Overcome water and energy challenges with IoT
Smart lights are cool. They facilitate an unprecedented level of luxury. There will be no more getting out of bed to switch the lights off when a single swipe on your smart phone will do.
Smart lights are only an expression of a much bigger disruption: home automation. Every problem you didn’t know you had in managing your home is about to be solved. Fridges order milk, blinds automatically adjust to outside light levels and cameras and sensors everywhere keep you feeling secure. For many reasons, these scenarios were just unimaginable to me.
But there has to be something more valuable that IoT can do, something deeper and more meaningful than ordering milk. The world is going through so much turmoil right now. The planet is overpopulated with energy, food and health challenges. We don’t have enough sustainable energy sources to meet the hyper-growing demand on our near-depleted natural resources. Climate change, on the other hand, is accelerating shortages of fresh water and food. Humanity’s existence is at stake. We are morally obliged to ask a necessary fundamental question about anything in mass development: How is this technology helping to solve the world’s most pressing problems?
We need to ask this question because mass development consumes our productive means. Wouldn’t it be a terrible thing if most of our productivity is wasted on luxury items? Think of how many skilled workers — an entire generation of engineers — are spending their working hours in development of something as massive as the IoT. An investment like that should be beneficial to humanity. In one way or the other, overcoming water and energy challenges depends upon wisely utilizing our workforce.
Thankfully, the IoT can serve a greater cause. The IoT is creating a mesh of connectivity and controllability. This massive scale of controllable things — mostly sensors and actuators — means that we can make our energy systems considerably more efficient than they are today. And thanks to low-cost silicon chips, the deployment of an unimaginably complex network can be fairly cost-effective.
One system suffering from inefficiency is our water and energy distribution networks. The numbers are staggering. We lose significant quantities of pumped fresh water to leaks, and we waste twice as much energy as we use worldwide every year. This is quite the bottleneck. Residential and industrial loads cannot do any good in maintaining higher efficiency if energy is already wasted in distribution. Any effort to enhance the efficiency of this water-energy nexus must start at the distribution level. Fortunately, public utilities, cities, corporations and consumers are joining forces to address the challenge of water-energy waste. And the one attractive technology that everyone is invested in turns out to be making the distribution of water and energy smarter with mesh networks tracking water transportation. Utility companies would like to attach 50 cent wireless microcontrollers to every critical point in the distribution mesh of water and energy. Once we do this, we can sit back and watch the miracle of electronic brains dynamically adjusting water flow and energy loading to guarantee unprecedented levels of efficiency. For example, the U.K. government has installed 13.8 million smart meters in peoples’ homes, as of December 2018. This is only the start of a global trend to use IoT.
IoT can go beyond making distribution more efficient. More importantly, it can more effectively integrate clean energy sources. Classically, energy systems were built around power plants coming from one end and loads that dissipate energy on the other. However, power grids are witnessing a dramatic change, and the need for sustainable energy is driving a shift toward a more decentralized model. Rooftop solar panels could be used to power up neighborhoods. Smart grids enter the picture to create this complex, dynamic energy transfer.
We are also seeing operators deploy IoT sensors across thousands of oil wells and supporting production equipment in the oil and gas sector. IoT technology monitors and reduces the leakage of methane, a toxic greenhouse gas more potent than carbon in the first 20 years within the atmosphere, which is responsible for 25%of global warming.
This decentralization of distribution systems enables further outreach of energy and water. About 2.1 billion people around the globe lack access to clean drinking water. Unfortunately, to expand the current legacy water and energy distribution infrastructure, we need to build new central distribution units. These are extremely expensive. On the other hand, an IoT-enabled decentralized distribution will make it possible to extend the water and energy distribution outreach to rural villages at a much more manageable cost. This will serve underprivileged populations. I like to envision electricity and fresh water finally arriving at a rural village that was ever so dark and isolated before IoT. While this may not affect the world globally, it subtly improves the overall human condition.
In 2015, the United Nations (U.N.) adopted a sustainable development initiative that targets achieving important sustainable development goals by the year 2030. The goals are centered on great causes that serve humanity. Noteworthy goals focus on solving major world problems such as ending poverty and hunger. The second tier of sustainable development goals basically improves the water-energy nexus efficiency. These are challenges that IoT can solve.
It’s really up to all of us in the industry to make IoT do more good for humanity. And there is so much room to do so. The industries underpinning IoT are profitable and growing. Economic opportunities to invest in IoT are massive, and the interest in making it happen is persistent. The build-out of IoT on a mass scale is going to happen, and yet the way it will be shaped and the problems it will solve will be left up to the market and the makers to decide. Developers and providers are in a position of moral responsibility. And we need to ensure that the work we put into making this technology serves humanity in the best ways possible.
What could potentially go wrong, given the massive economic opportunity in IoT, is getting distracted from doing good by the lure of revenue from other markets and applications. Revenue is an important driver for healthy industries and organizations. We use revenue to make sure that we aren’t fooling ourselves, and that we are on track for sustaining our businesses. Yet, this could be a slippery slope. We need to be careful when we look at revenue. It should be one of many instruments and in no sense could it be viewed as an end goal. We need to balance business decisions that focus on revenue growth unattractive. And to resolve this, we need to make our goals more and more profitable. Fortunately, this is not terribly difficult in the world of the IoT. According to IoT Analytics, 75% of the developing IoT projects are serving the U.N. 2030 initiative, which is a remarkable contribution.
Despite the massive opportunities of IoT, it also comes with its share of security and privacy threats. A massive connectivity of things provides a surface vulnerable to attacks. Also, the collections of terabytes of data about our homes and industries pose a privacy threat. We do not want to live in a world where this data falls into the wrong hands. People have gone Orwellian imagining IoT being abused by a big brother-like body or government. They aren’t completely mistaken. Yes, IoT poses a threat, but so do many other disruptive technologies. Yet, as Ronald Reagan once put it “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.” We ought to take estimated conscious risks as we evolve as a species. This goes hand in hand with doing everything possible to prevent those risks from happening. Ensuring the best security possible for cloud-connected IoT end nodes is not a specification that customers require; it is an obligation and a responsibility that we all bear together.
While home automation might seem superficial — the world seems much bigger than a light bulb — it subtly serves good causes. Consider how home automation can aid the elderly or those with disabilities. Consider home security systems that can help keep us safe. And more importantly, consider the revenue IoT brings to sustain other greater causes. The same chips we develop for smart lights can be applied to smart utility meters, smart health monitoring devices and many other mechanisms that can enhance our health, safety, access to energy and water and ultimately benefit humanity.
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