In Celebration of Earth Day: IoT May be the “Greenest” Type of Embedded DesignApril 23, 2021 by Jake Hertz
With the rise of edge computing, companies and researchers alike are doubling down on sustainability—from tracking endangered harbor seals to monitoring crop growth.
Last year, All About Circuits covered the lasting environmental impact of electronic waste ("e-waste")—especially as it relates to modern PCB design practices. But disposal practices aren't the only way that technological innovations intersect with sustainability. More powerful computing devices and sophisticated software models also entail more energy consumption.
A Nature report predicts that the information and communication technology (ICT) sector alone, which consists of data centers, consumer devices, and networks, is expected to account for more than 20% of global energy consumption by 2030.
ICT energy forecast. Image used courtesy of Nature
The Internet of Things (IoT), on the other hand, is a field that has the potential to benefit the environment in more ways than one.
IoT, Edge Computing, and the Environment
One way in which IoT is considered a sustainable technology is its use of edge computing. While data centers are responsible for approximately 2% of global CO2 emissions, edge computing is significantly more sustainable for two main reasons.
1. Reduced Reliance on Data Centers
First, edge computing helps reduce network traffic and cloud data center usage. Edge computing means that information, which would have otherwise been sent to data centers, is instead processed on the device. This reduces the energy spent on traversing a network and frees up bandwidth over the network.
Block diagram of an example edge processing ecosystem. Image used courtesy of STMicroelectronics
Yesterday, Akamai, a self-proclaimed leader of the intelligent edge, announced a nine-year plan to upgrade its hardware solutions for greater sustainability. The company, which currently hosts 325,000 servers in 1,435 networks globally, intends to tap into machine learning to cache the most essential data to edge servers and eliminate extra trips to the data's origin. Not only will this initiative conserve memory and CPU power consumption, but it may reduce carbon emissions as well.
2. Edge Devices Are Inherently Power Savvy
Edge computing is inherently designed for power efficiency. Most edge devices are battery-powered and resource-constrained, meaning their energy budget is very limited. Still, this year, many semiconductor suppliers have pushed the limits of these already low-power designs even further with, for example, multi-protocol modules and NN accelerator chips for at-edge computing.
Manufacturers like Aspinity are getting creative with ways to conserve edge computing power, as represented in this "analyze-first" architecture. Image used courtesy of Aspinity
Further, many IoT devices employ energy-harvesting techniques, making their energy sources 100% renewable. Some of these techniques include solar, thermal, vibration, and radiofrequency harvesting, or a combination of multiple energy sources.
IoT's Hefty Portfolio of "Green" Applications
IoT is also heralded for its sustainability because of the many "green" applications in which it's deployed.
One popular environmental-facing embedded application is wildlife tracking. For example, the Sea Mammal Research Unit in Scotland is using sensors to tag and track the movement and health of harbor seals, a species that has seen a huge population decrease over the past decade.
Tracker affixed to a harbor seal. Image used courtesy of the GSMA
The scientists will be able to observe and analyze patterns in the seal’s behavior to sketch a complete picture of the population’s decrease and hopefully prevent its extinction.
Sustainable Smart Homes
The consumer-facing notion of a "smart home" is another way in which IoT conserves energy. A modern smart home includes many interconnected sensors that adjust the environment for energy efficiency: smart homes can detect when the house is vacant and turn off lights and lower the thermostat to help save energy.
Semtech's LoRa Core Mbed Shield transceiver for smart home applications. Image used courtesy of Semtech
Household leaks account for roughly 900 billion gallons of water lost every year. To commemorate Earth Day, Semtech announced that it is redoubling its efforts to reduce water waste in smart homes using a series of water metering sensors, LoRa gateways, and LoRa receivers.
Energy-efficient embedded designs also play an important role in the agricultural sector. Smart farming uses IoT devices to constantly monitor and control a crop field (for example) for improved efficiency. In fact, last year, we reported on "ChipSats," or tiny satellites the size of a computer chip, that are used to monitor how temperature, humidity, and ambient light affect crop growth and even the respiratory conditions in farm calves.
Cornell researchers encased each ChipSat and sensor unit in a foam cup to protect temperature readings from being skewed by sustained sunlight exposure. Image used courtesy of John Munson and Cornell University
Using IoT solutions, farmers can reduce waste and enhance productivity, enabling the efficient use of resources such as water and electricity. Agriculture is a notoriously large contributor to CO2 emissions and resource consumption, and improvements in this field could have huge impacts.
The Most Sustainable Technology?
Power efficiency is never far from an engineer's thoughts—but this focus is often primarily linked to design-level considerations—not environmental ones. Still, the ramifications of energy-conscious designs make a significant impact on sustainable electronics as a whole.
Between offering extremely efficient operations, utilizing renewable energy, and enabling a plethora of environmentally-friendly applications, there is certainly an argument to be made that the IoT is the “greenest” technology.