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How the Internet of Things  Can Improve Environmental Sustainability

How the Internet of Things Can Improve Environmental Sustainability

I’m a graduate of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell and sit on the board of Change is Simple, a non-profit devoted to educating the next generation to become thoughtful and aware of environmental issues and social responsibility. I also surf as frequently as possible, when I can find free time, literally immersing myself as often as I can in the power of nature.

Lately, my personal interest in environmental sustainability has been intersecting with my professional interest in the Internet of Things, or IoT, where we are seeing a tremendous amount of new deal activity and generated a lively discussion at our last B2B IT Forum in Cambridge:  From Industry 4.0 to iWatch: The Internet of Things.

Sustainability is emerging as an IoT theme, as consumers are becoming increasingly concerned with the condition of our world and they are expecting enterprises to add back to the local and extended good of the community.  As a backdrop, the globe is grappling with severely low levels of food and water resources, population growth and global climate issues.  Consider that the world population is 7.5 billion people, and is expected to climb to 9.25 billion within the next two to three decades.  How will we feed these people when we already have many areas of the globe that suffer from a lack of local food resources, malnourishment and starvation?  Just in the US, agricultural capacity grew 100% over the period from 1980 to 2014.  How will we increase productivity to meet the needs of the growth in global population?  IoT may be part of the answer.

Water is already a scarce resource in the western US, and in many parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East, Asia, India, and Africa, where, in some areas, the population growth is expected to be two to four times the rate in the US.  Water scarcity already affects every continent.   Around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of physical scarcity, and 500 million people are approaching this situation.   Another 1.6 billion people, or almost one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage.  Of the known global water resources, water use is currently approximately 70% to 80% devoted to agriculture, so this begs the question  – how will we preserve or conserve enough water to grow food resources for the expected increase in population?  This is a particularly acute question for India, where 80% of the water applied for agriculture evaporates before it can get to the level to nourish a plant’s root systems.

Now let’s talk about climate change.  Climate change is really water change (credit here to Professor Brad Udall at CSU).   Global warming has increased the capacity of the world to store water in the atmosphere, which is going to make wet areas wetter; and dry areas dryer (i.e. more extremes for climate behavior).  Think about this – and let’s use the western US as a microcosm of this line of thought.  We already have municipalities and agriculture and individuals battling for riparian rights.  What is particularly frustrating about this (credit again goes to Udall) is that we have 19th century law surrounding water rights; 20th century infrastructure for water development, storage and distribution; and 21st century population growth.  In Udall’s opinion (and I think he is right), this will eventually force consumers to pay reasonable, but much higher prices for water resources.  In fact we may see opportunities in market exchanges being built to provide a commerce exchange for trading water and water rights, or we may see the equivalent of a “water footprint” as we do now with the carbon footprint.  But we cannot make measurable changes in water resources until we can accurately monitor water resources.  More on this in a bit… (hint: see WellIntel).

How is global sustainability connected to IoT?  Well, it turns out that many of the initial IoT opportunities are tied to areas that will directly impact global sustainability.  As an example, take a look at Farmobile, which provides a sensor that plugs into your tractor, combine, etc. and collects data from many machines.  This data is converted into intelligent information that becomes an electronic farm record, and will track farm activities, coupled with GPS and integrated sensors, to provide farmers with greater insight into how efficient they are with planting, irrigation and cultivation.  The really cool thing about their approach is that they are taking this data, aggregating it and reselling it to other stakeholders in the value chain.  (Think farm supply companies, fertilizer and seed companies).  The conceptual approach for this potentially disruptive business is that Farmobile is splitting the value of the downstream data with the contributing farmers, creating a new revenue source at a small incremental cost to the farmer (as in zilch); increasing yields for farmers and reducing the environmental impact of excess fertilizer run-off.  Now that is really cool, and it is a theme that I think we will see again in other areas.

Another good example of how IoT can impact global resources is that of NWave Technologies, which uses ultra-narrow band radio technology to provide its communications network for the Internet of Things at a fairly low cost and while consuming very little power.  While partnering with IBM and the University of Georgia, they deployed sensors over an irrigation network system and demonstrated that they could save 40% of the water used in agriculture.  Given my statement above that 70% to 80% of global water resources are used for agriculture, this is a pretty big deal.  Similar to the Farmobile example above, this information is also valuable to the environment, as they reduced the amount of fertilizer runoff with higher yields, and the data is also valuable to other stakeholders in the value chain.

Coming back to water resources, WellIntel  has invented a monitor that gathers real-time data from water wells, without disturbing production, and transporting that data so that more granular information is known regarding individual wells, but when aggregated, provide a user with a clear view of a water table for a much larger area, that is considerably more accurate than information available today.  Farms or rural homes with wells on their property can choose to keep their information private or share it anonymously with WellIntel, which uses the data to help government agencies and others see the bigger picture of water shortages.  This is critical information where you have many stakeholders in water rights – such as the western US –for agriculture and municipalities.

The value that these companies are creating is a gift to us all. Have a safe and happy holiday and best wishes from all of us at Ascent.

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