Skip to main content

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Last updated September 2022

Creating a network of connected smart ‘things’ will make humankind more productive than ever. And it will be better for the environment too…

In his book More From Less writer Andrew McAfee challenges the widely held assumption that mankind is plundering the planet to the point of destruction. Rather, he argues, we get more efficient all the time

Official data backs him up. In the US, average corn yields remained relatively flat through the 1800s to the 1930s. In the period since 1940, they increased more than five-fold.

But industrial production is not just becoming more efficient. It's also getting cleaner. US government data shows that – despite a big rise in GDP – aggregate levels of six common air pollutants fell by 77 percent between 1970 and 2019.

How is any of this possible?

There's a simple answer: innovation.

As McAfee says: "It happens because resources cost money that companies would rather not spend, and tech progress keeps opening up new ways to produce more output (like crops) while spending less on material inputs (like fertilizers)."

The good news is that this innovation cycle is still going strong. In fact, there's one particular technology is set to deliver a new set of remarkable improvements.

This is, of course, the Industrial Internet of Things.

In the Industrial IoT, more and more devices will to go from ‘dumb’ to ‘smart’. They will share data with each other seamlessly, and then use machine learning to modify that data in real time. These modifications will make processes run faster and more efficiently. 

According to analyst Juniper Research, the number of Industrial IoT connections will leap from 17.7 billion in 2020 to 36.8 billion in 2025

The productivity gains will be huge. The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates the industrial IoT alone could add $14 trillion of economic value to the global economy by 2030. 

But here's the interesting thing. In line with the argument put forward by thinkers like McAfee, experts believe this growth will be good for sustainability.  

The WEF argues that 84% of IoT deployments are currently addressing, or have the potential to address, the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals. It says: "Our analysis supports the intuition that many share – that the IoT has development benefits that could be maximized without compromising the commercial viability...The IoT could be a game-changer for sustainability."

One way that the Industrial IoT can do this is by enabling a circular economy, in which waste materials are used to create new products. Researchers at Delft University of Technology have investigated this. They have identified five IoT capabilities to that make this possible.

•    Tracking. IoT sensors share information about a product’s identity, location, or unique composition.
•    Monitoring. IoT sensors share information about a product’s use, condition, or environment. This includes alerts and notifications.
•    Control. Manufacturers can remotely control a product’s functionality through software, based on predefined options. This includes pushing regular updates.
•    Optimization. Enterprises can make on-going improvements to operations through the use of advanced algorithms.
•    Design evolution. The design of a product or service can be improved based on data feedback from other lifecycle phases. This includes functional upgrades and the development of new products and services.

Meanwhile others have gone further and made concrete projections about the ability of the IoT to be resource-efficient. 

In its Sustainability in New and Emerging Technologies report, Transforma Insights made the following predictions for 2030:

•    IoT’s net effect on fuel consumption will enable a 3.5 PWh reduction of (hydrocarbon) fuel.
•    IoT will conserve nearly 230 billion cubic meters of water – thanks to improved smart water grid operations, crop management and remote pest control.
•    IoT will increase global electricity use by 34 terawatt-hours (TWh) but will be offset by the more than 160 TWh of electricity conserved by IoT solutions.
•    IoT solutions will collectively enable one gigatons benefit in CO2 emissions.

It goes without saying that a sustainable IoT can only flourish if it is also secure. The Industrial IoT's billions of devices will unleash a tsunami of data. Every end point will be a potential entry point for attackers, and every data stream an opportunity to listen. Without robust security, malign forces could easily corrupt the network.

But securing ‘things’ poses a different set of problems from securing people. Humans can answer questions and enter secret codes. Machines require different methods of authentication. This makes it difficult to establish the true identity of a remote object. 

Security experts say the best strategy is to build in security from the ground up across three locations: the device, the cloud and the communications channel between the device and remote servers. Thankfully, the industry is now developing standards so that every player in the value chain can at least adhere to the same basic technologies and design principles.

The above projections offer many reasons to be optimistic about the long term impact of the IoT. But we don't have to wait until 2030 to see results. Multiple existing use cases are already delivering. Let's explore a few.

Smart farming

How can we get more from less? Sounds like a contradiction. But the farming industry has 'squared this circle' consistently for the last 100 years. 

Now, with the global population set to hit 9.8 billion by 2050, the world will need to grow as much as double the amount of food we do today – and do so using obviously finite resources such as land and water.

Smart agriculture – powered by the IoT – looks set to make this possible. 

While past improvements were mostly mechanical in nature, digital tools will deliver the next leap in productivity. Real time sensors located in the field or embedded in equipment will help farmers to know more about their land and livestock and therefore make better decisions about where to allocate effort and resources. 

This is sometimes called precision farming. And many innovative companies are already putting it into practice.

France's Bilberry, for example, is one of a handful of innovators — others include FarmWise, SeeTree, Smart Ag and John Deere-owned Blue River — to have developed a smart crop spraying solution. Its system places cameras on the crop sprayer, which use computer vision to analyse the images in real time. Armed with this data it sprays only the weeds. What's more, the solution also stores the information to give farmers a richer map of their land.

Bilberry says its tool can reduce the usage of herbicide by more than 80 percent while protecting the environment and lowering the costs for farmers dramatically.

Moreover, the core computer vision tech can be applied in other areas too. Bilberry has also trained its system to 'see' and sort bad potatoes on a conveyor belt. Human operators traditionally do this work, but it is boring and prone to errors.

