Can IoT save people’s lives?

Increased efficiency, monetization, innovation… These are some of the benefits of IoT. However, have you ever wondered if IoT can save people’s lives? An increasing population, ageing infrastructure, environmental regulations, the scarcity of natural resources and natural disasters are putting immense pressure on cities’ environmental needs. An estimated 12.6 million people died in 2012 as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment – accounting for nearly one in four of total global deaths, according to new estimates made by WHO.

Can IoT save people’s lives?

Can IoT solve part of this environmental problem?

At Ericsson, we have been doing proof of concepts in several locations around the world including Stockholm, Montreal, Tilburg, Gothenburg, Malaysia and more, to see if we can monitor the environment (air, water and sound) using sensors. The overall concept of knowing your environment in real time and taking immediate action to contain the risk, is both appealing and useful to city planners and local government departments. It is also one of the massive IoT use cases where 5G can play a very significant role. Let’s try to understand the benefits of monitoring the environment:

  1. Reduced health care cost – Monitoring air pollution in real time can provide city stakeholders insights to predict pollution levels, and form proactive policies that can then help reduce health risks and save health care cost. For example, knowing the location of a pollutant in real time, can allow water authorities to change their water inlet or stop their water intake before problems arise. Detecting excessive noise in hotspot areas to limit its long-term impact on human health is another way of using real-time environmental monitoring to bring about policy changes.
  2. Improved synergies between city departments – Correlating data from environmental parameters with other city-related data can lead to additional insights and business models. For example, combining traffic data with air quality measurements can help in identifying pollution hotspots, while correlating air quality measurements with health data can enable additional foresight with regard to health problems. A weather forecast can offer the transport industry insights, and in turn help to increase the frequency of public transportation, and a bad air quality report can help to limit the number of vehicles on the road. Cities have already seen congestion charging. Imagine having pollution charging based on the time of the day…
  3. Awareness and innovation – Opening environmental data to citizens can stimulate entrepreneurship and make people more aware of their surroundings. Entrepreneurs can build different solutions to address the pollution problem. Both preventive and corrective. The interesting companies that have emerged in the past are those selling pollution masks, air- cleaning trees, and so on. Some entrepreneurs have used data to come up with mobile apps that provide citizens with real-time information about the quality of the air in a particular location, or the quality of the water where they want to go swimming. With these apps, citizen can choose an environmentally friendly destination.

We have validated the needs of different cities departments and stakeholders. Here are some of the key findings:

  1. Big opportunity for making an impact: Every person on this planet without fail needs to breathe the air and drink water. With the growing pressure on city resources like road, water and transport, air and so on, there is a need to know the environment and to take corrective action on time. A sewage spill or a presence of bacteria can be contained if it is known about in time. A lot of health-related problems like heart disease, strokes, lung cancer and asthma can be prevented early on, if the pollutant information is available. Knowing the source of pollution can also help in setting policies, and can act as important input to urban planning. Using sensors can also bring down the high capital and operational cost of different stakeholders.
  2. Sensor technology is catching up: Devices that measure the basic parameters (the pH level of water, conductivity, temperature, humidity, and air quality in terms of particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3) and so on) are very readily available. However, great efforts are being made to balance the need for accuracy with the cost of the device. Efforts are also ongoing to create devices that can be cleaned automatically (using brushes, air jets and so on) so the maintenance of these devices becomes easy.
  3. Future IoT to take an end-to-end role – from detection to correction: IoT is not just for monitoring. The true value of IoT will be realized when it can be used for automatic correction. For example, a water sensor measures a certain parameter and the actuator corrects any problem: be it using an additive or opening gates to release excess water during heavy rain.

Based on our experience, some of the important criteria to check before selecting the solution are as follows:

  1. Devices: Given the maturity of sensor technology in environmental monitoring and existing regulations set by the EU and United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is very important to select the right device. It is important to consider accuracy, precision, sensor lifetime, calibration needs, cleaning needs (this is essential for water sensors), installation and overall operation before selecting the device. The cheapest device is not always the best device for environmental monitoring, and the overall cost of ownership needs to be considered when selecting a device partner.
  2. Connectivity: Selecting the right connectivity option is equally important for environmental monitoring. Although devices can support different types of connectivity, using LTE Cat M1 or NB-IoT connectivity can be very promising, enabling longer battery lifecycles.
  3. Platform: Going for a platform that can support device and data management, connectivity management, monetization, security, and that can integrate inbound and outbound APIs could really help to make environmental monitoring self-sustainable.
  4. Visualization and analytics: From simple visualization and event-based triggers to advanced predictive analytics that can help to forecast a future pollution scenario or detect the source of pollution is something we should be aiming for.

For many cities, it is good to carry out pollution monitoring, but soon cities will have to adhere to stringent pollution norms and will be required to monitor pollution in near real time. The real-time monitoring of the environment using IoT is therefore bound to happen. The data collected by IoT technology in a city context can bring unexpected results from both a society and business perspective. Service providers have a major role to play in this use case, contributing with their connectivity strength and hence helping to shape the world, by shaping the world’s cities.

Learn more about how we put IoT in action.

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At the Ericsson Blog, we provide insight to make complex ideas on technology, innovation and business simple.