The Internet of Things is the imagined network of data links that will emerge when everyday objects are fitted with tiny identifying devices.
The idea is that every parcel in a post office would transmit its position, origin and destination so that it can be tracked and routed more efficiently, that every product on a supermarket shelf would transmit its contents, price, shelf life and so on, that your smartphone would interrogate the contents of your fridge and cupboards every time you walk into the kitchen to warn you when the milk is running low. And so on.
Each of these things will enhance our businesses and lifestyles in a small way. But taken together, this Internet of Things will entirely transform the way we interact with the world around us. That’s the hope at least.
But there’s a problem: these tiny identifying devices require a power source. Batteries are expensive and impractical so computer scientists are hoping to harvest the necessary energy from the environment, in particular from lights and from human motion.
The question is how much energy is available in this way. That’s relatively straightforward to answer for indoor lights (about 50-100 microwatts per cm^2). But the energy available from human motion is much harder to assess.
More info here.
A wireless vibration sensor being developed by a Victoria University student could provide a low-cost solution for engineers to monitor the damage of buildings affected by earthquakes – and, more impressively, harnesses the kinetic energy generated by the tremors in order to power itself.
Daniel Tomicek has been working on the innovative device – designed to be placed at several locations around a building to monitor the stress sustained by different areas during an earthquake – as part of his final year research project.
It also uses the energy of the building’s movement during an earthquake to power itself, measuring the acceleration of the movement, and transmitting information in the form of data packets to an off-site computer. The greater the vibrations, the greater the energy harvested and the more data packets that are sent.
The data can then be used by engineers to help assess the extent of damage to the building.
Currently, no sensor exists in the marketplace that doesn’t rely on batteries or electricity supply to run, he says.
Tomicek has been testing the sensor’s capabilities at Te Papa’s Earthquake House in its Awesome Forces exhibit, where the device monitored ‘earthquakes’ at the house over the course of a week.
“Testing at the Earthquake House was a real success. The device managed to sense each earthquake and send packets of information for each one.”
He says he was inspired to create a kinetic sensor after a friend worked on a similar project during a summer research scholarship at Victoria University.
He had also heard about applications being developed in Europe, where special springs added to dance floors in nightclubs can harness an electrical current generated by the movement of dancers, which is then stored in batteries and used to run devices.
More info here.
On Wednesday 25 April you are invited to join IDTechEx for a free webinar, where Raghu Das will discuss:
During this webinar Raghu will cover the latest IDTechEx research on Energy Harvesting
for small electric and electronic devices. IDTechEx’s latest ten year forecasts will be revealed and dissected, with examples of success and failure. Areas of under and over supply in the supply chain will also be identified.
The Internet of Things could have a mind-boggling 24 billion devices connected by 2020 and that means there will be more than three times the amount of connected devices as people on the planet by that time. So, how will the world power all of these gadgets and machine-driven devices? The answer, beyond plugging all of those devices into the grid, will include farming tiny slices of power when available, from sources like the sun, vibrations, mechanical energy, heat and more.
Here’s five ways the Internet of things will be powered:
The sun: During the day, when the sun shines down, it’s a relatively passive energy source that largely remains untapped. A couple years ago Peregrine Semiconductor started working with Kansas State University researchers on an energy-harvesting radio that gains power from a board made of solar cells taken from low-end calculators. The rest of the setup (see photo) includes a low-power integrated chip — originally developed for a NASA Mars project — to store the data, and a radio to transmit the data every five seconds. Another more recent innovation is researchers developing organic and polymer-based solar cells that are thinner than spider silk that MIT Tech Review says “can be bent and crumpled and still produce power.”
Flipping a light switch: GreenPeak is a company that sells battery-free wireless chips and network hardware that can create wireless sensor networks for industrial and commercial buildings that don’t use batteries, but harvest energy when it’s available. GreenPeak has been developing tech for “Self Powered Switches,” which are essentially a light that can run off of the power generated by switching a light switch on and off. A company calledEnOcean is developing this sensor tech, too.
Human motion: People powered motion sparks the imagination of jogging powering iPods and footsteps providing juice for iPhone. Remember this energy collecting knee brace?
Vibration: UK firm Perpetuum makes a device that capture vibrations and converts them into energy. The last time I had talked to the company it was selling its products to industrial companies for between $750 and $1,000 for various volumes of 500 to 1000 nodes. Widely accepted standards could bring that cost down, and developers could incorporate the technology more into the residential environment.
Changes in temperature: As MIT Tech Review writes: “devices could be powered just bydifferences in temperature between the body (or another warm object) and the surrounding air, eliminating or reducing the need for a battery.”
More info here.
When you think about how to power a distributed network of environmental sensors–the kind we’ll want to have in order to connect the entirety of our physical world to the Internet of Things–the answer is obvious: solar power. Most of these sensors are by nature too tiny to have access to much of a temperature gradient, and a steady supply of vibrations isn’t always available. Batteries have limited lifespans and add bulk and expense.
That’s one of the reasons that organic and polymer-based solar cells are so interesting, particularly the latest development: A polymer-based (i.e. plastic) solar cell thinner than spider silk that can be bent and crumpled and still produces power.
From the abstract of the paper announcing their development:
These ultrathin organic solar cells are over ten times thinner, lighter and more flexible than any other solar cell of any technology to date.
This solar plastic only converts 4.2 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity, which is awful by the standards of conventional polycrystalline solar cells, but absolutely miraculous when you consider how thin and versatile this material could be.
