Tag Archives: electronic sensors and devices

The Internet of Things and energy conservation

Humans are creative, and adaptive. We’ve done it all our lives, and all our existence. We needed more food, and so we created agriculture. We needed to live together, and so we created architecture. We needed to communicate, and so we created hundreds of ways to do just that; Internet, mobile telephone networks, computers. We are so fond of computers that we have them everywhere, often without noticing them. Yes, you might have a bulky desktop computer at home, or maybe even a flashy new laptop, but those are not the only computers. Your mobile telephone is a computer, but technically, so is your microwave, your car, your television set, and even your washing machine.

Our lives have changed greatly. We’ve all seen pictures and even films of medieval castles, and we know how we used to live. Today, our lives are made more comfortable by scores of machines; when was the last time you washed your clothes by hand? The clothes go in the washing machine, then in the dryer, and then in the cupboard. This all comes at a cost; financially, of course, but also in terms of energy.

Energy. The art of creating electrical power and delivering it to our homes and cities. For most people, this is as simple as having overhead power lines here and there, and paying a bill at the end of the month. Unfortunately, it is much more complicated than that. Power stations require scores of people to operate, and something surprising, data. In France, we have “too many” power stations, and most run at low capacity. When it gets hot, those who have air conditioning like to put it on, consuming electricity. Multiply that by a few thousand, and you get an idea of how much energy the power station needs to produce. When it gets cold, people like to heat their homes and businesses, and since everyone has radiators, electrical consumption soars. Imagine the amount of radiators an entire city can contain, and imagine even 50% of them turned on at the same time. Imagine.

Data is needed from other sources, not just from the weather. Imagine the amount of power required to let all the football fans watch the world cup. Our problem is that we can generate electricity, but we cannot store it (at least, not on this kind of scale). When everything gets turned on, the power station must be able to respond. If it can’t, bad things happen; the lights dim, or sometimes everything goes dark. We now know we cannot live without electricity.

SMART Energy Flow

We all know that we need to reduce our energy dependence, even if some of us don’t want to. To make more people aware, some cities turn off all the lights for an hour. It’s called Earth Hour. For one hour, people are encouraged to use as little electricity as possible; turning off the lights, for example. This does have an impact, but it is a double-edged sword. For one hour, the electricity usage drops considerably, while everyone thinks about the planet, and what we will leave behind for our children. At the end of the hour, everything goes back on, and this is where things get tricky. When electrical devices are first turned on, some can generate what is called an energy spike; a large consumption at first, before something more stable. It is visible just after Earth Hour, but it actually happens every day.

Building Appliances and Home Systems using Energy at Optimum Times

Peak hours. In my house, my electric water heater is connected to a peak-hour detection system. At 11:30 PM, my electricity provider starts “off-peak” hours, a time where electricity costs less. It costs less, an incentive to make me use power-hungry devices at a time when other devices are not needed. At this time of night, most businesses are closed, and so there is less demand. It is all about normalizing energy requirements, and to stop peaks during the day. At 7:30 AM, peak hours start, the water heater turns off, businesses start up, and my kettle turns on, the day is about to begin.


Energy is available, that isn’t the problem. Our problem is our use of energy. If only we had a way of using energy when it was available. Imagine, a certain amount of energy available. When I need light, I want my light to be usable immediately. I need a start time; now. However, when I put my clothes in the washing machine generally, I need them to be ready for the next day. I need and “end” time; I need the device to get the work done before a certain time. When will the washing machine start? Well, I don’t actually mind when it starts, and this is where I need help. This is where the IoT can help us, because we really need help.

The IoT will give us millions of connected sensors. This will also supply us with data, lots and lots of it. Why wouldn’t a small device in my house have direct control over my washing machine, or even better, actually be inside my washing machine? It could be programmed to start at a specific time, talking to other devices on the energy grid? Or even in my home; it could tell the water heater to wait until it has finished, and then the water heater gets its chance. The possibilities are endless.

