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27 Feb 2012 09:02:55

Energy harvesting and wireless sensors integration: a systemic approach

The toolkit of technologies that energy harvesting and wireless sensors are making available, are enabling system integrators to come up with solutions in a variety of vertical markets. As performance of harvesters is being optimised and the number of deployments is increasing worldwide, integrators are starting to realise the new opportunities and are making sure they understand and take advantage of these new capabilities, whether it's in the industrial automation space, the built environment or even the automotive and aviation/aerospace sector.

The variety of companies representing each market segment at IDTechEx's events on the topic of energy harvesting and wireless sensor networks (WSN) – the latest installment of which is taking place in Berlin on 15–16 May – proves the breadth and width of applications that these technologies are relevant to. System integrators and adopters at the event are exchanging ideas with energy harvesting technology companies, developers of wireless protocols as well as networks of wireless sensors and technologists developing low power electronics. These will assist seamless integration into new and existing applications.

Industrial automation

Wireless sensors are already widely deployed in the industrial automation space, with condition monitoring and asset tracking of high value industrial equipment being the main applications. Companies such as ABB, Emerson, Honeywell and Siemens are already actively supporting the WirelessHART technology that provides a wireless protocol for the full range of process measurement, control, and asset management applications in the specific environment of process plants.

Approximately 30 million HART devices have been installed and are already in service worldwide, making HART technology a widely used field communication protocol for intelligent process instrumentation.

Industrial environments are rich in vibration sources. Vibration harvesters tend to be an obvious solution and the Perpetuum vibration harvesters deployed already are a good example of designing the correct energy harvesters into the right type of working environment.

The beauty of recent developments in energy harvesting though is of course the fact that power management electronics are becoming more versatile in accepting energy harvested from a variety of sources. This allows for the use of other sources of energy depending on the ad-hoc specifics of each application/industrial plant. Sensor nodes placed in sunny locations could benefit from solar harvesting for instance, or nodes in areas where there exist temperature differentials, could utilise thermoelectric harvesters, depending on the amount of power required and the capabilities of each technology considered.

Building automation

EnOcean and the EnOcean Alliance have been the biggest success in the energy harvesting sector for building automation applications. Hundreds of thousands of wireless switches have been deployed in buildings, allowing for retro-fitting that saves on bills of materials and burying wires in walls. Together with many other applications utilising wireless sensor technology in a variety of buildings, safety improvements along with energy efficiency and reduced carbon footprint have been implemented. Although characterised by a relatively higher initial cost when compared with conventional deployments, these offer significant savings and quick ROIs.

Another example of wireless sensor networks in the built environment is the Millennial Net Wireless Energy Management Solution, consisting of WSN combined with building automation protocols to provide remote monitoring and control of buildings' heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, lighting and other energy consuming devices. It allows building owners and operators to reduce energy consumption and manage peak demands.

These types of solutions lead to reduction of energy consumption and costs as well as increasing safety, with installations in a variety of environments, including commercial, municipal and industrial facilities as well as residential buildings. Deployments in the residential sector in a large scale will be realised at a later time as larger volumes at reduced costs would be expected in order to lead to mass adoption.

At this point, companies like LeGrand and Leviton are already getting involved and starting to consider making such solutions part of their overall approach towards the complete "wireless" wiring of new buildings, taking care of providing power, lighting and all other necessary connectivity.

Automotive, aerospace, apparel, body area networks

The potential for integration doesn't stop in buildings and industrial plants. A lot of developments are taking place in the automotive and aerospace sector with car manufacturers such as Jaguar, BMW, Volvo or car system manufacturers like TRW, actively working in making more energy efficient vehicles. With harvesters and wireless sensors of many varying types integrated in them, from vibration harvesters in tyre pressure monitoring systems all the way to thermoelectric generators harvesting waste heat.

Even wearable applications are being developed, with apparel companies working hard in the development of new products, with several moving a step further into implantable devices. Some of these applications might be a bit further than others when it comes to becoming actual products but all developers, integrators and adopters are already gathering together and working towards making them a reality.

To find out more about it all, attend the IDTechEx Energy Harvesting & Storage and Wireless Sensor Networks & RTLS conference and exhibition in Berlin on 15–16 May.

For more information contact Corinne Jennings.

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