May 11, 2022

Less than 1 minute

Wireless Sensor Networks and AI - Driving the IoT Boom

Most of the developed world is going through what economists call the post-industrial phase of economic development. This means that the service sector accounts for a substantially larger chunk of wealth creation than does manufacturing of goods. When a society has reached this stage in its economic evolution, it tends to be a society where human capital and knowledge are valued very highly. Ideas and innovation tend to be the most valued assets in such societies. Modern market economies and the global framework built around them come under a lot of seriously heated criticism and maybe fairly so but, boy do they make for a lot of innovation and breakthroughs!

Innovation and Economic Growth

The economic climate characterised above more or less accurately reflects the one we live in - Allowing for exceptions, the frenetic pace of technological progress in the last couple of decades has brought about previously unseen levels of economic growth and prosperity. Ask the next ten people you meet what they do for a living and chances are 8 out of 10 will name a profession that simply didn’t exist in your granddad’s times. 

The sheer pace of technological change has left deep, indelible marks on the fabric of our everyday lives. It might sound like a convenient oversimplification but this kind of progress is a direct result of the increase in our information processing capabilities. By the end of the 20th century, the personal computer and the web had consolidated themselves as indispensable building blocks of the new century. Two decades on, you can see for yourself how modern information technology has transformed our world. 

Never before did this large section of humanity have access to this much - be it in terms of intellectual/cultural capital, employment opportunities, travel access, or domestic convenience. It’s not just economics either - the internet has also changed the way we relate to each other as social creatures. 

When technological capability grows in leaps and bounds, it inevitably ends up shaping entire populations and cultural institutions. The dot-com boom or the ongoing Internet of Things revolution are just classic-case examples of a paradigm-altering new technological standard leaving behind far-reaching ramifications across all walks of life.

In the years since, we have seen how digital technology has extended its tendrils deep into the cogs that run our world. If that sounds abstract and unrelatable, just recall how easy it was to book yourself flight tickets to that island getaway with your friends last year or how we take it for granted that we should be able to have a face-to-face conversation with someone on the other side of the globe whenever we so desire - stuff that would’ve been ludicrous to even imagine just 25 years ago!

Wait a minute - isn’t this post supposed to be about wireless networks and IoT? 

Wireless sensors networks - a technology ecosystem

The cutting-edge technology standards of today like artificial intelligence (AI), wireless IoT sensors, and machine learning (ML) are best understood in the right context - the breakneck world of IoT tech that we see around us today is part of a progression. A progressive improvement in our ability to gather, process, and distribute information. 

Essentially, what we’re trying to get at is that information exchange lies at the heart of any measurable human progress. Know-how, skills, and knowledge travel much more rapidly around the world today than ever before. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need to be told how that has enabled the so-called gig economy that has brought about a wave of opportunities that cut across national, cultural, and political boundaries. 

It is against this background of supercharged technological growth that wireless sensor networks have emerged as a key component of today’s global communications infrastructure. 

The Internet Breaks Free

It can be a curious exercise to try and observe the workings of any productive enterprise and see just how much it relies on the internet. The internet is, for all intents and purposes, indispensable to modern human civilisation. 

Turn the clocks back to 2008 and the idea of a self-repairing industrial machinery would have sounded nutty! Today, the lines between what’s possible and what’s not are blurry. Thanks to radical advancements over the last decade, our information processing capabilities have reached scarcely believable levels. 

The internet has long been a great tool for business, commerce and lifestyle but it was limited in its reach - The internet could only be accessed by dedicated tools - think laptops, industrial computers and other such traditional computing devices. 

However, with the advent of wireless sensor technology and other developments such as manmade neural networks, artificial intelligence and big data, the internet has been able to truly cast off its shackles and enter an era of unbridled connectivity across vast areas - urban, rural or downright remote. 

In an earlier article outlining the basics of any IoT setup, we’d mentioned how every IoT network can be boiled down to certain fundamental components - a data harvesting arm is the first of these fundamental units. IoT networks are only as good as their ability to harness sensor data from their operational environments. 

