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The edge is on your mango: Energy harvesting and IoT

Devices that collect energy from their surroundings are a foundation for a connected world of smarter things.

Imagine being able to place sensors or switches anywhere you want in a room or on a factory floor, or in articles of clothing, razor blades, millions of vials of vaccine, or even freshly picked heads of lettuce—literally in any place where supplying power with traditional wiring is just not practical or feasible.

Now picture these same devices operating without batteries or having any reason to ever wear out or fail. This is the opportunity energy harvesting makes possible.

Please read: Beyond batteries: How new technologies are fueling energy storage

'Lick, stick, and forget'

Energy harvesting devices are electronic devices that collect the ambient energy from their surroundings and emit a signal back to some other device.

Because energy harvesting devices are so easy to install and require no maintenance once deployed, "lick, stick, and forget" is how Michael Tennefoss, vice president of IoT and strategic partnerships at Aruba Networks, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, describes the way they work.

The most popular of these devices are thin, stamp-size sensors that harness low-power, 800 to 900 MHz radio frequencies and energy harvesting systems to generate electricity from sources as diverse as:

  • Vibration and motion
  • Solar and other light energy
  • Temperature change or other thermal energy
  • Radio frequencies (RF)

The ability to take advantage of these different energy sources enables extraordinary versatility. Customers can choose the appropriate energy source depending on the application, the physical and spatial requirements of the device and location, or the environment in which they're placed. For example:

  • On a factory floor or other location where RF energy is pervasive, the device could harness energy from the radio waves themselves.
  • A heating system could use ambient light to power occupancy sensors that activate office climate controls.
  • A switch could harvest the mechanical energy from a user turning the switch on and off to power itself.

Ancient concept, advanced technology

Though modern energy harvesting is a relatively new technology, the concept of self-powered devices that harvest the energy in their surroundings has been with us for centuries.

From at least the time of Alexander the Great, the ancient Greeks have used running water to power mills to handle tasks ranging from grinding wheat and cutting lumber to carving stone. Self-winding watches, which collect power from the motions of the watch, have been around for decades.

So it should come as no surprise that this oldest of mechanical concepts is being used today to help solve fundamental issues involved with edge computing and the explosive expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Please read: The secret life of IoT sensors

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) estimates that as of the end of 2020, more than 50 billion Internet-connected devices were in use, a number more than six times the population of the planet. And that's just the start. The total number of electronic sensor devices needed to monitor, activate, or connect "things" of all types to the Internet is expected to soon surpass 1 trillion and reach an almost unfathomable 50 trillion within the next 30 years. Simply put, the world of connected things will be a world dependent on sensors.

So, how are we going to supply and power these trillions of sensor devices? Energy harvesting systems offer a powerful new tool to meet the challenges.

Today, more than 7,000 types of energy harvesting devices are already on the market. And energy harvesting is already a key technology underlying the energy and environmental sustainability concepts integral to the smart cities movement.

Already, energy harvesting devices have been installed in more than 1 million new commercial and residential buildings and homes worldwide. Among the most popular applications are building and industrial automation, smart homes, and LED lighting systems. An example is the Philips Hue smart switch; the light itself has a power source, but the switch is simply stuck to the wall by adhesive. Pressing the button on the switch powers a wireless signal to the light to turn on, off, or dim. The switch can be put anywhere in a room, requiring less wiring in the walls.

Overall, the global market for these devices has reached about $450 million and is estimated to grow to more than $1 billion by 2027. And as the adoption of IoT and edge computing continues to blur the boundaries between the physical and the digital, the possibilities and benefits of energy harvesting devices expand.

Please read: IoT low-power WAN to improve quality of life in India's cities

One such possibility is the use of digital twins, which are live models of an organization's physical operations. With low maintenance sensors so cheap, a digital twin gives IT current and detailed information on infrastructure to a detailed level. Combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning, a picture of problems emerges much earlier than with older methods.

Used in conjunction with the processing power of cloud networks, IoT devices, and operational technology (OT) networks, energy harvesting sensors enable enterprises to collect the real-time data needed to elevate basic connectivity to the new level of contextual data analysis that's needed to digitally mirror an organization in real time, something Aruba calls hyper-awareness.

A world of smarter things

The ability to use energy harvesting sensors to tag, track, and trace virtually anything in the global supply chain also makes a new model for consumer sales possible. Energy harvesting devices enable the evolution of a global, customer-centric demand chain that provides continuous visibility across the supply chain, including in-store. Demand signals sent in real time from the sensors attached to goods or products create a new connected world, not just of things but of smarter things, all connected to the cloud.

For example, imagine a tag that uses motion to monitor a mango as it makes its way through the supply chain and into a store. That tag could measure and report on the ripeness of the fruit to the supplier, retailer, and maybe even the customer.

Tags such as these can't communicate on the Internet directly but rather to a local monitoring device that reports to the merchant or supplier. If the customer has the right hardware and consents to and enables tracking on their own network connection, the tracking could continue beyond the sale. Consider a tag to track a shirt from where it's made through its entire product lifecycle, including how it's used after it's sold to the consumer. This is all possible, but what incentive consumers have to agree to that is unclear.

In a very real sense, the sheer ubiquity of sensors that can be attached to anything brings a new level of consciousness to the supply chain and to things in general.

Connect anything

Two of the most innovative businesses in the energy harvesting industry are EnOcean, a company spun off from European industrial manufacturing giant Siemens in 1998, and Wiliot, a startup founded in 2017.

EnOcean holds more than 100 patents central to energy harvesting and control. It is the linchpin to the EnOcean Alliance, an industry association composed of more than 400 businesses developing or marketing self-powered, battery-free devices for IoT and industrial automation. Members of the alliance, which includes Aruba, are committed to using wireless standards to ensure interoperability with leading cloud providers and other technology partners.

Among the most popular EnOcean solutions are sensors that use kinetic energy to trigger a switch that, in turn, activates the device and powers the radio transmission from that device. Another is an array of light energy harvesting devices, including sensors designed specifically for indoor low-light environments in buildings, homes, offices, and other enclosed environments.

Wiliot creates waterproof, battery-free Bluetooth tags with a focus on consumer product experiences. Wiliot is a pioneer in developing sensor tags that harvest the energy generated by the radio frequencies from the access points themselves to power the tags as well as transmit their data.

Devices that harvest the energy from their surroundings offer a foundation for a connected world of smarter things. For organizations looking to maximize the value of their IoT and edge computing investment, the proven technology of energy harvesting is worth a serious look.

Lessons for leaders

  • The potential to use swarms of sensor devices with no power or maintenance requirements enables new levels of intelligence and efficiency.
  • There are new incentives for new construction in which energy harvesting sensors make the building hyper-efficient.
  • Costs throughout business processes may drop with the addition of energy harvesting sensors.


This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.