Washing Machine is Connected - SMART HOME

IoT will give us an incredible amount of data, and data that can be used to help up control, and maybe even overcome our need to energy. But wait a minute, doesn’t the IoT itself need energy? It does, but the amount of energy that it will save outweighs the amount of energy it uses, and by a large factor. Take, for example, Atmel’s SAM D21 microcontroller. It uses less than 70µA per MHz, and that is when it is running at full speed. Of course, these devices have advanced power management, and with careful coding, they can last for months on cell batteries. Low power does not mean no power; it has enough flex to get the job done, and more. With built-in USB, ADCs, DACs and enough RAM and ROM for the most complex programs, it gets the job done. It also has the Atmel Event system, a powerful system that lets the microcontroller react to external events without the need to constantly look at inputs.

(Source CES 2014 - Samsung's Vision of the Now and Future of Connected Appliances)

We need a little help in our lives to make simple decisions; when should I turn the heating on? When is the best time to turn on the air conditioner? We think we know, but we don’t. IoT will allow us to know exactly when the cold weather is coming. IoT will know when to turn the lights off. In short, IoT will generate enough data that it will know better than us what to do, and when. What we have seen so far is only the beginning.

How the IoT is changing everything

The McKinsey Global Institute has identified the Internet of Things (IoT) as among the most disruptive technologies of the coming decade. As James Manyika and Michael Chui of the CFR’s Foreign Affairs journal note, the IoT is a set of technologies that incorporates the physical world into the virtual one via networks of electronic sensors and devices connected to computers.

“The applications of a mobile-ready Internet of Things go beyond clothes: Tiny detectors that can gather and relay data about location, activity, and health (how well an object or device is holding up) have already been incorporated into everything from bridges and trucks to pacemakers and insulin pumps,” Manyika and Chui wrote in a recent journal article.

“The IoT makes it possible to monitor and control the location, condition, and behavior of objects, machinery,and devices through networks. This can be as simple as tracking the whereabouts of a container of freight that has an RFID (radio-frequency identification) tag or as complex as managing machinery across an enterprise using actuators that modify the activities of the machines.”

In addition, the two Foreign Affairs writers noted that closed-loop systems are capable of responding in real-time and without human intervention to data that its sensors pick up.

“For example, with sensors and actuators in oil fields, pumping systems can automatically adjust to optimize production and reduce the potential for failures through early detection of anomalies in the flow of oil and gas,” they continued. “Already, the Internet of Things is used across industries to manage complicated supply chains, optimize performance of machinery, and sense when maintenance is needed.”

Manyika and Chui also confirmed that the Internet of Things applications could have an economic impact of $900 billion to $2.3 trillion a year in manufacturing alone by the year 2025.

“This estimate is based on potential savings of 2.5 to 5 percent in operating costs. In addition, using sensors in the power grid (smart-grid applications) could drive value of $200 billion to $500 billion annually, and applications in public-sector services (water systems and the like) could cut waste by ten to 20 percent annually, which could save $20 billion to $40 billion a year,” the two concluded.

As we’ve previously discussed on Bits & Pieces, Atmel is well positioned for the rapidly evolving IoT as our portfolio includes ultra-low power WiFi capability and an extensive lineup of microcontrollers (MCUs).

“As applications become more interconnected and user interfaces become richer, microcontrollers must handle and transfer ever-growing levels of data. To boost performance for these smart, connected applications, Atmel’s 8-bit Flash MCUs integrate a wide range of classic communication peripherals, such as UART, SPI and I2C,” an Atmel engineering rep told Bits & Pieces.

“Plus, our higher-performance 32-bit MCUs and embedded MPUs (eMPUs) feature Ethernet and full-speed and high-speed USB, while also providing extension ports for external communication modules such as WiFi or cellular modems. Simply put, Atmel MCUs are designed to deliver maximum performance and meet the requirements of advanced applications. That is why we offer highly integrated architecture optimized for high-speed connectivity, optimal data bandwidth and rich interface support – making them ideal for powering the smart, connected products at the heart of the IoT.”