This is where wireless sensors come in. 

Objects that talk to one another

In its formative years, there was a ton of buzz around the internet of things - Bold claims were being made seemingly left, right and center. The idea was to come up with a way to connect everyday objects to each other in such a way that they could seamlessly exchange information with each other and with the backend so as to promote better operational efficiency and reduce overhead costs. 

We already had the biggest puzzle piece - the internet. Thanks to increasing broadband speeds over the years, that wasn’t really a problem. However, we needed to find a way to create information harnessing nodes that actually made sense. 

See, a node isn’t all that different from a computer, in its essence. It does the same thing a computer does but is stripped down to the very bare necessities - no screen, no input devices and no storage. 

On a small aside, just think about this - what makes your laptop and mobile phone different from say, your pillowcase? - it is simply that your computing devices are fitted with the ability to interface with the web. In a nutshell, this is what we need to understand in order to comprehend the crazy world of IoT - the very simple but extremely insane idea that underlies IoT is just this - 

Why have this divide? Why not connect everything to the internet?

All types of activities and endeavors can benefit from the internet - this much we all know - why then are we insisting on accessing the tremendous potential of the internet through a very small number of configurations? 

You get it. This is the essential conceit behind IoT

Now, back to where we were - IoT nodes - Again, what is a node?

What is an IoT node?

A node is the smallest functional unit of a wireless sensor network. IoT networks are built by connecting hundreds or even thousands of these node devices to one another - this, in a nutshell, is what a wireless sensor network is. 

The idea of such networks being used for a variety of purposes has been around for a while. However, there have been numerous challenges on our road to actually getting there. Firstly and probably most importantly, there is the cost - companies have been bending over backwards for a few years now, trying to find ingenious solutions to this problem. This situation is quite similar to the home computing revolution from a few years ago - the problem is quite the same - in order to make IoT-based solutions viable, there needs to be a way to make huge networks with thousands of nodes, affordable and practical. However, this would entail finding a way to manufacture said node devices at a rate that would allow them to be deployed willy-nilly. 

Without getting bogged down too much in the details, this problem somewhat slowed the inevitable rise of wireless sensor networks. While the idea was rock solid, the logistics and technology took their own sweet time to catch up - and understandably so! There were multiple constraints, each more stringent than the previous one - sensors needed to be 

  1. Cheap enough to be deployed in large numbers - if this could not be achieved, then the whole idea of wireless sensor networks fell apart. After all, this was the big quantum leap that was being promised by IoT sensor networks - the sheer scale of function and range that they promised. This would only be possible if huge numbers of nodes could work together.
  2. Reliable - We’d mentioned earlier that nodes are essentially like personal computing devices - here’s the key difference though - your laptop is not built to be deployed under the soil or on top of a cellular tower. IoT nodes are meant to work in the harshest of climes and are expected to be robust enough to withstand years of neglect without throwing a fit!
  3. Discreet - This is another key constraint - nodes need to be small enough to be discreetly deployed in the hundreds if not thousands. Huge, unwieldy contraptions are a strict no-no for obvious reasons. 

These are no-doubt some pretty hefty constraints - manufacturers had to go back to the drawing board several times before tenable solutions were arrived at. For the purposes of this article, we won’t delve deep into the nitty-gritty of how they went about it. Rest assured, today, we have businesses employing massive WSNs, spread over vast geographical areas, aimed at doing everything from agriculture to machine-maintenance. This is made possible by newer and more cost-effective modalities of node manufacturing. The wireless nodes of today, for all intents and purposes, are faster, cheaper and more discreet. 

The IoT battery problem

The other problem that wireless sensor networks and IoT at large had to overcome was the battery problem - even after we worked out how to produce reliable wireless sensors en masse, there was still the massive problem of maintaining them. With the typical WSN setup consisting of hundreds or thousands of wireless nodes dispersed over large areas, this turned out to be quite the sticking point for manufacturers. 

