IoT’s increasing importance in a climate changing world

30th May 2023
Sheryl Miles

By Kristian McCann, Editor, Electronic Specifer.

In the slim chance you haven’t heard the news, the world’s climate is in trouble. Yes, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released a report giving a ‘final warning’ on climate crisis; claiming we must act now before it’s too late.

This article originally appeared in the April'23 magazine issue of Electronic Specifier Design – see ES's Magazine Archives for more featured publications.

The comprehensive review of the climate crisis took hundreds of scientists eight years to compile and runs to thousands of pages. Heatwaves, droughts and floods, the cacophony of climate induced disasters numbers in the many.

Whether the world will avoid this fate remains to be seen, but as the UN keep hammering home how technology can save us from these disasters, examples already at play in some industries are also showing how it can also shield us from them too.

But this isn’t through some suggested vivarium that covers society in bubbles stretched across the globe like some dystopian sci-fi film. Thankfully, this is seemingly a lot simpler. IoT simpler.

IoT devices are growing beyond their use in consumer products. Many peoples’ current interactions with IoT would be with a smart home device. Businesses might use it for robotics. Yet it is its burgeoning implementation in insurance that is one that could reveal its growing use in dealing with climate-inducted disasters.

IoT informing of incoming weather incidents

Insurance is an industry that runs on detailing, understanding, and processing risk so premiums and pay-outs can be accurately administered. Yet much of insurance is currently based after the fact, aka after an incident. And although pre-existing risks are calculated, and some things are done to contain a common risk should it come – e.g., have smoke detectors and fire extinguishers dotted around a building – little is perhaps done to detect issues before they even begin. IoT’s introduction to the sector has, however, made the process a little more proactive.

“The combination of forecasting (to provide longer-term outlooks) and IoT technologies (providing high-uncertainty measures of conditions on the ground in real-time) is necessary to provide a holistic view of risk,” Previsico IoT Systems Manager Dr Andrew Pledger tells Electronic Specifier.

Previsico is a company that specialises in real-time flooding modelling using weather predictions to generate nowcasts based on the latest rainfall and forecasts of incoming weather. The technology uses live modelling – remodelled every three hours – to produce actionable forecasts which enable people and organisations to proactively mitigate flood impacts.

Along with collecting the latest weather data from the Met Office, and even satellites, one way it collects data for live monitoring is through on the ground IoT devices. For instance, a sensor is placed by a water outlet which a river feeds into, and it monitors water levels. Should the water level pass the sensor, or should the water be rising at a faster rate, it then uses advanced modelling to detect if it will surpass the threshold, and if it determines it will, it can send an alert to the relevant body.

This can allow parties, previously subject to reacting to these climate events, to prepare for them instead. The difference between the two states is dramatic. “Whalley, a village located in the Ribble Valley, Lancashire experienced a severe flood event in 2015 with over 300 homes flooded. Water raising through the drains and sewage causing significant damage, disruption, and cost,” says Pledger. “In response to this, Previsico installed its IoT flood detection instrumentation that allowed for real-time alerts for local flood action groups to mobilise defences and ensure clear drainage routes (such as trash screens). In the late hours on Boxing Day 2020, one such alert was raised, which enabled the group to take action and clear the trash screen. This action stopped the village from flooding.”

With rising sea levels being one of the key features of a climate changed world, it’s clear to see the growing benefits flood detection bring. Of course, prevention methods should be used alongside detection, but obviously towns and cities can’t be covered in flood defences with sandbags blocking streets year-round in mitigation attempts.

“IoT devices enable real-time data recording of environmental conditions in remote locations allowing earlier intervention to avoid the devastating impacts of weather-based events,” says Pledger.

Indeed, this system utilising IoT allows adequate measures to be taken, when they are needed, giving accurate and regular updates as the situation unfolds, allowing a detailed plan to be duly implemented.

IoT in managing situation

IoT enabled devices can be paired with a range of sensors, meaning they can be implemented to detect and mitigate a wide range of environmental issues beyond flooding and beyond just early warning.

With climate change altering weather, another thing that is at risk is food security. Last year (2022), a scorching heatwave experts attributed to climate change hit Europe and dried up large parts of the Rhine river in what was dubbed its ‘worst in 500 years.’ The Rhine water is used for industrial and agricultural purposes, for energy generation, for the disposal of municipal wastewater, for recreational activities, and for the production of drinking water for more than 20 million people. This inevitably led to crops dying out as water was rationed.

Yet another measure these IoT devices can detect is moisture or water content. With rationing, you have to work with what limited supply you have. Therefore, if you had such devices installed on a crop farm, data collected from the soil and transmitted back to the Cloud for analysis, visualisation, and trend analysis, could help you accurately gauge the health of each individual field. This could then guide you, or a smart water system, to know how much water to administer and where, using the data to accurately determine the need of each. Thus, saving any limited water you had in over watering fields that don’t need it.

Issues in IoT’s rollout

Despite its applications, theoretical and practical, IoT has not seen the mass rollout one might expect. Being out in-field as opposed to inside a factory or warehouse means these IoT devices face greater challenges.

“There are limiting factors in terms of accurate data collection, environmental resistance of devices, device longevity and adequate connectivity options – these have all been significant challenges for use of IoT for weather detection,” says Pledger.

One of these factors, for instance, is current battery life limitations, Pledger goes on to explain. For instance, weather events, like avalanches, happen up nearer the mountains. Placing an IoT device here where it could accurately get readings could be hard, sometimes perilous, to get to. Combine this with sometimes patchy connection in such locations and the current battery limitations of some devices mean they would require more regular changing, making the use ‘impractical.’

Yet making perfect the enemy of good may not be appropriate. With an impending threat and increasing use becoming clearer, innovations to meet the challenges could minimise these issues. And as the insurance industry is beginning to realise, the financial impetus for such innovation is abundant.

Pledger concludes: “In an ideal world, early IoT weather-related-peril detection and tracking will enable relief efforts to be put in place and mitigation methods implemented ahead of potentially catastrophic events.”

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