Science fiction writers and fear-mongering pundits have long railed against the “rise of the machines” — a point at which large swaths of daily life would take place without human intervention, with machines interacting with other machines. That future has played out in many ways, though it’s invisible to most of us and lacks the sci-fi drama many envisioned. And it is emerging as a key enabler for radical efficiency and corporate sustainability efforts.
The world of machine-to-machine, or M2M, communications is growing rapidly, largely behind the scenes. It is linked to what’s been called the “Internet of Things,” a vast and exploding network of objects embedded with sensors and able to communicate with one another, take measurements and make decisions — everything from light switches to refrigerators, utility meters to parking spaces. Already, there are an estimated 10 billion connected devices worldwide, compared to “only” about 2.5 billion Web-connected PCs and phones. Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg, in a recent annual report, estimated there could be 50 billion connected devices by 2020. According to ABI Research, more than 5 billion wireless connectivity chips will ship in 2013 alone. Gartner, the leading information technology research and advisory company, recently included the Internet of Things on its list of the top 10 strategic technology trends, higher on the list than enterprise app stores and cloud computing.
What does all this have to do with sustainability? Lots.
For example, the management of buildings and facilities is being revolutionized by M2M-based systems in a range of applications, including security, energy efficiency, predictive maintenance and asset management. M2M is a key technology in demand response, a set of technologies designed to manage customer consumption of electricity in response to supply conditions — by having devices automatically power down during periods of high energy demand, or ramp up on-site generation in response to market prices, for example. Demand response is a critical component of the smart grid, the network of information and communications technology that work in automated fashion to improve the efficiency, reliability, economics and sustainability of the production and distribution of electricity.
In an M2M world, everything that can be connected will be. Commercial and industrial buildings are already being harnessed with thousands of sensors able to monitor, control and optimize pretty much everything down to the component level — a plug, light switch, heating and cooling vent, data terminal, refrigeration unit, etc. — increasingly making predictive “decisions” that anticipate energy needs without human intervention.
Microsoft's living lab
Microsoft has been deploying some of these technologies at its headquarters campus in Redmond, Wash., using it as a living lab to explore M2M’s potential. In 2011 it rolled out an initial pilot involving 13 buildings (out of 118 buildings it uses in Redmond). A daily data feed automatically keeps track of building occupancy and other key parameters. Weather and utility information is gathered from third-party providers. The system can predict building energy needs in near-real time, adjusting continually to optimize energy use. Moreover, the system automatically detects faults that wouldn’t otherwise show up until the building was inspected, about once every five years. Microsoft has found millions of dollars in savings, and quick paybacks — in a region with some of the mildest weather and lowest energy costs in the Unites States.
Transportation is another area rich with M2M possibilities. Telematics and in-vehicle entertainment is one area of focus. Recent examples include Ford, which teamed with AT&T to embed Ford Focus Electric vehicles with a wireless connection and dedicated app that includes the ability for the owner to monitor and control vehicle charge settings, plan single- or multiple-stop journeys, locate charging stations, pre-heat or cool the car. Last year GM’s OnStar division partnered with Spain’s Telefónica to provide M2M connectivity to General Motors’ vehicles outside North America.
Wireless-enabled fleet management and telemetrics help trucking and logistics companies cut the number of empty or underutilized trucks on the road. For instance, better fleet management through wireless technology could cut the amount of time that trucks idle, reducing fuel costs per truck by $3,600 annually, according to a 2011 report by BSR and CTIA-The Wireless Association.
There’s much more. M2M is seen as a key enabling technology in improving efficiencies in everything from agriculture to health care to supply chains to traffic flow.
All of which is why some of the world’s largest companies see vast opportunities in M2M to help customers dramatically reduce their energy use, improve reliability, reduce waste and increase efficiency.
A big vote of confidence
Many of the world’s largest telecom companies are making big bets in M2M technologies. Sprint, for example, has a major division focused on this, and has formed a wide range of partnerships, including providing comprehensive wireless connectivity to thousands of residential and commercial electric vehicle charging stations. In 2012 it partnered with Orange Business Services, a division of France Telecom, to expand its M2M reach to 180 countries.
Another big vote of confidence in M2M and the Internet of Things came from General Electric, which in 2012 launched a campaign around what it called the “Industrial Internet” — about how “the deeper meshing of the digital world with the world of machines holds the potential to bring about profound transformation to global industry, and in turn to many aspects of daily life, including the way many of us do our jobs.” That’s no small statement from a company with $147 billion in annual revenue.
GE sees this as a very big business opportunity, forecasting that connecting devices to the Industrial Internet could boost global GDP by $15 trillion by 2030 — roughly the size of today’s U.S. economy. The savings come from such things as lower fuel and energy costs; better-performing and longer-lived physical assets, like airplanes and power plants; and lower-cost health care. The authors claim that in the U.S. alone the Industrial Internet could boost average incomes by 25 to 40 percent over the next 20 years “and lift growth back to levels not seen since the late 1990s.”
It’s still early days for M2M — think the Internet circa 1996 — and there will be a lot of ups and downs between here and GE’s forecasts. But there’s no question M2M has the potential to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions far more than any government mandates ever could.
Photo by warrenski.