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Leadership in the Internet of Things (IoT) industry demands a new mindset that recognizes the urgent need to address environmental concerns. The exponential growth of connected devices is raising alarming questions about their collective carbon footprint. With more than 30 billion devices expected to be deployed by 2030, experts estimate that the carbon emissions associated with IoT devices could rise from 3.7% in 2018 to a staggering 14% by 2040, accounting for more than half of the current relative contribution of the whole transportation sector.
Despite the Paris Agreement’s focused endeavors to decrease global greenhouse gas emissions, the information and communication sectors have not been adequately recognized as notable contributors to the problem. On the contrary, these sectors are frequently commended for having facilitated efficiencies that are helping to reduce the carbon footprint of other sectors.
The fact is, although IoT devices can be designed to improve energy efficiency and reduce waste, they still have a significant carbon footprint associated with their production, operation and disposal. When IoT devices are not designed with energy efficiency and waste reduction top of mind, consequences include increased energy consumption in data centers and networks, unnecessary resource extraction, wasteful power usage, and more data traffic than needed.
The full extent of carbon emissions associated with IoT devices is not yet comprehensively understood. We can, however, gain a better perspective by comparing their environmental footprint to that of smartphones, which have been measured more accurately. Based on most recent estimates, approximately 90% of the carbon emissions from smartphones are attributed to their production, with the remaining 10% from usage over their 3- to 4-year lifespan. By contrast, IoT devices have a longer lifespan, about 10 to 20 years, and therefore, it’s estimated that roughly 50% of their carbon emissions occur during production, and the other 50% during their useful lifetime.
Current carbon emissions measurements are only partial. This is because experts often estimate emissions based solely on measures, such as the weight of electronic components, without considering crucial factors including the type of electronics used, the amount of energy required to power them, the extent of low-power optimizations to avoid always-on electronics, and the expected lifespan of the device.
Nevertheless, the contribution of IoT devices to greenhouse gas emissions is increasing, and manufacturers face challenges in how to address the problem.
One approach is to design just-right, optimized, state-of-the-art low-power devices, but this is not always effective, as many device makers tend to over-specify their products to benefit from the ease-of-use and other capabilities of higher-end application platforms (running on devices) traditionally associated with rich operating systems like Linux and Android. To name just a couple of examples, we have seen Linux-based smart thermostats and Android-based audio speakers, where much simpler designs would have been possible.
The reason why manufacturers choose high-level operating systems in these instances is to benefit from modern development methods, such as simulation (prototyping on virtual devices), continuous integration and automated testing. High-level application platforms can minimize hardware and software dependencies and leverage modular designs that ensure software applications can be reused and updated with new features.
The catch, however, is that embedded systems designed on high-level application platforms based on rich operating systems require memory and processing power that exceed what is required by typical low-power system-on-chips (SoCs) or cost-effective microcontrollers (MCUs). Consequently, engineering teams turn to higher-end microprocessor-based solutions, sacrificing cost (in the range of tens of dollars per unit) and power for more modern software development, scalability and flexibility. Such decisions would make sense if high-level application platforms were not available on low-power SoCs or cost-effective MCUs.
When looking inside those high-level application platforms, you will find an application container. Those containers create safe harbors where each application can run, avoiding jeopardizing the others when something goes wrong. The overall system is resilient, and easy to organize. Additionally, the size and performance overhead of those containers is what defines the resource requirements.
In embedded systems, high-level application platforms can benefit from tiny containers, which dramatically downsize resource usage. Thanks to tiny containers, high-level application platforms can run on cost-effective, low-power MCUs and offer the numerous advantages that they provide for large hardware. By using tiny containers instead of heavy ones, developers can improve computing performance and responsiveness, enable data processing at the edge, and ensure that devices can be updated remotely for a longer lifespan.
Sustainable design solutions, such as tiny containers for high-level application platforms, are not only good for the environment, but also for business. By reducing carbon emissions, production costs and power consumption, manufacturers optimize components for optimal usage and user experience using lower-power and cost-effective hardware.
The benefits of sustainable design are undeniable, enhancing marketability by providing new ways of attracting customer interest. As leaders, we are responsible for recognizing the opportunity to improve corporate responsibility and economic performance while doing what’s best for the planet.
—Fred Rivard is CEO of MicroEJ