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Easy Being Green: Why the Internet of Things Will Help Sustainability

September 26, 2016 • Internet of Things, Social Impact, SUSTAINABILITY & ETHICS, TECHNOLOGY

By Joy Tan

 The Internet of Things is just one of the technologies that is re-shaping the world. It is not only perceived as a tool to efficiently improve work, but it will also deliver maximum economic and commercial benefits – like making the world better and more sustainable.

 

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers broadly to the system created by physical objects that are connected to the Internet. Industry 4.0, a part of the IoT, usually refers specifically to manufacturing in a factory setting. Huawei reckons that about 55% of the IoT will consist of manufacturing, utilities, and smart cities, while the remaining 45% will involve consumer applications such as home appliances and vehicles, including driverless cars.

The IoT will contribute to agriculture and crop management by taking the data from connected objects and using it to improve farm performance‚ a trend that has been underway for more than a decade now.

Because connected devices provide data on how people actually use them, companies will have a rich new source of information about how to better manufacture, operate, and service nearly everything they make. Data from connected objects will also save businesses a lot of money. Last year, Huawei’s Global Connectivity Index, which looks at how countries use technology to foster economic development, asked what would happen if efficiencies created by the IoT made supply chains, manufacturing processes, and other workflows 1% less expensive. Annual projected savings ranged from US $350m in some industry sectors to US $1.2b in others.

Beyond making processes more cost-effective, the IoT will also improve sustainability in a number of areas. One key sector with potential for dramatic improvement is agriculture and crop management. The UN estimates that to meet growing demand for food, worldwide farm production will have to rise by 70% between now and 2050. Since most arable land is already being cultivated, the only way to meet that target is by achieving higher crop yields.

The IoT will contribute by taking the data from connected objects and using it to improve farm performance, a trend that has been underway for more than a decade now. In 2001, John Deere, a maker of agricultural machinery, began putting global positioning systems on its tractors. GPS showed farmers which patches of land they had left untilled, while helping them avoid going over the same ground twice. This lowered fuel costs by up to 40% and helped farmers use fertiliser and herbicides more efficiently. The IoT will improve things even further by digitally linking tractors, tillers, and harvesters, then collecting the data gathered by farm equipment and integrating it with information about weather forecasts, soil conditions, irrigation schedules, and overall farm performance.

To meet growing demand for food, worldwide farm production will have to rise by 70% between now and 2050.

IoT technology is already making a difference in drought-stricken California, where almond growers have harnessed the power of the cloud to conserve water (one study showed that it takes nearly a gallon of water to grow a single almond). Sensors planted in almond groves track moisture levels in the soil, sending that data to the cloud for analysis and then passing the information back to the irrigation system, which modifies its water output accordingly.

As a result, thirsty crops like almonds, grapes, walnuts, and pistachios use water more efficiently. Some farmers who currently use this system consume 20% less water than before. Soon, farms will become less vulnerable to fluctuations in the weather. Crop yields will rise, farming costs will decline, and consumers will pay less for food.

The IoT will produce benefits in areas beyond agriculture as well.

• Power grids will be equipped with sensors that allow operators to manage power loads more efficiently, check meters remotely, and locate faults in the grid before they cause critical problems. Power plants, transmission towers, and transformer components all will be integrated into the network.

• Buildings will respond to environmental changes in temperature and lighting, automatically conserving energy and reducing carbon emissions. Huawei recently conducted a pilot experiment in a four-storey office building with a total floor area of 5,000 square meters. After a year, the newly installed energy control systems had saved the equivalent of 165 tons of coal and 436 tons of carbon dioxide. If this pilot program were rolled out across China, it could save millions of tons of coal, while substantially reducing air pollution.

• Factories will add network connections to the machines that make cars, steel, building materials, and even other machines, monitoring the consumption of energy and the discharge of pollution.

The IoT will also go a long way toward reducing electronic waste. Laptops, tablets, smartphones, and wearable devices eventually reach the end of their useful lives and become e-waste. Every year, this happens to millions of household appliances and consumer electronics, which collectively represent about US $390b of input value. McKinsey has estimated that about $52b of that value can be recaptured through re-use, re-manufacturing, and recycling.

Because objects in the IoT are embedded with chips and sensors, they can be tracked throughout their life cycles. For example, a washing machine that might otherwise end up as landfill can be scanned and decisions made about whether to re-furbish it or harvest some of its components for remanufacture. This not only reduces waste, but also lowers the cost of inputs and the labour-intensity of assembly, resulting in a smaller carbon footprint for the refurbished machine.

After a year, the newly installed energy control systems had saved the equivalent of 165 tons of coal and 436 tons of carbon dioxide. If this pilot program were rolled out across China, it could save millions of tons of coal, while substantially reducing air pollution.

Even public infrastructure that we normally take for granted can be made more sustainable by the IoT. Street lights, for example, account for about 6% of the world’s carbon emissions. That’s why Copenhagen, which aims to be carbon neutral by 2025, is installing smart lights that brighten or dim according to conditions on the ground. At the same time, sensors in the lights can monitor variables such as pedestrian and vehicle traffic, air pollution, noise levels, and weather conditions. Analysing these data will help engineers determine which lights are most effective in lowering costs and
carbon emissions.

Even though we can’t see it, the network that transmits society’s growing volumes of data plays a central role in our lives, and every day, new technologies increase our dependence on the network. Cloud computing, big data, the Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, driverless cars, augmented reality, 3D printing, robotics, and remote healthcare delivery are just a few of the technologies re-shaping our world. Our reliance on these technologies, and therefore on the network, will only deepen with time. By 2025, an estimated 7 billion people will have some form of digital connection. Add the connections among machines, and between machines and people, and we’re looking at 100b connections worldwide.

Because these technologies extend across different parts of the economy, different industry sectors will have to start working together in a way they have never had to do before. A new, collaborative model will be needed, one that relies less on proprietary platforms aimed at locking out competitors, and more on systems that harmonise across industry sectors.

Ultimately, it is our willingness and ability to collaborate, combined with a long-term focus on innovation, that will help the IoT bear fruit. Sensors in everyday objects will improve the way factories operate, farmers bring crops to market, and cities provide services to their citizens, giving people access to always-on support in their homes, workplaces, and vehicles. By working together, we can develop the cross-industry standards that allow the IoT to deliver maximum economic and commercial benefits, while building a more sustainable, and better connected, world.

   

About the Author

joy-tanJoy Tan is President of Global Media and Communications at Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd., where she leads a diverse team of communications and media affairs professionals globally. Her team is committed to communicating Huawei’s innovation and best practices as a global technology leader. She has global expertise for over 15 years in marketing and communications for various industry sectors like telecommunications and energy.

 

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