Team Members

The problem:

The development and deployment of IoT (Internet of Things) devices have grown exponentially in the last few years. According to the annual IoT reports on the Forbes website, there will be 30 billion sensors deployed by 2020 and 75 billion by 2025. Most, if not all of these sensors are powered by batteries. Many of the businesses implementing these sensors consider them as write-offs once they are out of battery. Although this may make business sense, it has a negative environmental impact. We are generating a lot of e-waste.

What do the customers expect from an IoT device:

1. A low-cost and low-power device
2. Easy to install
3. Comes with a long-lasting battery

The opportunity:

Current battery technology limitations and minimum device cost expectations are leading device makers to build devices that can last for a year or 2 on a single charge. While this is a drastic improvement from the battery powered devices designed 10 years ago, we shouldn't be satisfied with just 2 years of battery life. The following 2 major issues are not given due consideration:

1. The Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of these devices increases significantly when factoring in battery replacements. This causes businesses to only forecast and sell 2-year service contracts, after which most of these low-cost devices are written off.
2. We will end up with more e-waste in 3 to 5 years’ time due to disposable batteries and written off devices.

My idea is to create a low-cost, self-charging and modular air quality sensor design. It has the following features:

1. Ambient energy harvesting from a combination of sources to charge an internal battery or a supercapacitor.
2. A LPWAN (Low Power Wide Area Network) transceiver (LoRa, Sigfox, NB-IoT) that could be chosen based on the best available network in the deployment region.
3. Battery life of 5 to 10 years based on the number of charge cycles.
4. Low-cost final product that would provide a better ROI (Return On Investment) for businesses.

Here is how it works:

Scenario 1: Device mounted on moving assets.
1. The device will use a combination of ambient light, vibrations and ambient RF (Radio Frequency) energy harvesting modules to charge the internal battery.
2. The main microcontroller will continue to operate periodically, taking air quality samples and packaging the data for transmission.
3. The packaged data will be transmitted using the available LPWAN transceiver module.

Scenario 2: Sensor mounted at a static site
1. The device will use a combination of ambient light, thermal energy gradient and ambient RF energy harvesting modules to charge the internal battery.
2. The main microcontroller will continue to operate periodically, taking air quality samples and packaging the data for transmission.
3. The packaged data will be transmitted using the available LPWAN transceiver module.

This design stands out from existing options, as it uses a combination of ambient energy sources to keep running for years on a single battery.

Manufacturability:

The design would be prototyped using off the shelf development kits to understand the tuning parameters for optimum energy harvesting. A proof to concept field trial would be conducted to understand the environmental influences. The learnings from these tests will feed into the first version of the modular design (available as different variants). This version will feature:

1. 2 combinations of ambient different energy harvesting modules.
2. A variant for each type of LPWAN transceiver module.
3. Same housing for all variants.

Keeping the housing and PCB designs similar for different variants will cut down the cost of producing these device which will caters to global markets.

As a subset of the above design, a new product line would be created which allows device makers to integrate ambient energy harvesting capabilities into their products. This product will feature:

1. 2 combinations of ambient different energy-harvesting modules.
2. A battery included in the same module package.
3. A choice of external antennas and panels to be integrated into a custom design.

Why would businesses use this device over current available devices:

1. Better ROI: Businesses leveraging off data from these devices would be able to sell their services for twice or thrice the duration due to longer battery life.
2. Zero battery replacement cost: No cost of replacing and recharging the batteries for at least 5 to 10 years.
3. Suits periodic reporting applications: This design suits applications like air quality measuring, where the sensor only needs to wake up periodically to record data and transmit it.
4. Sustainable and environmentally-friendly design: The life duration of this device is anywhere between 5 to 10 years. Within that time, battery technology should improve, enabling even longer-lasting batteries for the next deployment of these devices.

What would be the global impact:

This design is a potential technology disruptor that will encourage future sensor designs to be self-powering and long-lasting to compete with its unique offering. It will have a positive impact in pushing sustainable design, thus guiding the IoT industry on a greener path.

Inspiration

Having worked on a few IoT projects in the last couple of years, I realised that the cost of battery replacement has a large impact on device deployments. I am strong proponent of sustainable design. The IoT challenge gives me an opportunity to share my idea with the industry experts and get some validation on its feasibility. With the exposure from this challenge and the prize money, I aspire to convert this design into a commercial product.

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