There’s plenty of talk about the negative aspects of connected devices. From faulty security to privacy concerns, critics only seem to grow louder as more devices proliferate contemporary life. What many neglect to focus upon, however, is the Internet of Thing’s incredible potential for good.
IoT can actually make the impossible possible. The United Nations has identified 17 goals for sustainable development by 2030 and connected devices are set to prove critical to achieving many of these lofty goals.
For example, smart agriculture is empowering farmers to produce better crops and more food, in turn driving down food prices and availability in the fight against hunger. IoT projects are bringing clean water to developing regions, and helping connect all the elements of power production and consumption to unlock green, affordable energy.
An impact in but a handful of these fields have the potential to positively transform global society and should be kept in focus as the technology only continues to evolve in the aftermath of COVID-19. Let’s look at three ways connected devices are helping to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goals amidst the “new normal”.
Goal #1: Zero Hunger
Ending hunger, achieving food security, and improving nutrition are major societal obstacles that have only been thrown into relief by the current pandemic. As recognized on World Population Day – July 11 – the global population continues to steadily rise toward 8 billion people in the midst of a health crisis that affects food systems. This impact is disproportionally felt by the poorest among us, with The World Food Programme warning against a “hunger pandemic” as a result of virus restrictions in regions like Latin America.
Global farming, if left unchecked, will need more land to feed more mouths. Therefore, The UN is calling for sustainable agriculture in an effort to produce higher quality food in larger quantities over the next decade. Smart farming, aided by the power of IoT, is a step towards making this a reality.
Smart farming is expected to produce two major changes in the way food is produced. First, precision farming is expected to bring control and accuracy to farmers by arming them with the most up-to-date information on their cattle or crop. For example, field sensors to record the weather and soil sensors to determine moisture empower farmers to best use their resources.
Second, automation and data. Better-connected farms are likely to allow farmers to do much more with less. New agricultural tools will make farms more efficient and automate the crop or livestock production cycle, ideally leading to more food at cheaper prices for our ever-growing global populace.
Goal #2: Clean Water and Sanitation
Despite some progress, billions of people still lack access to clean water and sanitation. According to figures from The Water Project, 783 million people – or one in nine people on our planet – do not have access to safe and clean drinking water. Moreover, more than half of the world’s population lack safely managed sanitation, and 3 billion people lack basic handwashing facilities at home – the most effective method of coronavirus prevention.
Many water systems have been installed worldwide in the fight for clean water but 65 percent are reported to break within the first two years. This is because traditional water filtration systems rely on user fees and proper oversight to preserve the infrastructure, often leaving donated solar pumps and filtration systems broken for years in desperate communities. There is major potential, then, for smart solutions to oversee the ongoing maintenance of installed water systems to ensure the supply of clean water.
Take the work being done by Oxford University on water metering and conservation in East and West Africa. Researchers have found that installing accelerometer sensors into hand pumps can accurately detect if the pump is working and how much water is being produced by it. Another research program is using this data – which is transferred via GSM network to a central server – to determine the depth of the water beneath the pump in order to monitor its condition. This enables an accurate breakdown prediction to be made before the pump actually stops working with the aim of reducing downtime to zero.
Sensors in this way generate very useful insights. Indicators related to water distribution can be obtained near real-time, pressure within pipes can be measured at different locations to reveal leaks, and water quality can be measured continuously. Moreover, sensors show promise in sanitation by linking to appropriate back-end systems to determine when a pit or sanitation tank has reached capacity and needs to be emptied. Fixing and maintaining water systems is vital in securing supply and IoT is showing great promise in this effort.
Goal #3: Affordable and Clean Energy
While steps are being made to bring affordable and clean energy to all corners of the globe, there is much progress to be made in the 2020s. Roughly 840 million people continue to live without electricity – down from 1 billion in 2016 and 1.2 billion in 2010 – with renewables contributing only 17% to the global energy grid. Wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal power, and biomass energy are growing in the general move away from fossil fuels and connected devices are driving efficiency and automation in this shift.
IoT connects all the elements of power production and consumption, improves visibility in the processes, and provides real control at every step of energy flow. Sensors and connected devices allow companies to access real-time energy data and transmit it to the power grid for advanced storage and analysis. The benefits are two-fold, with connected devices enabling decision-makers to build data-driven optimization strategies and users to understand their energy consumption habits and adjust accordingly.
Automation is particularly important when it comes to generating clean energy. In wind or solar, for example, IoT devices can help detect the most favorable conditions for energy production and automatically change the direction of turbines or panels. Using devices and their data for the monitoring and efficient working of these power generators enables for maximum efficiency to improve power output and reduce operating costs. Not only does IoT enable better operation control in this way, but it also improves safety on the premises.
As in the case for more reliable water supplies, maintenance for clean energy systems is also hugely improved with IoT. Generation, transmission, and distribution sensors enable remote asset monitoring and management, something of import when energy production plants are distributed and social distancing is mandatory. Meanwhile, better load management is possible thanks to new insights on voltage control, load switching, and network configuration. Ensuring access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy for all requires new efficiencies – and these are being made possible by IoT.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals have been seriously underscored in the international fallout of COVID-19. They were important before the pandemic, now they are integral. Hunger, thirst, and energy needs have only become that much more pronounced in the downturn following the pandemic. Action must be taken, and connected devices and multi-use sensors offer a way to achieve these endeavors in the face of uncertain recovery. When implemented cautiously and conscientiously, IoT presents an opportunity to change the fate of billions for the better.