Can the Internet of things solve environmental crises?

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This is an edited excerpt from the book "Building the Internet of Things" (Implement New Business Models, Disrupt Competitors, Transform Your Industry) by Maciej Kranz, published by John Wiley & Sons. 

I recently met with a water utility company providing water and wastewater services for a major metropolitan area in the United States. We discussed their comprehensive approach to ensuring a clean water supply for the city, starting with source protection, water treatment and the distribution system.

Think of their challenge: Regardless of the mix and concentration of pollutants or microbes present in the source of water (a river), they must ensure that they deliver a consistent supply and quality of water leaving their system for consumers. By the way, since the creation of the utility some 80 years ago, the number of people they serve has quadrupled.

No surprise that they turned to the internet of things (IoT) for help.

The utility started with the deployment of a variety of sensors testing physical, chemical and biological parameters. They partnered with a startup to connect legacy sensors and to collect the data these sensors generated real time. Then they moved to implement diagnostic, predictive and prognostic analytics that help them manage assets, assure water quality, quickly identify water leaks and also anticipate the quantity of water required in the city the next day. They are now looking into adopting an augmented reality system for emergency management preparedness.

We are all aware of the environmental challenges facing both the developing and developed world. Polluted air in cities, lack of potable water, industrial waste, dirty and inefficient energy sources, to name a few. The good news is that IoT is starting to help in many of these areas.

Cities are deploying systems that monitor air quality and noise levels and can recommend actions as simple as regulating traffic and vehicle access to the city center. Governments and cities are installing tsunami, flood, earthquake, or wildfire warning systems. Select farmers from India, Sri Lanka, China, Kenya, South Africa, the United States and Italy are already benefiting from smart irrigation systems that reduce water consumption, increase yields and improve predictability of crops in the fields and in greenhouses. Several cities in California are using smart water meters to monitor and reduce the water use by households during drought.

We all know how much food is being wasted and spoiled during improper transportation and storage in both poor and rich countries. When entrepreneurs combine the power of IoT telematics and cloud-based systems with micro-payments and with modern supply chain best practices (replacing traditional and highly inefficient informal distribution networks), the resulting market structure transformation can dramatically reduce both spoilage and the cost of food to the consumers.

Entrepreneurs, governments, non-government organizations, enterprises and research institutions are increasingly adapting IoT technologies to the realities and cost structures of the developing economies.

Key to the success in these efforts has been not to blindly implement solutions from the developed world, but instead to identify specific issues or use cases particular to a given country or a region and to leverage IoT technologies combined with creative funding and business models to address them.

As a result, potable water and air quality testing tools, animal protection or deforestation control systems, and even clean indoor cooking solutions, are being piloted in Africa and Asia. 

One of my favorite examples was a pilot of Smart Handpumps Oxford University Kenya. Since the majority of people in rural Africa get their water from wells using handpumps, making sure that such pumps work is a key concern. To help with this issue, the Oxford team came up with a simple yet ingenious solution. They installed motion sensors in the handles of these pumps and connected them to the cellular network. When a pump stops functioning, a repair team, who is incented to make timely repairs, is alerted.

The result: the dramatic increase in uptime of pumps and wells. In parallel, the system also collects the actual water consumption data that can be used for water system prioritization and planning.

In the spring of 2016, Germany reached the milestone of providing almost all of its energy needs from the wind and solar power at least for part of the day. Portugal ran four days entirely on renewable power. Denmark set similar records.

Wind power has increasingly been a key component of energy strategy for many countries driven by their carbon footprint and sustainable development initiatives. A wind farm is a perfect example of a sophisticated and highly complex IoT system in action that incorporates all four fast payback scenarios.

It is a combination of sensors, predictive analytics, predictive maintenance, remote monitoring, fog and cloud, plus a myriad of wind turbines connected into what functions as a single integrated organism tightly coupled with the power grid.

Jorge Magalhaes, senior vice president of engineering and innovation at Vestas, one of the leading manufacturers of wind turbines, summed it up perfectly: "IoT allows us to not only combine, but correlate, multiple inputs such as weather and wind predictions, expected demand for electricity, current dynamic performance and usage of components and materials to make decisions ahead of time about how best and how hard to run which turbine in the system, when to plan and schedule maintenance when it is most economically viable."

We are just getting started. From tsunami or wildfire warning, air pollution monitoring and prevention to smart agriculture, food management and safety and finally to clean energy, I am optimistic that IoT-based solutions can help address key environmental issues across the globe. The key to their success is that they make both economic sense and help the environment. However, it is critical that these technical solutions be both grounded in hyper-local business and cultural realities as well as accompanied by business process and market structure innovations sorely needed in many countries.