Science fiction writers and fear-mongering pundits have long railed against the “rise of the machines” — a point at which large swaths of daily life would take place without human intervention, with machines interacting with other machines. That future has played out in many ways, though it’s invisible to most of us and lacks the sci-fi drama many envisioned. And it is emerging as a key enabler for radical efficiency and corporate sustainability efforts.
The world of machine-to-machine, or M2M, communications is growing rapidly, largely behind the scenes. It is linked to what’s been called the “Internet of Things,” a vast and exploding network of objects embedded with sensors and able to communicate with one another, take measurements and make decisions — everything from light switches to refrigerators, utility meters to parking spaces. Already, there are an estimated 10 billion connected devices worldwide, compared to “only” about 2.5 billion Web-connected PCs and phones. Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg, in a recent annual report, estimated there could be 50 billion connected devices by 2020. According to ABI Research, more than 5 billion wireless connectivity chips will ship in 2013 alone. Gartner, the leading information technology research and advisory company, recently included the Internet of Things on its list of the top 10 strategic technology trends, higher on the list than enterprise app stores and cloud computing.
What does all this have to do with sustainability? Lots.
For example, the management of buildings and facilities is being revolutionized by M2M-based systems in a range of applications, including security, energy efficiency, predictive maintenance and asset management. M2M is a key technology in demand response, a set of technologies designed to manage customer consumption of electricity in response to supply conditions — by having devices automatically power down during periods of high energy demand, or ramp up on-site generation in response to market prices, for example. Demand response is a critical component of the smart grid, the network of information and communications technology that work in automated fashion to improve the efficiency, reliability, economics and sustainability of the production and distribution of electricity.
In an M2M world, everything that can be connected will be. Commercial and industrial buildings are already being harnessed with thousands of sensors able to monitor, control and optimize pretty much everything down to the component level — a plug, light switch, heating and cooling vent, data terminal, refrigeration unit, etc. — increasingly making predictive “decisions” that anticipate energy needs without human intervention.
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