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Bruno Damien *

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The Internet of Things (IoT) market continues to expand in terms of revenue and innovative capacity. The booming market open numerous possibilities for both companies and private people. However, there’s a flipside to this development too: it’s significantly contributing to our constantly increasing energy demand. Therefore, the IoT sector must become significantly better at energy saving.

Figure 3: IoT development kits like ON Semiconductor's can simplify and accelerate concept development.
Figure 3: IoT development kits like ON Semiconductor's can simplify and accelerate concept development.
(Bild: ON Semiconductor)

What is Internet of Things (IoT)?

First things first. What is Internet of Things (IoT)? Simply put, this is the concept of basically connecting any device with an on and off switch to the Internet (and/or to each other). This includes everything from cellphones, coffee makers, washing machines, headphones, lamps, wearable devices, and almost anything else you can think of. This also applies to components of machines, for example a jet engine of an airplane or the drill of an oil rig. The IoT market has skyrocketed in the past years, and scientists don’t predict the growth to slow down anytime in the foreseeable future. One of the main reasons behind the success of IoT is its ability to capture, process, and transmit data in an energy-efficient and cost-effective way.

In a nutshell, IoT is about devices connecting with one another. Different systems capability to connect was described in Harvard Business Review already in late 2014 ("How intelligent, networked products change competition" by Michael E. Porter and James E. Heppelmann. Figure one shows, in a simplified way, how IoT works today.

The networked terminals are located on the left side. On the right side are the areas that are usually not visible to users, but that are crucial for the performance of IoT applications. Artificial intelligence (AI), IoT servers, storage systems, cloud computing, security checks, etcetera are in this area.


Growing energy demand worldwide is a rising problem

The two ends of the IoT domain have very different power consumption requirements (image 2). Compared to the number of IoT nodes, there’re only a small number of cloud servers. These work around the clock and, therefore, consume a lot of electricity. Today, the amount of cloud services in the world is constantly growing, and it’s growing fast. At the end of the IoT ecosystem, there’re many nodes. Most of them are in standby mode most of the time as they’re active only when receiving or sending data. This means that they consume very little energy. Despite this setup, the share abundance of these nodes has contributed significantly to the world’s overall energy consumption in the latest years.

In June 2018, the World Material Forum in Nancy, France, held a working session on the topic of "Big Data/KI for Material Efficiency". During this event, the Stanford Professor Reinhold Dauskardt showcased that the U.S. data centers’ annual electricity consumption had reached 90 billion kWh. To put that figure in perspective, 90 million kWh equals 34 nuclear power plants with 500 MW or half of France's nuclear power plants (about 56 NPPs). If you’re still not convinced about the IoT sector's impact on the world’s electricity demand, this figure might change things: in 2017, data centers and cloud computing services stood for three percent of the global power consumption.

Driven by the high demand for data collection, processing, and communication, there is a kind of Moore’s law for data centers’ energy consumption as it doubles every four years or so. If this development continues, computers will theoretically consume more electrical energy by 2037 than is currently produced worldwide. Experts estimate that tens of billions of nodes will be provided by 2021. While each doesn’t consume much energy since the majority of them have very short operative time, their total energy demand shouldn’t be underestimated.

Better-free end nodes powered by natural energy

What this also means is that energy harvesting will become increasingly important in the coming years. For example, we’ve to find new ways for how to convert ambient energy to electrical energy.

"Reducing the IoT sectors energy consumption will be a huge challenge for the industry in the coming 20 years. Researchers work to find solutions for how devices can be connected to the Internet without consuming a lot of electricity. In the future, IoT has to be energy-efficient, autonomous, and be able to use every source of energy imaginable, for example, vibrations and heat and light,” says Reinhold Dauskardt.

Today, lots of effort is put into saving energy. This fact isn’t new, and it’s not specific for the IoT industry either. However, the demand for energy-saving IoT form researchers, consumers, industry experts and many more have gone up lately. IoT-enabled energy monitoring can solve a lot of issues that are core to hindering a plant from real energy conservation efforts.

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Energy conservation saves money. That said, cost-efficiency isn’t the only reason why IoT producers are investing a lot of time and energy (pun intended) into finding ways for the IoT sector to save energy; compliance with legal regulations, environmental awareness, and battery life are equally important drivers of this trend. Radio connectivity provides lower deployment capital costs (no wiring costs and less weight). Battery-free products offer lower operating costs. And since there is no need to replace batteries, the environmental impact associated with power generation can be completely avoided.

How can data connections, sensor technology, and battery-free devices be combined securely? Through a smart combination of components and proven communication protocols, an end node can maintain a data connection with an energy budget of only 100 µJ. To date, many commercially available energy harvesters can meet this need by providing 200 to 500 µJ of energy. Energy harvesters can be event-driven (e.g. in a light switch) or provide energy continuously (e.g. a solar cell or a thermoelectric generator).

Breaking down IoT standards and protocols

The most widely used standard in IoT is Bluetooth. ON Semiconductor's Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) System-on-Chip (SoC) RSL10 platform sets new industry standards for performance in IoT applications. The ZigBee protocol is also widely used, its Green Power function now allows the connection of circuits that supply themselves with power via energy harvesting. The platforms from ON Semiconductor, Sigfox Sub-GHz, and SoC offering for LPWANs (Low-Power Wide Area Networks) all support narrow-band applications. One main criterion for many developers when selectin the basic components they should use in a project is these components’ planned data link. This is one reason why all the above-mentioned platforms are well suited for original equipment manufacturers and service providers who want to develop IoT solutions.

Intelligent passive sensors (SPS, Smart Passive Sensors) with energy harvesting and NFC-EEPROMs (Near Field Communication) are complementary techniques for innovative energy-efficient sensor solutions. Besides, position determination, ambient light measurement, and motion detection are decisive for the perception of the environment; this is true for both machines and people. The integration of these two disciplines to provide ready-to-use integrated solutions or practical proof-of-concept prototypes is an exciting trend. Here, tools such as ON Semiconductor's IoT Development Kit (IDK) can accelerate and simplify concept development so that users can quickly and easily measure, collect, and analyze data for their IoT applications.

The future of energy harvesting in IoT applications

The Internet of Things essentially refers to a distributed system consisting of interconnected objects and computing resources that provide services to humans or other systems. Systems of this nature already are embedded in Systems of Systems (SoS) like smart factories and smart cities.

ON Semiconductor offers suitable technologies for the IoT and its ecosystem. While the growth of wireless network-enabled smart devices is set to skyrocket, thereby increasing energy demands, there is scope to utilize the analyzable nature of these devices to save energy.

Solar cells collect energy from photons and can store it in lithium-ion batteries. However, today, they're only a few regions where it’s possible to harvest raw materials. Therefore, improvements in this area are considered very important among researchers and decision-makers worldwide. As the Internet of Things has developed, so needs ways to make the industry more energy efficient.

This article was first published in German by Elektronikpraxis.