Startups, Academics Focus on IoT's Weak Link: Power

Batteries represent a design problem for Internet of Things devices, especially those used in very dense or widely distributed networks. But some researchers and startups believe they can address this shortcoming through energy harvesting.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Dec 01, 2016

Following a series of high-profile distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that leveraged thousands of poorly-protected Internet of Things devices—and following years of warnings from security experts that such an event was likely—the IoT industry is finally beginning to design better digital security features into products. But there is another elephant in the room, when it comes to the long-term viability and sustainability of IoT technology: the many shortcomings of battery-powered IoT devices.

Battery lifecycles vary widely, depending on the number of sensors supported, the amount of data collected and the frequency with which the battery-powered device collects and transmits data. In some use cases, a network of distributed IoT device could run for more than a decade before its battery needs to be replaced. In others, the batteries might last for only ten months or a year. In either case, the battery often represents an Achilles heel.

Lord Paul Drayson
But it does not have to be that way, says Lord Paul Drayson, a British entrepreneur and politician. During the 1990s, he ran a successful biotechnology firm, then served in a number of U.K. government positions before getting into electric vehicle racing and, in 2015, founding Drayson Technologies in order, in part, to tackle the IoT power problem.

"Individual sensors have energy requirements that add up, and if you look at IoT from the perspective of the whole system, it hits you that unless energy and data are addressed, IoT will not meet its potential," Drayson says. Aside from the material costs, disposal problems and labor implications that battery-operated IoT sensors present, he notes, there is also a supply problem, in that lithium is a limited resource.

Drayson Technologies has earned and has filed a number of patents used in Freevolt, an energy-harvesting technique that harvests ambient radio frequency (RF) energy from existing wireless and broadcast transmissions to trickle-charge sensors devices. (Drayson Technologies also develops machine-learning software to manage IoT networks to create smart sensor networks used in business applications.)

Drayson Technologies has commercialized Freevolt via CleanSpace, a project in which individuals (including a group of bike messengers in London) are issued sensors that track carbon monoxide and ambient temperature and transit this data to a carrier's cellular phone via a Bluetooth connection. The sensors contain a dedicated transmitter that basically sniffs for ambient RF energy. Once a sufficient RF density is available, it uses inductive power transfer to charge the device. The sensor data collected is used to crowdsource a real-time air-quality map of London, and, through partnerships with businesses, individuals who carry the CleanSpace device receive discounts if they pledge to drive less, thereby reducing their personal contribution to air pollution.

"Energy density from [ambient] RF is going up all time," Drayson states. "So functionality [of energy-harvesting devices] is going to increase." However, he explains, when energy-harvesting techniques are applied, energy efficiency must be designed into everything from the circuit design to the software, to how the devices are programmed. To control those variable, Drayson Technologies is deploying end-to-end solutions.

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