The explosion of IoT is almost here.
Written by: Behdad Bahrami, Founder/CEO at Edgecom Energy
It’s 8:56am on Monday. You get in your Tesla and after you press one button it pulls out of your garage. You put your coffee in the cup holder and join your 9am zoom meeting from your iPad. The car has your calendar preloaded and it knows your next meeting is at 10:30am downtown at your client’s office. You get to the office, the car drops you off at the front and goes to find a charger somewhere. You get in the elevator and are greeted by a virtual assistant who already knows where your meeting takes place, she sends the elevator to that floor. As you get off the elevator, OLED screens built into the walls flash a large arrow to let you know where the meeting room is. You get to the conference room, it’s already pre-cooled to your desired temperature and the lights have your exact preferred colour temperature and brightness pre-loaded. All this tech and convenience and the building uses 30-50% less energy than a typical building of the same size. Why don’t we have this yet? And more importantly, should we even want it?
We should want this, because the future of the planet depends on improving how we consume energy, water and gas. Smart buildings use significantly less energy than the baseline. Not only do upgraded buildings use less energy, but when they consume energy can be optimized to reduce emissions and improve the resilience of the local grid.
Additionally, this will happen because large building owners care about profits. Smart buildings, such as the one mentioned above, will be more comfortable, use less energy and cost less to run. This leads to higher rental rates and lower operating costs. The economic imperative for upgrading buildings is huge, and IoT is a major part of this.
To carefully manage the energy inside a building, many different operational aspects need to be connected. We need to know where the people are situated and what temperature they prefer. We need to predict when occupants will use energy the most and how their aggregate consumption will shape the overall consumption profile of the building.
So why hasn’t this happened yet?
The answer is easy; current solutions are expensive, slow, mostly unreliable, and hard to integrate. With the next wave of IoT solutions on the horizon, all of these problems will be fixed. Many platforms are emerging with off-the-shelf components and APIs allowing contractors to jerry-rig something together, but a holistic approach is required.
First, let’s clearly define what IoT is
Like flying cars, some technologies always seem to be on the verge of exploding, and IoT is one of these (Who knows, the flying car thing might be for real this time).
From Wikipedia: “The Internet of things (IoT) describes the network of physical objects—“things”—that are embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies for the purpose of connecting and exchanging data with other devices and systems over.”
Basically, IoT means ‘things’ are connected instead of just devices. Instead of adding a motion sensor to your wall for a security system, imagine it being built into the light fixtures. Instead of occupancy sensors to control the lights, imagine a smart carpet that knows exactly where building occupants are right now.
A huge need and drive for the adoption of IoT is in the energy management space. Nowhere else is the case for real-time, cheap, fast sensors more obvious. The benefits of IOT for improving efficiency are just starting to emerge and the results will be staggering. This is because there is so much waste in buildings – on average, 30% of the energy used in commercial buildings is wasted!
Why now is the time for IoT?
Technologies always reach a tipping point when a few underlying trends converge. For example, the iPhone reached the market just as chip efficiencies, mobile network speeds, and capacitive touch screen tech were ready for prime time. That convergence is happening right now for IoT and the advent of 5G will be the final tool that makes IoT practical.
So what had to converge for IoT?
1 – Battery Limitations
Since the commercialization of Lithium-ion batteries, there has not been any major breakthroughs in battery technology. Only steady and slow improvement in capacity, lifecycles and costs have been achieved. We expect this to continue. Instead, engineers have been working on the other side of the equation, the consumption. Computational power per unit of energy consumption has been slowly improving for decades. With the newest chips (from ARM and other vendors), new possibilities have emerged. Edge devices which are powerful enough to run machine learning algorithms now cost under $50 and use the same power as a typical LED lightbulb.
2- Protocol Evolution
Easy, quick, wireless connectivity has become the norm for smart homes and our personal gadgets. But with commercial and industrial IoT solutions, reliability is more of a challenge as there are hundreds or thousands of devices that need to interconnect across large distances and through many floors of concrete. Many different wireless protocols are now maturing, each with their own pros and cons. There is no one-size fits all solution for IoT yet. Between ZigBee, Z-Wave, LoRa and NB-IoT there are factors like range, bandwidth and ease of connectivity that come into play. Each protocol has it’s own advantages and understanding the trade-offs is the key to a successful deployment.
Luckily, 5G has many of the issues covered.
3 – Installation Costs
The available protocols have made connectivity simpler and quicker. In the not-so-distant past, a highly qualified IT technician was required to setup the network by running LAN and an Automation Programmer was required to program, connect and commission the devices. With IoT, the initial setup of devices is easier than connecting to bluetooth in your car. This significantly reduces the cost and time duration of deployments.
4 – System Costs
Not only have the performance of sensors, batteries, and other components improved steadily, their costs have come down sharply. Whereas a 4G gateway would cost upwards of $2,000 a few years ago, the same device can now be purchased for under $100. Auxiliary devices such as power supplies and batteries have also come down in price.
5 – Network Costs and Security
The cost of high bandwidth internet has been steadily declining. Security concerns mean that, in many cases, the IoT network needs to be fully separated from the IT network. As costs have come down, setting up an overlay network powered by 4G is cost-effective, safe and reliable.
The real world implications of IoT will lead to more comfort and productivity while improving efficiency. Improving efficiency is one of the main tools we have to ensure that the planet’s limited resources are used effectively. By measuring, tweaking and optimizing the normal things we do day-to-day and finding areas for improvement, we can reach the end-goal of a truly sustainable society. IoT is one of the major building blocks which will enable this future. Now is the time to make it happen!