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Connecting devices to save the planet

Earth Day – the annual, global event promoting environmental protection – takes place on Saturday 22 April. To mark it, we look at some of the ways in which the Internet of Things can help to protect our environment

First published on April 21, 2017

​Conversations around climate change are no longer speculative – for example, recent statistics have revealed that 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded – and we need to focus instead on mitigating the damage already done and reducing any further impact on the environment. Technological innovation could hold the key to doing that – and improve our quality of life at the same time.

In particular, the Internet of Things (IoT), though still a relatively new technology, is already having an impact on sustainability and helping to protect the environment.

Gartner predicts that, by 2020, there will be 20.8 billion connected devices worldwide. This growth in the number of devices exchanging data and information creates ways to harness this technology to help protect our planet. From monitoring household energy consumption to identifying areas at risk of deforestation, the IoT can help governments and environmentalists track harmful trends in our most at-risk ecosystems, as well as helping to reduce domestic energy consumption and waste.

Smart energy solutions

The most common use of the IoT in protecting the environment is in smart home systems. These provide homeowners with convenience, comfort and the ability to manage consumption through connected devices.

A good example is the Honeywell connected thermostat, which can communicate with geolocation-enabled mobile devices to determine when to turn central heating on or off, saving on wasted energy. Users are able to set it up so that, when the last family member leaves home, the heating is automatically set to "economy mode", and when the first family member gets close to home, it turns the heating up again.

Smart energy solutions like this provide real-time visibility into consumption and billing data, helping consumers to conserve resources, while energy and utility companies are better able to balance production to meet actual demand – reducing brownouts and other potential issues. TAURON, one of largest energy suppliers in Poland, for instance, is already leveraging IoT technology to address these challenges.

These systems also enable operational efficiencies that require fewer service visits to measure meters, resulting in reduced labor costs, the benefits of which can be passed on to consumers.

The chief environmental effect of these technologies is that they reduce household energy consumption, helping to lessen our contributions to climate change.

Addressing real-world problems

But this is just scratching the surface. The IoT really begins to show its potential in the application of machine-to-machine (M2M) technologies to deal with some of world's most severe environmental issues.

There are a number of environmental projects under way that harness the power of the IoT. One of these is Gemalto's partnership with Cargo Tracck involving a device that tracks when trees in the Amazon rainforest are moving. The device helps to identify illegal logging operations and supports South American governments in shutting them down and preventing deforestation. It's a great example of how M2M technology can be applied creatively to efficiently address real-world problems.

The potential of IoT technology to help society improve the environmental health of our planet is huge – we're even seeing devices such as Ashwood Lightfoot's smart dashboard monitors for connected cars helping to manage fuel consumption, and thus emissions. Meanwhile, M2M communication is giving conservationists the opportunity to foresee environmental threats far earlier and take measures to avoid them.

Renewable energy deployment

More than one billion people around the world live without access to electricity. In response, the UN recently launched an initiative to support its Sustainable Development Goal # 7: universal access to sustainable energy. In developing countries, it is often too expensive to build the roads, lay the cables and develop the infrastructure needed for traditional power grids. The International Energy Agency says that two-thirds of the population of sub-Saharan Africa lives 'off-the-grid'.

Solarkiosk, a German company, designs and supplies solarpowered energy and retail outlets to off-the-grid communities. In addition to delivering clean energy, the mobile Solarkiosk E-HUBB units provide cellular connectivity, education, healthcare services, clean water and financial inclusion. First launched in 2012, each of the E-HUBBs is powered by at least 2kWp of photovoltaic capacity, enough to charge about 150 mobile phones every day, power small appliances such as laptops and run solar refrigerators containing perishables and medicines. They are equipped with Gemalto's secure Cinterion® wireless connectivity modules, allowing consistent monitoring and reporting on the performance of each unit. By the end of 2016, Solarkiosk operated 150 projects in 11 countries, providing approximately 1.5 million people with energy services. They are deployed where people are most in need such as in remote rural areas in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as refugee camps in the Middle East.

Driving change

These types of initiative are proof that the IoT is already driving a number of vitally important environmental projects. It presents businesses, policy-makers, environmental organizations and others with an immense opportunity to develop smarter and far more ecologically beneficial solutions.

On a smaller scale, the strength of the IoT stems partly from its accessibility. Consumers will become increasingly familiar with how the technology can help reduce damage to the environment, and will begin to adopt increasingly more energy- and environment-friendly products. As a result, it will become easier to focus on not just improving our own quality of life through technology, but also that of our planet.​

TAGGED IN iot; internet of things; m2m; technology