After all, a proposition that asked you to overturn the way you organized your business, expected you to pay a chunk of cash upfront to set up the new system and on top of that, you had to take on the headache of changing batteries in the most unreachable of places - that’s not a good proposition. 

Thanks to the ingenuity and enterprise of thousands of brilliant people, we’ve managed to come up with great solutions for these problems. One of the key breakthroughs that enabled us to look beyond batteries was energy harvesting technology. For those not in the know, energy harvesting is exactly what it sounds like - drawing small amounts of energy from the environment around us - which is brimming with a near-infinite supply of energy - and using it to power our little nodes which don’t require all that much energy to begin with. 

Many modalities of energy harvesting have emerged in recent years - RF energy harvesting, Piezoelectric energy harvesting and solar energy harvesting are some of the more popular ones - However, in the last couple of years or so, scientists and industries have been bending over backwards in order to try and identify new ways to use this neat and elegant technology. 

With energy harvesting firmly in place as a reliable way to power microelectronics like sensor nodes, there was no looking back for wireless sensor networks - they started being embraced by industries left, right and centre - agriculture, medicine, construction, wearables etc are just a few notable examples. 

AI, Machine Learning and 5G/6G 

Nodes form the backbone of any wireless sensor network - however, nodes are just like our skin, eyes and ears - they form the data gathering arm of the operation. However, huge amounts of data isn’t going to help us unless we have a way to process this data efficiently and come up with ways to optimize based on the insights they proffer.

This is where we have been extremely fortunate - in recent years, many allied technologies have reached a point of maturity wherein they can seamlessly fit into the ambit of wireless sensor networks - Artificial intelligence and machine learning play a crucial role in any wireless sensor network - they form the brain of the operation. 

A good central AI takes all the various kinds of information collected by wireless sensors in real time and assimilates this raw data in a way that makes it digestible. The AI systems of today are able to make actual sense of the hundreds of trillions of data points gathered in real time by nodes and use these insights to implement incremental improvements that make for better efficiency, economy and innovation. 

No discussion about wireless sensor networks would be complete without mentioning the invaluable contribution of technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. 

Moreover, the emergence of 5G/6G (NB-IoT)  has also played a pivotal role in the recent explosion of interest and investment in IoT - 5G/6G is changing the landscape of IoT very fast! Again, without getting lost in the minutiae, 5G/6G is enabling us to take IoT further and further into the wild - away from civilisation. The true potential of IoT lies in its ability to take our operational know-how to remote places that are hard to conduct operations in. But the problem with that was finding reliable ways to connect these remote IoT nodes to the internet - this is the problem that 5G/6G is solving today. 

In future posts, we’ll get more into the details of how Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and 5G/6G are crucial for the ongoing IoT boom. 

Summing Up

Hey we’ll be the first to admit - we love talking about this stuff and we could go on and on. However, with regard to our beloved readers, we’ll stop here for the time being. We’d love to talk about the various cool applications that wireless sensor networks enable but we’ll leave that for future posts - in this article, what we wanted to do was to give a bird’s eye view of this incredible technological landscape - we wanted to give our readers a sense of the tremendous scope and incredible scale of IoT technology. 

The enterprise of human civilization is at a tipping point. We all know this - one the one hand, we have some pretty serious problems headed our way - the planet is reeling under the weight of 7.5 billion people. Climate change, deforestation, desertification etc are some pretty pertinent issues that are weighing hard on our collective conscience. But on the other hand, we have achieved unprecedented levels of education, prosperity and technology - markers of a thriving civilisation. 

Ours is likely going to be the generation that makes or breaks this millennia old enterprise of human civilization on this planet. Technologies like wireless sensor networks represent the very cutting edge of human ingenuity - they have incredible potential in being able to solve some of our most pressing concerns as a collective. 

We are incredibly excited about this - we consider ourselves extremely privileged to be a part of this technological revolution. Moreover, we are also incredibly optimistic about IoT being able to enable radically innovative solutions for our ecological crises. 

Empowered by these hugely powerful tools, there is no reason to think we’ll be able to build a better future, provided we are willing to align ourselves in the right direction.

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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