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A more sustainable IoT

Dr Nicola Thorn

ANDtr and Essex University have begun a project that will look at reducing the power needs of IoT deviceS. Neil Tyler talks to Dr Nicola Thorn.

Technology consultancy, AND Technology Research, has started working with computer scientists from the University of Essex looking at new ways of reducing the amount of power Internet of Things (IoT) devices consume. The project is focussing on energy harvesting techniques to produce what will be ‘truly self-powering’ devices.

The project, part funded by innovate UK, is aiming to create a completely self-powering, battery-less IoT device, that uses AI at its core to intelligently manage multiple sources to harvest power.

“ANDtr has worked with a broad range of customers, from the likes of Renesas and Microchip to start-ups and University spin-outs,“ explains Dr Nicola Thorn, the consultancy’s CEO. “To date, we’ve been involved in over 380 projects worldwide and while we’re seeing more innovation than ever before the gap between prototyping and successful commercialisation remains immense.

“Over the years, we’ve developed an IoT library and development platform that provide the building blocks for developers with modules that cover communications, sensors and software and our c2 technical platform has been helping to revolutionise digital product development.”

The consultancy has considerable experience in ensuring that products are suitable for manufacture and comply with the relevant standards and regulations and ANDtr’s work in IoT has, to date, helped a large number of customers to build scalable, robust, disruptive digitally connected products and that experience is now going to be applied to its project with Essex University.

The project will be using the c2 platform and SOTB technology from Renesas, to overcome many of the technical challenges that have held back the wide-spread use of energy harvesting techniques, such as lowering the in-rush current required, reducing charging times and increasing performance.

The project plans to use multiple power sources, along with artificial intelligence (AI), to make more intelligent decisions on when to charge devices in different environments and pave the way for many more use cases such as wearable devices, smart cities, and remote monitoring.

“There are billions of IoT devices in operation that are dependent on batteries,” explains Dr Thorn. “While the latest battery technology has improved significantly, and energy densities have been boosted to new levels thought unreachable, all these advancements have come at a cost,” suggests Dr Thorn.

These improvements have been achieved with the use of increasingly exotic new compounds mined from around the world that are dangerous to extract and to handle – such as lithium, cobalt, cadmium and manganese.

“Yet, despite these advances battery life is still an issue, especially for those with high discharge rates,” says Dr Thorn.

In fact, non-rechargeable batteries, on average, can’t last longer than three years and rechargeable versions struggle to go beyond 10.

“The disposal of these batteries is a problem and there’s a risk to the environment, especially if that process isn’t handled properly,” Dr Thorn adds. She warns that replacing retired batteries is creating further costs and risks repeating the current cycle of risk and waste.

“When it comes to the IoT there is a big waste issue. There’s a tendency to leave ‘dead’ devices in place and simply replace them and while that it not ‘super’ dangerous, there will be some level of battery leakage. The issue is about cumulative waste from what could be billions of devices. There’s certainly a wasteful attitude towards IoT devices.”

Consequently, energy harvesting at the source of where power is needed could be a key to remedying this problem and is seen as having a vital role to play in ensuring a more sustainable IoT industry.

A more sustainable IoT

According to Dr Thorn the project came together after a meeting at the Institute of Directors (IoD) in London.

“We were attending a Business Development Council meeting and we were showcasing Renesas’ SOTB technology. This is a process technology that is able to deliver an extreme reduction in terms of both active and standby current,” explains Dr Thorn.

SOTB can support a high operating frequency for high performance and small silicon node geometries for high-density memory and the technology is suitable for low-power applications that run from harvested ambient energy.

“A key aim of this project is to be able to demonstrate how this technology can be used and deployed commercially,” explains Dr Thorn. “Its ability to limit in-rush current mean that it doesn’t consume a significant amount of power when it turns on and that’s critical for IoT devices that may only transmit intermittently. We want to better match power and reliability to the needs of designs.”

The work with Essex University will look to use AI and energy harvesting to deliver more efficient and reliable IoT devices. The use of AI means that the team will be looking at a decentralised edge-based system to create energy profiles based on feedback from the individual devices. AI will be deployed to better understand how energy is being harvested and then how, and when, it is expended. That continuous learning will dictate what form of energy the device needs.

“Self-powering, battery-less devices will be a game-changing technology that will unlock the true potential of the IoT, and we aim to use this project to help position the UK at the forefront of the market,” says Dr Thorn.

Self-powering, battery-less systems have potential application in many industries, especially in those where continuous monitoring is required.

“Those markets are varied. One area that we are particularly interested in is the potential health care benefits,” explains Dr Thorn. “Remote continuous monitoring of patients with chronic health conditions, for example, will enable them to better understand their conditions and only seek intervention at an appropriate point. That will help to reduce the need for face-to-face interactions with clinicians and reduce resource implications for the NHS.”

Long term predictions foresee wearable technology as contributing to global cost savings in the order of $200 billion in the health care sector.

Internet of Everything

Working closely with ANDtr is Dr Anisi, head of the Internet of Everything laboratory at Essex.

Commenting on the project, Dr Anisi said, “Our focus is on developing systems capable of reliable and seamless generation, transmission and processing of data.

“Self-powering devices are the way forward, but although there has been some progress in making them a reality, we are not quite there yet. This partnership has the potential to make a real difference to the way we all use the internet, sensors and electronic appliances, from wearable health monitors and smart buildings to intelligent trackers for perishable foods.”

Essex University has exceptional expertise in developing self-powering systems and Dr’s Morteza Varasteh and Hossein Anisi, from the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, are joining the project as it looks to tackle the challenges around developing low-power IoT devices and exploring alternative sources of energy whether that’s solar, via vibrations within our own body or through radio waves.

As Dr Thorn explains, “We want to be able to combine multiple sources of energy on a single device that then, through the use of AI, can model the types of energy it requires at different times and do so efficiently.

“We are looking to remove the need for batteries and our key deliverable from this project will be to develop a prototype battery-less device that is capable of storing different forms of energy and recharging itself.

“It is critical that we demonstrate and develop commercial use cases for the technology.”

The AND Technology Research and University of Essex project started in autumn 2021 and is set to continue through to 2023.

Author
Neil Tyler

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