Is IoT Sacrificing or Saving Our Environment?

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The internet of things is an ever-expanding industry filled with home appliances, digital sensors, and wearable smart devices. Speculation is widespread about how the 23 billion odd "things" will improve the quality of life, modernize business processes and, in due course, deliver economic benefits that will amount to the tune of $11 trillion yearly by 2025.

That is all well and good, but other factors should be considered, especially the impact of such an immense network of devices on the environment. With the full possibilities of the IoT yet to be explored, even professionals are divided on the issue of whether progress in the IoT industry will result in salvation or disaster for the environment.

But they all agree on the fact that we can't afford to wait and find out.

In an interview, Kerry Hinton, who is the former director of the Centre for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications at the University of Melbourne, disclosed that the internet of things was going to be the largest, most sophisticated technological equipment ever deployed in the history of the planet. The implications and possible limitations, such as IoT's consumption of power and the use of rare earth metals, must be considered right from the very start. He further said that the extent of power consumption of the IoT industry would depend largely on the types of deployed devices and their functions.

It is true that low-power-and-data transmission devices, such as sensors which detect when vending machines must be refilled, are highly unlikely to cause a dramatic increase in energy bills. In fact, many such devices won't have to tap into the building's main power supply at all because long-lasting batteries are capable of doing most of the work. Some devices are being developed which could power themselves either by using the heat from sunlight or their own vibrations.

Nevertheless, industry experts predict the emergence of a whole new tableau of increasingly more energy-hungry and complex devices such as those that will use video surveillance. Such devices will not only need power to function, but there will also be a sizeable increase in the size of data surging through the veins of the internet. According to a visual networking index by Cisco, which carries out a continuous survey of ongoing trends in data consumption levels, traffic from internet video surveillance nearly doubled from 2014 to 2015 and, by 2020, it is expected to increase 10-fold.

The issue of energy consumption by IoT technologies when considered on a device-by-device or a house-by-house basis may not register as a substantial increase in the overall level of power consumption, but when multiplied across a country such as Australia, it will necessitate the setting up of an additional one or two power stations.

In addition, the sheer volume of data being stored and transmitted is set to skyrocket. Over the years, advances in data storage technologies have made it more energy-efficient. Instead of the typical relegation to servers which are held in energy-inefficient backrooms, data is now being processed and stored on the cloud.

Furthermore, IoT devices and technologies could contribute significantly to considerable water and energy savings. Concepts such as "energy harvesting" form a huge component of innovation which the IoT could specifically drive. Furthermore, sensors present in smart buildings could, when needed, ramp up temperature controls, dim the lights if no one is around, and alert the maintenance crews to incidents such as water leaks. There exist a whole lot of possibilities in this area, and the IoT is poised to make changes that could improve the world.

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