15-08-2020 | By Sam Brown
Recently, Vodafone has announced that they will be teaming up with DEFRA to monitor tree growth, and other environmental data, to help combat climate change. What does IoT mean, how are sensors crucial to IoT technologies, and what role could AI play in helping climate change?
The term IoT stands for Internet of Things and refers to the many billions of devices worldwide that connect to the internet. While the concept of internet-enabled devices is not new, the ability for even the most basic of devices to connect to the internet is and is only possible thanks to the development of cheap System on Chips (SoC) that integrate both the processor and RF circuitry needed for a Wi-Fi system.
Sensors are incredibly important in IoT technologies, as many emerging technologies are reliant on sensory information (such as AI and home automation). To better understand why this is the case, let’s take the example of integrating environmental controls into a building. Without IoT technologies, each sensor in the building would need to be connected to a computer, which then has a connection to a network for transmitting the data to a central control system. While this is technically possible, it is very impractical as such traditional computers are large, and a building may require hundreds of sensors. IoT based sensors, however, are incredibly small, cheap, and often wireless meaning that many hundreds can be mounted around a building and instantly provide results over a wireless connection. The use of IoT devices is also made more straightforward thanks to many being directly powered by USB, and thus multiple devices can run off a single small power adaptor.
The Department of Environmental, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), is a government department that is concerned with rules and regulations surrounding the environment, food, and rural activities. While not well known, DEFRA makes up an essential sector to the British government, and their decision impact daily life from the quality of fish sold at supermarkets, to the proper movement of livestock from field to field to reduce the impacts of diseases such as foot and mouth. While their responsibilities also include monitoring of the environment to understand better how to properly maintain woodlands and wildlife, one of their roles regarding global climate change, was given to a new department called the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
NB-IoT is an acronym for Narrow Band Internet of Things and is a technology that allows small, low powered IoT devices to access special cellular networks for access to the internet. Unlike Wi-Fi, cellular networks have far greater reach, allow for easy roaming between cells with no connection dropping, and are more available. NB-IoT, unlike 3G and 4G, is designed for low-data usage devices, and as such download and upload speeds are significantly limited. However, this is not an issue when using a device that sends a few sensory readings every few minutes. The reduction in speed also allows for more devices to connect to a single access point; according to Vodafone, a single cell site can handle over 10,000 devices simultaneously.
Recently, a team of researchers with DEFRA have partnered with Vodafone for a three-month trial of using NB-IoT sensors to monitor and track woodland environments. The two forests, found in Surrey and Northumberland, will be at the centre of a £640m strategy that hopes to gather large quantities of environmental information regarding tree growth and CO2 intake to understand better how to grow trees for efficiency, and to improve climate change actions. However, the trial itself is being funded by Vodafone and also hopes to demonstrate the importance of NB-IoT devices. Now that the trial is nearing its end, the team of researchers are currently analysing the data to determine if the system is cost-effective, secure, and mass-producible for further research. If found to be beneficial, DEFRA will approach the treasury for funding and will hope to expand the sensory system to rivers, water levels, farms, animal movements, and disease.
NB-IoT and 5G are two technologies currently competing in the IoT market, and it is not clear which one will win. While NB-IoT does have its benefits with the ability to handle thousands of devices simultaneously, 5G also does this, but can also support higher data rates thanks to the use of beamforming and improve algorithms. 5G also offers low latency which may make it a better choice for applications that require fast connections (such as car-to-car communication). The use of 5G in IoT may also be more straightforward as network providers can devote their expertise and resources to single network topology. However, NB-IoT may offer better advantages thanks to its lower power consumption requirements and current more comprehensive coverage.
Monitoring the environment with the use of IoT devices is but a single example of how IoT devices can be advantageous. If combined with AI technologies, the data gathered by DEFRA could not only tell us how to grow trees best, but what trees to grow, and their placement when being planted. The data will also help to show trends against CO2 concentrations, amount of rainfall, and the number of sunny days which could further help with our understanding of the environment.