There’s a revolution afoot in the environmental monitoring sector, with technological advances meaning we can get smart about environmental monitoring.
A revolution in efficiency has been gaining a steady pace over the past number of years. This is driven by a demand to better understand and protect our fragile environment and the scarce resources such as water, energy and air upon which society depends. It focuses on developing intelligent, interconnected machines that are part of the massive Internet of Things (IoT) network.
Such machines can efficiently use sensors to collect data in real-time, and instantly send messages and alerts to other machines, managers and operators. According to the World Economic Forum, by 2020 IoT technology will see more than 50 billion things connected to the internet. Gartner even estimates that IoT product and service suppliers will generate incremental revenue exceeding $300 billion in 2020.
Until recently, environmental monitoring has been a labour-intensive, low-tech endeavour that has involved manually measuring parameters by physically going to a measurement site and gathering data as often as possible. It is, therefore, a sector that could benefit greatly from the application of a range of modern technologies that have found uses in many other industries in recent years.
Such an application could provide data at a much higher frequency, and gathered in an identical way each time. It could provide better quality data without the need to contend with the inefficiencies of the past. As well as remotely monitoring sites, embracing M2M technology would make it is possible to remotely run diagnostics in order to track the performance of instruments in real-time.
In aiming to meet the needs of the environmental monitoring sector a fusion of advanced technologies is needed. The key technological advances that are allowing environmental monitoring to join the efficiency revolution include:
Modern sensors have reduced in size and cost dramatically. Simultaneously, the technology has shrunk allowing more parameters to be measured by a particular unit. New technologies on the horizon such as graphene, fibre optics and ultrasonic gas sensors are set to further expand the ranges of parameters that can be measured, with better ranges, accuracies and resolutions.
The latest semiconductor manufacturing allows for far more computing power in a much smaller space. This trend allows for smaller, smarter digital devices, ideal for deployment in compact, remote applications.
In order for automated environmental monitoring to be sustainable, the technology needs to avail of renewable power. With much research ongoing into batteries and solar panels, many combinations are available that can allow systems to run indefinitely. Smaller batteries with greater capacity (such as lead-crystal) can be recharged by compact, more efficient solar panels.
Since measurement sites will generally be far removed from Wi-Fi networks, it falls to mobile phone networks to provide the means of communication. This can be in the form of mobile data protocols, such as 3G/4G or even GPRS. In the (still quite common) situation where a data connection is not available, measurements can be packaged into SMS text messages which can then be forwarded to a web application using a service such as Twilio. For the remotest of regions, where even GSM cannot be found, it is even possible to use satellite technology to relay information.
Innovation in this important element of M2M communications is moving rapidly. Vodafone has recently created a state-of-the-art cloud and analytics platform for IoT services which will provide the technologies, processes and best practices that will enable reliable and trustworthy solutions for hyper-connected industries.
Gathered data can be sent to a web application hosted on a cloud server. Cloud computing provides an alternative to hosting your own server on-premises. The benefit of this is the security of a facility built for this purpose by one of the biggest names in technology (Amazon, Microsoft and Google all have cloud computing offerings), the removal of maintenance responsibilities, and access from anywhere with an internet connection.
These technical enablers result in robust sensor networks that provide up-to-date knowledge of what is happening on-site regardless of distance, terrain, weather or manpower availability. The resulting data from such a system could be securely made available online, either raw or processed in the cloud in order to extract more relevant and useful knowledge.
By making the switch to sensor-connected “Internet of Things” technology, users can optimise processes, reduce operating costs, and collect detailed insights about the environment they are monitoring.