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Do we need an Internet of Things? Or, when your fridge gets on your nerves

Fri, 10/25/2013 - 9:45am
Matthias Poppel, Cheif Operation Officer, EnOcean

It is called “Internet of Things” or “Internet of Everything” – the idea of realizing hundreds of millions of devices communicating with each other and the humans. A fridge, for example, that tells you whether you have to replenish your inventory of milk.

But would this really be useful in our daily life? Will we as consumers in the future be swamped with acoustic and visual information from thousands of sensors from refrigerators, door knobs, dog collars etc, whether we need it or not?

I think it’s time to distinguish between an “Internet of Things” and an “Internet of useful Things.” When I’m talking to customers who are looking for remote sensor solutions, there are many fields where the IoT could really solve emerging problems. A service manager from a utility company told me about safety valves on a water distribution system in the ground, where feedback is needed whether the valve actually closed the pipe or not. A municipality official dreamt about automatically detecting filling levels of public waste containers distributed across an entire city. “Significant savings” he said by sending out personnel only where and when needed. Also interesting to think about how the state of California annually spends more money on extinguishing forest fires than what it would cost to equip all their woodlands with forest fire detectors. 

What do all of the mentioned applications have in common? In all of them, a human being is looking for an answer to a question of interest, not a machine trying to push information down someone’s throat. Second, large sensor networks as required in this type of applications need to fall into the category of “install and forget” – no maintenance. And last but maybe most important, there is no way to wire or battery power such remote and sometimes inaccessible sensor nodes.

The IoT shouldn’t be a game where companies show what’s technically possible. In fact, it needs careful evaluation whether it’s useful and affordable. This needs to include the cost of manufacturing, installing, and maintaining all those sensors. Adding a power line modem or WiFi access to point to a fridge to talk about milk levels is cost prohibitive for a white goods application. Replacing batteries in thousands of sensors every day is – if at all possible – presenting a high maintenance bill. Not quite a desirable reputation either, if the IoT is responsible for millions of additional batteries ending up in the human made waste.

What does the ideal sensor for these connected “Things” look like?

If we could use the environment, such as light, motion or temperature differences, as an energy source, combining them with a long range radio to carry the sensor information as far as possible to the next hub or repeater, and putting them into small but robust packages, all at affordable cost – wouldn’t that meet our desires?

This next generation of sensors is already around the corner. New harvesters with higher efficiency, e.g. new types of kinetic energy harvesters or more powerful solar cells, will be combined with higher capacity energy storage and lower energy consumption electronic components.

We’ll see batteryless radio technology with up to ten times longer ranges – transmitting data over a distance of more than three kilometers. Sealed packages that are robust against environmental influences and provide long lifetimes enabling applications in water, soil, rain, and extreme heat.

This next generation of energy harvesting wireless sensors will help to realize an Internet of useful, affordable Things. Of course, energy harvesting wireless is not the solution for everything and there are certainly many scenarios that haven’t occurred to us, yet. Have you already thought about if energy harvesting could solve your challenge?

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