As Internet-enabled wireless expands into every aspect of modern life, some products are saving energy and encouraging more eco-conscious behavior.
WE ALL UNDERSTAND HOW PROFOUNDLY WIRELESS PHONES HAVE CHANGED OUR LIVES—the way we travel, communicate and do business. Most homebuilders, for example, can’t imagine scheduling and tracking job orders without a Blackberry in hand.
But according to many technology watchers, that was just Phase 1 of the wireless evolution. Phase 2 has arrived—the age of machine-to-machine communication. As the Huntington Post puts it, “The first wave of the wireless revolution was getting people to talk to each other through cellphones. The second, it seems, will be getting things to talk to each other, with no human intervention.”
This expanded use of machine-to-machine communication, or M2M, as it’s being called, has many potential applications—some eco-friendly and sustainable (self-tuning HVAC systems and energy saving in homes)—others potentially more intrusive and dangerous (spying,“Big Brother” landlording, identity theft and predator drones come to mind).
Let’s set aside the dark side of wireless for another article, and focus on how these technologies can (and are) being harnessed for resource conservation.
Many wireless devices have begun to take the obvious next step toward Internet integration. What that means is that eventually, any device with a wireless connection can be controlled remotely—either by us, manually, or by a “smart” computer system. The NEST thermostat, featured in this issue, is a great example. Not only does it “learn” and respond to human behavior, but it can be remotely controlled via wireless. That makes it a much more adaptable tool than, for example, a programmable thermostat.
It’s the difference between the acting ability of say, Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) and Brad Pitt. The Rock plays pretty much the same character in every role. Brad Pitt can flex and adapt and keep audiences guessing.
Say you’re a landlord, and you install programmable thermostats in all of your units. You even program in the setbacks for the tenants. What if the tenants simply press the “HOLD” button and turn the heat up all winter? With wireless integration, you can step in online and override the tenants’ energy-wasting choices. A bit heavy-handed, sure, but perhaps the urgency of climate change makes such measures defensible. At any rate, wireless M2M makes conservation enforcement an option.
M2M: A World of Possibilities
The applications for wireless M2M communication are increasing exponentially. For example, a maker of solar-powered trash compacters tracks how full each unit is and how often it has to be emptied, saving labor, fuel and money. The unit sends a text to staff letting them know it’s full.
The M2M industry is expanding at the rate of billions of dollars of value each year, as satelliteTODAY.com points out. Why? Because it’s being used for “monitoring pipelines that are miles away, checking construction equipment in remote areas for potential mechanical problems—even tracking the behavior of truck drivers when behind the wheel. These capabilities were barely possible a decade ago, but are becoming commonplace in nearly every industry from transportation to oil and gas.”
As we mentioned above, the M2M technology has muddied the line between what might be considered company streamlining and spying on employees. For example, some companies are using it to track their vehicle drivers. Their wireless system “alerts drivers about local speed limits, using in-cab audio to tell them to slow down if they are driving too fast, or simply breaking too hard. Other features include seatbelt usage and hours of service compliance recording.” Clearly, the genie is out of the bottle now with regard to M2M wireless. How we use it (whether to help save ourselves from devastating climate change or to harass our employees) is up to us.
Sneak Peak at the Future?
Many sustainability-oriented M2M projects are still in the development phase, but they offer some fascinating possibilities for saving energy, security and so on. For example, the plug.ee measures power usage at an individual electrical outlet in a home and reports it to your phone via the Internet. It can tell you, for example, how efficient your refrigerator is, or whether you left a curling iron on. It can be programmed to turn on or off at certain times or after certain amounts of power usage.
Then there’s the Owl Platform Online, by inPoint Systems, which uses wireless sensors and software to “track activities” in your home. While home automation is nothing new, this product, also in the fundraising phase, is different, because it’s sensor based—not human programming based—and all it does is “watch” your house. It just lets you know if there’s a problem. But this can be a good way to save energy. It monitors, for example, whether your pipes are leaking, what the temperature in your attic is, and whether or not you’ve left a door open somewhere.
Along the same lines is something called HarvestGeek, that’s designed for gardeners and small farmers. Also under development, it monitors all of the things going on in your garden plot—temperatures, moisture, etc., so you can grow more bountiful crops.
Expected to become a trillion dollar industry by decade’s end, M2M wireless is just finding its feet. Building managers already using it are saving huge on energy usage in commercial structures. As awareness of what M2M can do expands, so will the opportunities to conserving labor, energy and raw materials.