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Extending the
lifespan of
IoT sensors in
industrial devices

Author: Poornima Apte

The Internet of Things (IoT) and the Industrial Internet of Things continue to surge in reach and popularity. In 2014, about 13% of businesses reported using IoT technology in their operations, McKinsey reports. That number has grown to 25% today. By 2023, the number of IoT devices in use around the world is projected to reach 43 billion, three times the number in use in 2018.

While the promise of IoT sensors is the ability to monitor critical assets in real time from anywhere, a larger question has long plagued researchers: Exactly how are these 43 billion devices going to operate?

A power problem

To do what it does, an IoT device needs an IoT sensor, which observes a particular property of an asset and measures useful data about it. An IoT device temperature sensor, for example, could monitor the temperature of a motor on the manufacturing floor and relay that information for analysis or alert maintenance teams to potential problems. Or a sensor could monitor the proximity of nearby obstacles to help keep an autonomously driven car safe and on track. The parameter possibilities are nearly endless—sensors could measure light, vibration, humidity and much more. You name it, and it is likely that an IoT sensor could measure it.

The problem is that each sensor needs a power source—and the sheer number of IoT devices poses a significant power draw. Outfitting each device with a battery might seem like the easiest solution, but that presents several challenges. Too much time and too many precious resources would be required to develop, install and change batteries on 41.6 billion devices. Equally challenging is that IoT sensors are often placed on critical assets in remote locations or hazardous areas. Return on investment would diminish sharply if IoT devices were to rely on traditional sources of power.

To drive return on investment, IoT devices will need two things: a sensor that consumes less power and a source of power that lasts—and lasts for at least 10 to 20 years.

Batteries not included

To address those constraints, researchers are leaning into two energy-saving attributes: on-demand wake-up and energy harvesting.

On-demand wake-up means that IoT smart sensors only kick into action when they're needed; the rest of the time, they're asleep. An IoT device that tracks foot traffic in a building foyer, for example, would wake up only when somebody walks past.

IoT smart sensors that harvest energy are, in a sense, self-sustaining, as they draw small amounts of power from everyday processes. A sensor attached to a door handle in a smart building could harvest the mechanical energy from every turn of the handle and save that energy to its power source. Photovoltaic cells could power an IoT sensor by harvesting energy from light. If their power expenditures were low enough, these self-sustaining IoT devices could theoretically run for decades.

Wider network needs

An effective IoT system needs more than low-powered IoT devices to do its job—it also needs a robust, secure and reliable network to relay and process data.

An IoT network is larger than its devices; it also incorporates the gateways that corral and route data and the systems that relay and process data. Exactly where the data is processed—in the cloud or at the edge—depends on the application, but this is the broad playing field in which IoT devices work. A low-power wide-area network is an ideal setup to support IoT smart sensors that cover large geographical distances and demand low power performance.  

IoT networks also need the capacity to relay large volumes of data. 5G networks could be uniquely suited here as they offer the speed and capacity needed to reliably relay the sensor information that many IoT applications, including autonomous driving and robot-assisted surgeries, need to function. Network security is also a major concern, especially because IoT devices can be an easy entry point for cyber attackers.

The future of IoT looks promising, and the barriers to its adoption are, on a large scale, being eliminated. With sensor longevity and wide-area network technology starting to work together, the promise of revolutionary IoT applications are now that much closer to being realized.

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1. IDC, Worldwide Global DataSphere IoT Device and Data Forecast, 2019–2024, Doc #US46718220, July, 2020.