Nov 24, 2021

7 min read

The U.S Air Force adopts self-powered sensors

Batteryless sensors promise a whole lot more than wearables and health trackers. Industry leaders have been screaming from the rooftops for a while now that energy harvesting holds the key to the future of IoT. In this post, we’ll take a look at an example of how self-powered sensors are being used in large-scale infrastructure projects. The US Air Force has recently launched a large-scale pilot project where hundreds of ultra-low power, batteryless sensors are being deployed in one of their bases.

Batteryless sensors have taken the IoT world by storm. Today, self-powered sensors based on energy harvesting technology have come to be the norm in any IoT application that needs to deploy a large number of sensors, particularly if the operation is based in a remote area.  The US Air Force is the latest entrant on the batteryless bandwagon. In keeping with the rest of the world, The U.S air force has decided to make a large investment in batteryless IoT technology in one of their large bases.

Smart products are growing in popularity and ubiquitousness. If you’re reading this, then you are presumably holding a smart device in your hand right now. However, thanks to the IoT boom that is currently underway, it is not just our computers, tablets, and phones that are smart. Using teeny-tiny sensors, we are able to incorporate smart capabilities into all manner of everyday objects around us.

The name of the game when it comes to IoT is quite simple actually - More data is good; And if this data is organised and fluid, that is great! In a nutshell, the whole IoT revolution is simply about harnessing the power of information and enabling unprecedented levels of optimisation and efficiency using large amounts of data.

This is where sensors come in - In recent years, sensors have been incorporated in all sorts of commercial and domestic applications - smart homes, smart cities, smart farms, well you name it. The basic premise is always the same - all processes have a nearly endless optimisation curve - you can always do things better. Even the best methods can be improved upon and made more efficient. When there is a highly organised pathway for information to travel back and forth within the system, this process of optimisation can happen seamlessly and more importantly, without placing too much of a strain on resources.

This applies to any kind of operation or even any kind of process really, no matter how small or large the scale.

The Hill AFB Project

The Air Force Materiel Command base is a US Air Force base in Northern Utah. It happens to be the second largest establishment of its kind, with about 1700 facilities spread over a whopping 1 million acres of land.

The base, also referred to as the Hill Air Force Base, is now going to be home to one of the largest programs based on battery-less sensor technology. The armed forces base is an early instance of a huge logistics-intense operation betting big on the potentially paradigm altering benefits of revamping their operations and building it around IoT technology.

In what is huge news for the IoT world, the US Air Force has made an announcement stating their intention to deploy upwards of 1000 battery-less sensors at the base, across a range of locations. These sensors will perform a variety of functions, including monitoring the health of a steam distribution system in real-time and assisting in take-offs and landings.

So far so good

The base has already deployed some 750 odd self-powered sensors and is very much on track to installing some 600 more. Most of these wireless sensors are going to perform some variation of predictive maintenance and real-time health monitoring.

As you can probably imagine, a massive air force operation is likely to house some seriously expensive and intricate machinery. A lot of maintenance goes into these kinds of equipment because, in addition to being very large and having hundreds of moving parts, there’s not a lot of them - they are usually made-to-order and sop, even the most minor snags often translate into large sums of money and long periods out of service.

This is really where IoT-based predictive maintenance systems shine. In many of our older posts, we have spoken at length about how IoT based systems can really take the pain out of routine maintenance. By maintaining constant supervision that is completely automated, they eliminate the need for superfluous routine maintenance checks.

For instance, in the case of the AFB project, a lot of these low-power sensors have been installed on devices such as motors, cooling fans, pumps, and other moving mechanical parts - even the most sophisticated of equipment tend to be built around these simple mechanical parts. They do run into all manner of snags but most of the time, these are really easy to fix. The problem, so far anyway, has been identifying when these fixes are needed. That’s why using IoT-based sensors for this purpose is genius - they preclude the need for unnecessary waste of resources and manpower on pointless checks. They can warn us beforehand of an impending mechanical repair, even before it actually happens. Until such a need arises, they can just sit there, dutifully watching over the functioning of the machine, sending reams of useful data to the backend.

They can do this and still be a profitable investment, primarily because of how little it costs to run them - these sensors have extremely low energy requirements and are self-powered to boot. This means that they run on energy harvested from their surroundings. This can be anything from vibrations (of which there are plenty in big machines) or heat to radiofrequency waves. What this means is that, in addition to the massive savings they make for in terms of maintenance costs, these things don’t require any maintenance themselves. Now you’re probably starting to get an idea of why we think many more massive industrial/military projects are going to start jumping on the battery-less  IoT sensor bandwagon.

In addition to being incredibly cost-effective, these kinds of projects also bolster the ecological credentials of their respective users. On a project of this scale, not using batteryless technology would translate to massive battery dumps over the lifetime of the operation. That means that these self-powered sensors would, over the years, contribute to a lower environmental footprint.

How do they work?

Most of the sensors used in the Hill AFB project are going to be based on thermoelectric energy harvesting. That means that these sensors will be able to use the temperature gradient between say the steam pipe or running motor of a machine and the area around it to generate tiny amounts of electrical energy, which they can then use to collect and transmit packets of data.

This kind of innovation is especially invaluable for steam-based equipment. Real-time monitoring can make for some incredible savings by improving the overall efficiency of the operation. Nicholas King, an operator at the Hill Air Force Base claims that the base is already witnessing some significant savings by using the system.

“Having our steam equipment be monitored in real-time is a cost-saver for us because we can get out there and replace it before we’re losing steam from stuck traps that are just blowing steam through” says King.

Cost-savings over the use is definitely the right kind of music to an organisation’s ears. But it’s not quite enough to seal the deal if the initial investment is going to cost a bomb. That’s where self-powered sensors take the cake. Because they’re wireless (i.e they’ll make use of cellular data) and batteryless, the upfront cost of investment is often pretty tasty from an investor’s point of view.

How’s the project doing?

Hill AFB set out on a two to three year testing period with this installation. Now, they are about half a year into their trial run and the results seem promising to say the least, according to the top-officials overseeing the project.

Key people involved in the project are understood to have expressed their enthusiasm for further use of self-powered sensors in large-scale USAF projects. They are keen on exploiting the tremendous potential these systems have in being able to optimise the maintenance of massive infrastructure systems.

Considering the scale and conservatism of an organisation like the US Air Force, such an announcement is indeed massive news for the entire IoT community. This affirms what the rest of us industry insiders have been raving about for years now.

In the years to come, more and more large scale infrastructure projects will employ batteryless sensors - In fact, the truly amazing part is that the real spike in innovation and the ensuing explosion of use-cases is still ahead of us - it is truly mind-boggling to think of the sheer magnitude and scope of functionalities that can be achieved using batteryless sensor networks.

If the success of this project is anything to go by, it’s going to be an exciting time to be in the internet of things business. 

About the author

Runar Finanger


Runar, the co-founder and CMO of ONiO, adeptly connects product innovation to customer desires. Championing brand-building, he heightens consumer awareness and consistently propels brand preference through diverse channels.

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