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Moving the World Into the Future, One Cow at a Time
The ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Archimedes is quoted as saying, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world.” Here in the 21st century, it might be difficult to think of levers and fulcrums as technology. But, in ancient Greece they were technological breakthroughs that multiplied human capability. Archimedes was basically saying that once you understand how things work together in systems, clever people can use those systems to create big changes.
Today, the Internet of Things (IoT) is another one of those world-changing technologies. A vast number of little things working together produce data and deploy intelligence in virtually anything. In fact, The Economist recently focused on the IoT in a special technology section titled “Chips with Everything.” The magazine pointed out that the idea of putting computers into other things is not really new. What’s new is that it’s now possible to put intelligence into virtually anything and link all those devices together into one large system. From there, you can gather the data they produce, analyze it for insights in the cloud, and redeploy those insights back to the devices themselves.
You can easily see how that capability might be used in an industrial setting, making a manufacturing facility more efficient for instance. Every machine is monitoring production, reporting on its own needs for maintenance and an air traffic control system provides the ability to optimize the whole factory. Once you understand how it all works, though, this same idea can be applied in many ways that are not so obvious. I believe the IoT will unleash a wave of entrepreneurship across the global economy, pushing digital technology into new places.
The Economist offers one unexpected example in an article titled “The cow of tomorrow.” An Austrian company named smaXtec is putting sensors into a pill that cows can swallow. Those sensors lodge in one of the animal’s four stomachs and can monitor health and nutrition needs for the individual cow. It can also detect when a new calf is about to be born and alert dairy farmers who can take early action to protect their investment and avoid any complications for the animal. Multiply that across the nation’s entire dairy herd and you can see how a significant part of the food industry can be made more efficient from this one novel idea.
Entrepreneurs tend to target large problems so there’s a big market for their efforts, which is why it makes sense they would aim at optimizing dairy production. If the IoT can give us a new cow what else could entrepreneurs come up with?
One idea ripe for new thinking is optimizing the electrical grid. A convergence of forces is pressuring utilities. Conservation efforts have actually worked in the US; we’re using less electricity. That’s good for climate change, but not so good for utilities that sell less energy while still needing to maintain all their infrastructure, their burst capacity and deal with many effects of climate change themselves – all while holding down rates for consumers.
Smart meters are the first step and have been rolling out. You may have one monitoring your home. It can tell the utility a lot more information than the old meters that just measured raw usage. Smart meters can assess usage patterns such as when we’re using more energy during our daily lives. They can also monitor infrastructure issues such as line voltage to the home to watch for spikes or other problems in the distribution lines. All of these and other factors can be reported to the utility to improve customer service and monitor that last-mile connection to the consumers. Some utilities make this information available to consumers so they can manage their own usage.
The IoT can go much deeper into the grid’s infrastructure to make it more efficient and more resilient. A lot of machinery and devices is involved in generating power, getting it onto the grid for distribution, stepping it up and down in voltage to safely get power from one location to another. The IoT can put sensing and control technologies into all these tools across the grid to produce data that can then be analyzed for efficiency, safety and security issues. As I write this, California is experiencing wildfires and rolling blackouts affecting thousands as utility managers attempt to stem a convergence of unfortunate issues – dry windy weather and aging infrastructure – that spell danger. A grid that incorporates the IoT could sense when conditions are changing in high winds or heat waves, help utilities localize any faults so that power outages could be limited. That granular information could even assign recovery teams to specific areas needing attention.
Once all the parts of the grid are intelligent, the whole system can function as a networked platform like the cloud. At that point, other entrepreneurs can develop applications that run on that platform to optimize it further or add new functionality. These can optimize generation to match demand or smooth the way toward incorporating energy storage for renewables. All of this possibility comes from the grid functioning as a data network as much as it does a power distribution system.
Every era has technology that opens up new possibilities – from cows to the smart grid. To paraphrase Archimedes, once you understand how the IoT, the cloud, and the networks combine to create new opportunities you can move the world.
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 Chips with Everything, The Economist; September 14-20, 2019; Technology Quarterly page 3
 The cow of tomorrow, The Economist; September 14-20, 2019; Technology Quarterly page 9
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