For example, Tsuyoshi Sekitani from the University of Tokyo, one of the researchers on this project, told the AFP that this material could be worn on clothing like a badge, to power a personal health monitor. So why not a thin film under a protective shield, on the back of gadgets, so that prolonging their battery life is as simple as leaving them in a sunny spot?
When it comes to the Internet of Things, tiny sensors require tiny amounts of energy, and that’s exactly what organic solar cells can provide. Price and size are the factors that will determine whether or not they become ubiquitous, and this announcement suggests that it’s only a matter of time before both requirements are met by organic solar cells.
More info here.
In 2011 the market for energy harvesters reached US$700 million, with the majority of the value going into consumerelectronic applications, where energy harvesters have been used for some time. Approximately 1.6 million energy harvesters were used in wireless sensors, resulting in $13.75 million being spent on this market segment. The next few years will see a growth in the adoption of energy harvesting for wireless sensors with the market for industrial applications reaching US$140 million by 2017. Wireless sensor networks will be as big as US$200 million with bespoke military/aerospace applications reaching US$210 million (Market data taken from the IDTechEx report “Energy Harvesting and Storage for Electronic Devices 2011-2021”, http://www.IDTechEx.com/energy).
The volume of harvesters (in units) sold into each of the market segments will vary significantly, mainly because of the different size/power output/specifications for each harvester in each market segment. For example, military and aerospace applications will account for approximately 70,000 units of high value harvesters in 2017, whereas industrial applications will reach over 40 million units.
More info here.
There are some very exciting high growth projections for wireless sensing for the Automation industry. More sensors mean more process efficiency, lower operating costs, lower maintenance costs, higher reliability, and greater safety. Wireless sensing provides the opportunity to install masses of sensors with virtually no cost of installation by reducing the need for cables carrying the signals from the field to the control room. Wiring costs can easily be 80%, or more in a hazardous area, of the total cost of installing a new sensor. Who wouldn’t like to get the same job for one-fifth of the cost or five times as many sensors for the budget? And it is not just the cost of the installation; there are many cases where plant has to be shutdown to facilitate installation adding another massive sum to the cost of new sensors.
Most of us routinely use wireless (cell phones, Wi-Fi) for communication, and the potential for machine-to-machine wireless communication is considered to be even larger. Wireless transmission of sensor data is now well established as a reliable method of monitoring industrial plants. It is even being perceived by some users as more reliable and maintenance free than hard wiring.
This whole new approach to Automation has been made possible by the convergence of new technologies:
- Low power electronics including microprocessors with sleep modes
- RF transmission systems that use digitally encoded signals (e.g. digital television and Wi-Fi) with an order of magnitude less power required than older analogue systems
- New energy harvesting techniques
So why is there so much interest in energy harvesting? Simply, you cannot get the full benefit of wireless unless the power source is also wireless. This means either a battery or some form of energy harvester. Until recently, the usual power source available to power a wireless sensor node or network (WSN) has been batteries. With their limited and non-deterministic life span, hazardous content, shipping and disposal requirements, batteries alone are not likely to provide a power source that will last the life cycle of the WSN application without maintenance intervention. The ideal solution is an energy harvester that is “fit and “forget” and will have a lifespan in excess of the WSN that it is powering.
More info here.
MicroGen Systems, a startup based in Ithaca, New York, is developing energy-harvesting chips designed to power wireless sensors like those used to monitor tire pressure and environmental conditions. The chips convert the energy from environmental vibrations into electricity that’s then used to charge a small battery. The chips could eliminate the need to replace batteries in these devices, which today requires a trip to a mechanic or, for networks of sensors that are widely distributed, a lot of legwork.
The core of MicroGen’s chips is a one-centimeter-squared array of tiny silicon cantilevers that oscillate when the chip is jostled. At the base of the cantilevers is a bit of piezoelectric material: when it’s strained by vibrations, it produces an electrical potential that can be used to generate electrical current. The cantilever array is mounted on top of a postage-stamp-sized, thin-film battery that stores the energy it generates. The current passes from the piezoelectric array through an electrical device that converts the current to a form compatible with the battery. When the chip is shaken by, say, the vibrations of a rotating tire, it can produce about 200 microwatts of power.
“If you can get it down to a small size, 200 microwatts is potentially quite useful,” says David Culler, chair of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, and a pioneer in developing wireless sensor networks for environmental monitoring and other applications. However, he notes, engineers are developing “zillions of harvesters” that produce energy from light, heat, radio-frequency waves, or vibration, and convert it into electrical energy that can be used right away or stored on a battery. Culler believes solar power is the technology to beat for most wireless-sensor applications.
More info here.
Tiny generators developed at the University of Michigan could produce enough electricity from random, ambient vibrations to power a wristwatch, pacemaker or wireless sensor.
The energy-harvesting devices, created at U-M’s Engineering Research Center for Wireless Integrated Microsystems, are highly efficient at providing renewable electrical power from arbitrary, non-periodic vibrations. This type of vibration is a byproduct of traffic driving on bridges, machinery operating in factories and humans moving their limbs, for example.
More info here.
The WSN & RTLS Summit, collocated with Energy Harvesting and Storage, will be held in Denver, Colorado, US on 3-4 November 2009. It will explore wireless locating and sensing, exposing the development of wireless sensors, using both traditional RFID-based technology and new mesh network-based technology.
Real Time Location Systems (RTLS) are gaining momentum in the industry. The benefits of an instant and accurate account of assets and people means that RTLS is being used in manufacturing, healthcare, the military, postal and courier, leisure and retail sectors.
More info here