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Can the IoT and the environment play nice?

By Brian S Hall / June 23, 2014


Can The IoT and the environment play nice?

The Internet of Things (IoT) can help us remove inefficiencies in just about every business, help us optimize crop yields, lower the prices of goods, and radically cut down on our daily commute. The greatest benefit of the Internet of Things, however, is the one that people rarely talk about—environmental efficiency.

Billions of devices and cleaner skies

According to IT research agency IDC, The Internet of Things will be a $7 trillion market by the end of the decade, connecting as many as 50 billion disparate devices (sensors, smartphones, tablets, wearables, home appliances, autonomous cars, connected traffic signals, water meters, etc.) to the Web. Which begs the question: might all these devices do more harm than good for our environment?

In a recent article entitled “The Internet of Things Could Drown our Environment in Gadgets,” Wired magazine concluded:

Manufacturing all those gadgets means expending both energy and raw materials. In many cases, they will replace an older breed of devices, which will need to be disposed of.

Wired is absolutely right to be vigilant about energy use and electronic landfills as our world becomes even more computerized, but ultimately, Wired has it wrong. The IoT should improve our environment, possibly radically so, touching every industry by enabling far better use and management of natural resources. For example, a recent Government Technology report suggests that autonomous cars, enabled by smartphone-connected riders and the Internet of Things, could remove up to 80% of all cars in use throughout Asian cities.

In “Interconnected things can battle climate change,” the USA Today wrote that:

Increased productivity and elimination of wasteful energy consumption through smart devices could be the one and only key to cutting greenhouse gas emissions enough to reduce the chances of significant climate change.

The report cited claimed that the IoT’s potential in transportation, energy and agriculture could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 9.1 gigatons of CO2—the equivalent of eliminating all of the greenhouse gasses emitted by the United States and India combined. This is a remarkable opportunity. The Internet of Things delivers accurate, real-time, shareable data. This data can revolutionize how we use, re-use, protect and optimize resources, including fuel, water, air, and land.

IoT in action

Several IoT devices are already at work helping improve our environment:

    • Air Quality Egg – This connected device uses sensors to collect air quality data on a hyperlocal level (homes, neighborhoods, office buildings, etc.). The data from these sensor “eggs” are aggregated and shared among participants, enabling city planners and developers, along with you and me, to take corrective action.

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    • BigBelly – This solar-powered trash bin alerts sanitation authorities when its full. Sounds gimmicky? It’s not. These bins are placed throughout cities, office parks and college campuses and have resulted in a significant drop in garbage pick-ups, reducing CO2 emissions from trucks.

    • WaterBee – These wireless sensors collect data on soil content, helping farmers, vineyards, golf courses and government planners optimize water use and cut down on waste.

    • Nest – This well-known smart thermostat, that was recently acquired by Google, is helping homeowners cut their energy consumption by 20%—a cost savings and a benefit for the environment.

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    • Z-Trap – Got bugs? Controlling pests costs US farmers $4.5 billion every year just for insecticide. The Z-Trap is an electronic device that helps farmers remotely monitor insect damages to crops. Using this data, farmers can better target their insecticide use – saving them money and helping the land.

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  • Invisible Tracck – is a small device that’s covertly placed in protected forest areas, helping authorities take much faster actions to prevent illegal logging. These can be used to protect everything from aged redwoods in California to massive rainforest regions in Brazil.

There are numerous other examples, of course. Innovation in the IoT is moving at breakneck speed. No industry will be untouched. To maximize it’s potential for aiding the environment, corporate partnerships with government may point the way.

Government meets innovation

Not surprisingly, a Silicon Valley company is spurring these government/corporation alliances. The city of San Jose, California and Intel have launched a pilot IoT program which places a network of sensors around the city. The goal is to collect useful data on service efficiency, traffic flow, noise pollution and air quality. Vijay Sammeta, San Jose’s CIO, has said that this effort should help improve the area’s environment and livability.

Efforts such as these should prove invaluable. Today’s major cities currently consume two-third’s of the world’s energy resources, and many smaller cities throughout the world are experiencing rapid population growth. Even the seemingly crowded San Jose is expected to grow by 40% over the next three decades.

The San Jose/Intel partnership was one of two spotlighted by the “SmartAmerica Challenge,” a White House initiative to foster measurable, positive social actions that leverage the Internet of Things and related systems for positive environmental impact.

Public/private partnerships like these often focus on cars, transportation, and greenhouse gasses, but the benefits go far beyond our road and airways. For example, the IoT can incorporate sensors to monitor and report on sewage and water management. The potential for the IoT to help the environment may be as limitless as our imagination.

Sensors that monitor and continuously report the status of landfills, reservoirs, oil wells, and similar systems that require constant attention could greatly reduce human error caused by over-worked employees. On a more personal level, smart meters that let homeowners optimize heating, cooling, lighting and water use in their living space—from anywhere, at anytime, via their smartphone—could turn us all into Captain Planet.

“Green” initiatives do not always resonate with companies, but significant reductions in waste and inefficiencies absolutely do. Sensors, RFID tags, big data—core elements in the Internet of Things—will help industries remake their supply chains, warehouse requirements, delivery routes and schedules. This alone should lead to significant waste reductions and less fuel.

Is the Earth crying out for help? If so, the IoT will allow us to answer her call. By enabling engines, appliances, irrigation systems, air quality sensors and other computerized machinery to communicate their data with one another and with all of us, the potential to minimize inefficiencies is astounding. Less gas, less pollution, less fertilizers, less water, and less electricity equals a big win for the environment.


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