The Sustainability Challenge of Scaling IoT
The modern city stands as humanity’s crowning achievement, glistening towers rising toward the heavens. Yet unsustainable waste accumulates below the surface. Billions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices will connect our urban infrastructure in coming years, powering the vision of Sustainable IoT-enabled Cities. But this tidal wave of connectivity could also drown ecosystems in toxic e-waste if not designed sustainably from the ground up.
Urban centers worldwide have embraced the IoT revolution, embedding sensors across buildings, vehicles, and public infrastructure to feed data to AI systems. These insights help optimize efficiency, convenience, and livability. But the IoT’s exponential growth harbors a troubling irony. The tens of billions of devices connected in coming years will themselves become e-waste sooner than we realize.
The disposable nature of many IoT deployments translates to billions of single-use batteries heading to landfills annually. Research suggests over 10 billion batteries per year will end up in landfills by 2025 just from IoT sensors and transmitters. Leaking toxic metals and caustic chemicals, these spent cells accumulate in toxic mountains of waste.
Innovating for Sustainable Connectivity
Startups and researchers now aim to sustainably design connectivity into the IoT ecosystem’s backbone. The solution lies in engineering clever wireless protocols and components that minimize waste. Energy-hungry radios and batteries can be discarded for smart ambient energy harvesting.
Spearheading this movement are innovations like WiFi Backscatter from pioneering companies such as HaiLa Technologies based in Montreal. Their technology enables battery-free wireless transmissions by reflectively harnessing ambient WiFi signals already suffusing urban areas.
WiFi Backscatter represents a new generation of green networking. Standard WiFi transmissions actively generate energy-intensive radio waves from scratch. In contrast, Backscatter modulates and reflects existing WiFi signals, adding data while using a fraction of the power.
HaiLa’s current Backscatter prototype sips just 144 microwatts during transmissions. This is drastically lower than conventional WiFi chipsets drawing 20-50 milliwatts. These ultra-low power Backscatter chips can stretch battery life from months to years for connected sensors, or even eliminate batteries entirely when supplemented by harvested solar, vibration, and WiFi energy.
Optimizing Smart Cities with Backscatter
The advantages are clearest in high-density urban environments where WiFi routers and signals already blanket everything. Smart city developers foresee Backscatter enabling perpetual environmental and infrastructure monitoring sensors that never require maintenance.
Applications range from tracking parking space occupancy to monitoring air pollution down entire city blocks. Low-power connectivity allows denser sensor networks than ever previously viable. And the economics are staggering — optimizing battery lifetimes from one year to ten could save an estimated $1.5 billion in daily IoT operating expenses worldwide.
Backscatter does face limitations. Reflective signals have a shorter range than active WiFi, requiring adequately strong ambient WiFi. But HaiLa is boosting Backscatter’s range toward 10-12 meters, sufficient for most smart city scenarios. Their chips also aren’t yet natively compatible with WiFi’s duplex architecture, which the company works around via signal shifting.
Building Sustainable Cities of the Future
While challenges remain, WiFi Backscatter paves the path toward sustainable IoT-enabled cities. Citizens, technology firms, and urban planners must collectively embrace forward-thinking connectivity options like Backscatter, eschewing outdated wasteful designs. Our smart city infrastructure should uplift communities for generations, not burden vulnerable ecosystems.
With a spirit of bold innovation and stewardship, we can build sustainable cities where ubiquitous tech and responsible resource use coexist in harmony. The future can be bright for both people and planet. Backscatter breakthroughs today light the way.