applications, the power of wireless sensors and IoT networks is harnessed to identify and plug avoidable losses and promote high levels of efficiency and economy. The essence of our ecological and environmental problems has been wastefulness, misallocation of resources and a lack of overall perspective, owing to an excessively myopic view of our processes and activities.
Batteryless microcontrollers come to the fore
Microcontrollers are the tiny computers that form the building blocks of any IoT network. All manner of smart devices around us today consist of microcontrollers that are designed to perform various data collection and computing tasks.
In the early years of IoT, microcontrollers were powered either by mains or more commonly, by batteries. This presented an enormous problem that very nearly killed the IoT dream well before its time.
The problem was that if we were going to populate the world with billions of battery-powered IoT nodes and create a worldwide network of interconnected objects, then we would need billions of batteries.
As things stand, batteries constitute a huge risk to the environment around us - they require rare minerals like Lithium and Cobalt, which are extremely dangerous to mine. Lithium mining ravages entire ecosystems and destroys water tables. Cobalt is mined in extremely dangerous conditions, by grossly underpaid child workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that batteries are nowhere close to being the sustainable and eco-friendly renewable energy source that they are touted to be. When looked at more holistically, they fail to hold up. While a Li-ion battery powered automobile is going to emit fewer noxious gases than its fossil-fuel powered ICE counterpart, its carbon footprint might be just as high if the entire production process is accounted for.
For instance, Lithium mining is extremely resource-intensive and emission heavy. This is a rather apt example of the sort of myopic and disjointed approach that we alluded to earlier, as one of the primary causes of our ecological woes.
We need solutions that are holistic and hold up to unflinching scrutiny. A solution that enables gains in one way while contributing to the problem in another way is no good. Not anymore.
We need solutions that are real solutions. From the ground up.
Yes, we can grow more high-quality food, deliver better healthcare, manufacture more cheaply and construct better buildings using wireless sensors, microcontrollers and IoT networks - But, if this comes at the cost of billions of batteries being discarded into our environment, we’re simply not getting anywhere.
The technology of the future that is going to help us solve the problems of our future needs a futuristic power solution. Battery-powered IoT microcontrollers are just not an elegant enough solution.
We need a batteryless power solution - We need batteryless microcontrollers if we’re going to really scale-up our mission to have a connected world, with a trillion connected objects - a hyperconnected world where all manner of objects around us are going to be interfacing with the internet in real-time.
Batteryless MCUs are the only way this ongoing IoT explosion will not contribute to the environmental catastrophe that is underway.
The idea is to create IoT solutions that are 100% self-powered. Self-powered sensors and self-powered microcontrollers are the building blocks of a 100% self-powered IoT future.
The name of the game here is energy harvesting.
Energy harvesting technology is what makes the dream of a self-powered IoT possible. Energy harvesting, for the uninitiated, is nothing but harvesting ambient energy from our environment and converting it into small packets of usable electrical energy that can be used to power ultra-low-power electronics such as microcontrollers, wireless sensor nodes etc.
In the last few years, we have seen a lot of progress in the world of semiconductors - The market is seeing a huge rise in the popularity of ultra-low-power semiconductor devices that require just a few millivolts of energy to function.
These ultra-low-power sensors are able to gather data and transmit it in real-time, across regular intervals, using microscopic amounts of power. This is why energy harvesting technology has become such a rage in the world of IoT.
Today, we have energy harvesting powered microcontrollers that are able to form the central core of complex IoT networks, sans any need for mains or battery-powered backup - i.e 100% energy harvesting powered microcontrollers. These things are so nifty, they are able to gather all the energy they need from stray electromagnetic energy that is abundantly available all around us thanks to the incredible density of electronic devices in our environment.
What’s incredible is that in addition to 100% batteryless IoT solutions, energy harvesting technology is also able to augment traditional battery-based power in large industrial settings where the number of sensors and therefore, power requirements are higher. For instance, steam traps are being used to recharge IIoT batteries, in a use-case that gained a lot of popularity some time back in IoT circles.
Whether used in creating self-powered, energy harvesting microcontrollers or in partially battery-powered, IIoT applications, one thing is certain - the future of IoT is definitely going to be shaped by energy harvesting technology.
Energy harvesting technology comes in many different flavours based on the nature of the source energy - When radiofrequency waves are harvested, it is called RF energy harvesting; When vibrational energy is harnessed and converted into electricity, it's called piezoelectric energy harvesting. Similarly, there are a number of other energy harvesting modalities such as thermoelectric, solar and photovoltaic.
Depending on the nature of the application, each of these energy harvesting technologies comes with a set of advantages and disadvantages. In recent times, there are also several cases of IoT solutions combining two or more energy harvesting modalities to offer users a more well-rounded and versatile offering.
A notable example is batteryless remote controls that make use of solar, RF and piezoelectric at the same time to completely eliminate the battery.
Advantages of Self-Powered MCUs
In addition to being ecologically sensible, self-powered MCUs are also great for a number of functional and economic reasons. Firstly, ultra-low-power microcontrollers are cheaper to manufacture than their bulky, battery-powered counterparts. This translates to a lower BOM (Bill of materials).
The economic advantages don’t end there - with batteryless there is also the possibility of a longer and more reliable period of operation. Battery-powered IoT devices come with the inescapable caveat of periodic downtimes and battery-failures, which adds a sizable chunk to their operating costs. With battery-powered microcontrollers, the business has to account for periodic battery replacements, productivity losses and the cost of maintenance checks and service personnel. Batteryless microcontrollers eliminate all these costs in one fell swoop. They last for years and make for huge incremental savings over their lifetimes, especially in setups where hundreds or thousands of sensors are deployed.
They also open up more IoT applications - for instance, let’s consider just how revolutionary self-powered microcontrollers are going to be for the world of healthcare-focused IoT devices - implants and biomedical devices are going to have a much easier time passing through statutory requirements when they don’t include a battery.
Batteryless microcontrollers will enable an exponentially greater degree of innovation and ingenuity in the world of IoT - we will simply be able to take the power of connected technology to more places. We will be able to deploy wireless sensors in remote and inaccessible places, unleashing the tremendous potential of IoT technology by breaking the shackles of the battery.
These are pretty compelling reasons to opt for batteryless technology but more than any of these benefits, it is really the sustainability angle that takes the cake. The pragmatic and economic advantages are merely bonus points in favour of energy harvesting microcontrollers.