Needless to say, this agricultural revolution can only happen when there is reliable connectivity even in remote regions. In the past, this was difficult. 5G will change everything. Rural areas will likely get a form of 5G called ‘low-band’, which will have less capacity but will extend into previously unserved areas.

Connected cars

When it comes to sustainability, one of the most important ‘things’ in the internet of things is the car. A connected – usually electric – car is kinder to the environment that its gasoline-based equivalent. There are multiple reasons why.

Let’s start with the source of power. Electric cars reduce emissions at the manufacturing stage and when in use. Indeed, research from the University of Nijmegen found that lifetime emissions from electric cars can be 70 percent lower when the electricity they run on comes mostly from renewables and nuclear.

Then there's predictive maintenance. When a sensor analyses vehicle data and diagnoses a fault, it can report it over the air to a mechanic. It might even be able to anticipate and rectify issues before they occur. This is not possible for unconnected gasoline-based cars. And it keeps vehicles on the road for longer.

Cars do not just connect to their manufacturers. They can also ‘talk’ to each other and to the environment around them – traffic systems, lighting, parking, power. All of this makes it possible for city planners to make real-time adjustments to avoid congestion and bottlenecks. And when traffic moves more efficiently, this also reduces emissions.

A more subtle impact of the connected car revolution could be the rise of new ownership models. In a future where a car could be 'dialled up' via a smartphone, many drivers might wonder if they need to own a car at all. Ride hailing via companies like Uber, Didi, and Ola is already testing this 'mobility as a service' (MaaS) model. 

And the MaaS concept is also fuelling the rise of newer forms of urban transport such as e-bikes and scooters.  Bike-sharing companies let users click a QR code on the bike’s handlebar to unlock it. In a sense, products are really just IoT sensors on wheels. And it's easy to see why people have embraced the concept when 60 percent of car journeys are currently eight kilometres or less. 

The MaaS model also supports the idea of going ‘multimodal' – i.e. moving between different transport options to meet the need of the moment. In Finland, a startup called MaaS Global has already launched an app called Whim with a monthly plan that includes access to train, bus, taxi, rental car, or bicycle. They call it the ‘Netflix of transport.’ Whim has reportedly persuaded 12 percent of Helsinki residents to abandon their cars.

The smart grid

One of the key challenges of the transition to clean energy is the unpredictability of renewables. Solar and wind are unreliable compared with fossil fuels. One way to deal with this is to devise new types of energy management. 

Enter the IoT-powered smart grid.

Existing power grids are inflexible. They are designed primarily for one-way distribution from producer to consumer. Their inability to detect energy spikes, equipment failure and power outages means they cannot respond to changes and route power to where it's needed in real time. This means the grid must have some excess generating capacity above the anticipated peak to meet any increased demand. 

Smart grids are different. In a smart grid every component in the network – transmission line, substation, cogeneration, outage sensor, meter – is connected. These nodes all collect real-time data, which the power company can crunch in order to direct energy to where its needed.

This matters. Why? Because according to the International Energy Agency expects global energy demand will increase by 37 percent by 2040.

Smart grid trials have been under way for around a decade. But 5G will accelerate developments. 5G is faster and can support more connections than previous cellular generations. It can also be 'sliced' to allow large enterprises to control their own mini-networks. 

In the UK, Vodafone has already begin a trial with UK Power Networks, ABB, General Electric, and Siemens to create a sliced network. The partners will build edge software and applications into each substation so they can "respond to dynamic changes to the electricity network, including future demands caused by large-scale shifts to renewable energy, electric vehicles, and electric heating."

Vodafone estimates that the solution could save 63,702 tonnes of CO2 by 2050 if rolled out nationally.

Cold chain logistics

A third of all food produced each year is wasted. It's even suggested that high-income countries discard as much food as sub-Saharan Africa produces.

As if this wasn't bad enough, the leftover food often goes to landfill where it releases greenhouse gases. Combine this with the energy needed to grow, store and ship it – and it adds up to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

Most of the wastage is avoidable. Food rots because it gets too warm or takes too long to arrive at its destination. 

The obvious remedy for this is to keep products in exactly the right conditions 'from farm to fork'. At present, in most cases, human workers check temperature-sensitive goods and record them on paper or into a spreadsheet. Needless to say, the system is inefficient and prone to error.

Now, thanks to the IoT, embedded temperature sensors can track fluctuations in temperature at all times, relay the results to the cloud and make constant adjustments. 

Specialist companies such as Dyzle have now developed systems that combine temperature monitoring and GPS tracking. They can measure everything from door status to humidity to air pressure.

IoT to improve biodiversity

Can IoT tech help to repair damage done to the natural environment? A number of projects are already reporting good results. A good example concerns bees.

By some estimates, bee colonies have declined by 90 percent since 1962. One cause of this Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is believed to be a  mite named Varroa destructor. Pesticides can help. But the world does not want or need more pesticides. 

The world needs bees.  And the IoT and big data hope to revert the trend.

Eltopia has developed a smart beehive frame called BeeSafe that monitors hive temperatures and prevents mites from reproducing. When thresholds are met, BeeSafe sends commands back to the controller to increase heat in specific regions of the hive, sterilizing mite larva.

Related articles: 

How smart farming technology is planting the seeds for 21st century agriculture

IoT: the high growth success story

Connecting the smart grid: building strong relationships

Using connected cars to go greener

Analyzing ocean conditions with the IoT