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Ludovic Deblois' Column - Here Comes the Sun: Solar Power and the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) has become huge. While some of these devices seem frivolous, others are very useful because they optimize industrial processes. In any case, the IoT requires a lot of energy and battery life is key. To make these devices energy independent, several device makers are using solar power.

This revolution is silent and barely visible. Imagine a pallet of flowerpots sitting in a Chinese port, ready for shipment to Europe. The pallet has an RFID chip and when it passes by a shipping agent with a receiver, the chip instantly transmits its position to the device, sending the pallets’ position to a logistics manager 10,000 km away. Think of a New York City water pipe, whose flow is adjusted remotely and in real time thanks to a sensor, which is connected to a network. Or look at your watch, which communicates in real time with your smartphone, which then send your health data to a faraway server. There is also the thermostat of your house or apartment, which records internal data — temperature, humidity, etc. — and then pilots a plethora of connected devices such as the air conditioner.

7 devices per person

The Internet of Things (IoT) is no longer a myth, it has arrived in force, although it is nearly invisible. The numbers cited are dizzying and, to be frank, sometimes contradict each other. Nevertheless, the figures are impressive: in 2020, the Internet of Things should number 50 billion connected devices communicating with applications in the cloud, compared with ‘only’ 14 billion today (). That will be an average of more than 7 objects per person on Earth…

IoT actors have a bright future ahead. Research Nester estimates the global IoT market (industrial and consumer) should reach almost $ 724 billion by 2023. Markets & Markets sets the figure at $883 billion in 2022, while Applied Materials predicts the market will grow to 4,000 billion dollars! There are consumer applications such as the well-known smart watches, but there are also industrial applications (B2B).

Whether electronic chips or cards, cloud-based software platforms, or business or service solutions, Markets & Markets estimates industrial IoT at $ 113 billion in 2015, set to reach $195 billion in 2022 — with an annual increase of 7.89%. The start-up Connit stands out in industrial IoT by monitoring water consumption, building parameters, and industrial processes.

The useful and the weird

In fact, the service actually provided is more important than the connected device itself. For consumers, it’s about creating new services. A few of these new wearables are pretty odd, even ridiculous. Others have clear advantages. For example smart watches, far from merely telling the time, play an important role in monitoring health especially for people with chronic diseases (diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, etc.) or addictions. While the smart watch market is somewhat capricious, 21 million were sold in 2016.

The connected (and soon self-driven) car also has a promising future and will need to regularly exchange data with remote servers.

Solar watches

This unprecedented growth in IOT raises important questions: how will we power all these new devices, and what will the environmental impact be? For the consumer market, the main challenge is battery life. An ever-increasing number of smartwatches offer systems such as solar cells to postpone recharging. Some companies, such as SunPartner, offer photovoltaic films that integrate into the surfaces and enable devices such as watches, mobile phones, phone casings, and so on to power themselves entirely or partially from light. Manufacturers like Casio are also interested in solar. Others are trying to capture the heat recovered from contact with the human body, such as Matrix Industries.

Robust and easy to manage

In industry, the function of IoT is to monitor products and machines, to ensure maintenance and inventory, to prevent theft and breakdowns, to better understand operations on site, and to improve future design. The goal is to reduce operating costs by optimizing processes and tracking malfunctions and waste. “Coupled with artificial intelligence, industrial connected devices improve margins. For example, locomotive engines manage to reduce their fuel consumption by 1% to 2%…Their maintenance schedule is also monitored. As a result, they are repaired well before they break down,” explains Vincent Champain, CEO France of GE Digital.

Solar powered weather stations

These connected objects need to be robust, durable and easy to maintain: simplicity and low energy consumption are key. In some cases, their sensors are powered by the same energy source as the device. Thermostats, for example, are powered by the electrical system of the room they are located in. But what about other sensors?

Solar power is an excellent option. In particular, photovoltaic films, which have the advantage of easily conforming to the shapes and aesthetic needs of many connected devices, such as weather stations. Other solutions are also emerging, such as new technology from the start-up Psikick, which seeks to do away with batteries all together. MIT is also working to develop technology of the future and in Taiwan, the NARL concocted a 3D solar chip for IoT.

What’s the environmental impact?

One question remains: is IoT a threat to the environment or an opportunity? The first impact is clearly the multiplication of devices and thus the consumption of matter. Yet the second impact is using IoT for optimizing industrial processes to make them more energy and material efficient. In some cases, IoT can even go a long way toward protecting the environment: tracking leaks in a drinking water system or reducing the energy consumption of a smart building by equipping it with solar switchable smart glazing. The company Gemalto has also identified a number of IoT applications for protecting the environment.

In Switzerland, several cities even have activated their own LoRa networks. The city of Lausanne, for example, plans to install smart street lamps that adapt to operating conditions. As a result, the city will save more than 620,000 USD, over half of its total budget of 1.15 million USD.