Overcoming the Battery Obstacle: 8 Reasons Why Batteries Restrict Cost-Effective IIoT Deployments

Part 2 of an Everactive whitepaper series. Start with Part 1 here: “Why Self-Powered Sensors are the Game-Changer.”

In a recent report on the drawbacks of batteries in electronic products, IDTechEx argues that continuing to deploy billions of battery-powered sensors—many of which will be cost-prohibitive to replace when they die—could eventually undermine 80% of IoT’s potential value over time.

 

Let’s examine eight reasons batteries can create problems for a business deploying an Industrial IoT sensor network.

Battery-powered sensors require manual maintenance

number oneThe most obvious issue, as the IDTechEx report noted, is that all batteries eventually need to be replaced.  As we pointed out earlier, the cost of accessing and replacing dead batteries—because such processes must still be done manually—is often much greater in resources and man-hours than the cost of the new battery itself.

This need for frequent manual effort immediately defeats the core value of connected sensors.  Indeed, one of the primary reasons manufacturers and industrial-plant operators turn to IoT sensors in the first place is that the automated data coming from those devices can eliminate the need for physical inspections of equipment, machinery, pipes, or other assets.

If all of those sensors themselves need to be manually checked on a regular basis to ensure that their batteries are functioning and/or to ultimately replace those batteries, then the organization has in effect traded one time-consuming manual maintenance schedule for another.

Finite lifespans can lead to gaps in mission-critical data

the number twoThe inevitablility of a dead battery can have consequences beyond the marginal labor and capital resources required to inspect and replace batteries.

Unless the team overseeing a plant’s IoT sensors discovers a dead battery immediately and is able to quickly get out to the sensor and replace it, the plant will permanently lose whatever data the sensor would have been collecting and transmitting in the interim.  To make matters worse, as a Clemson University paper points out: “Batteries wear out quickly in wireless sensor networks, even when carefully managed.”

Because some of an industrial plant’s sensors record and stream data that are mission-critical for safety and compliance, dying batteries can create significant hazards for the business.

To conserve battery life, sensors are often configured to transmit data less frequently

the numberIdeally, an IoT device at an industrial plant—say, a sensor positioned near the facility’s chemical operations to continuously monitor the atmosphere for toxic leaks—should be transmitting its data extremely frequently. Updates several times a minute are ideal.

But every data transmission consumes power.  So, to extend battery life, many IoT sensors are unfortunately configured to transmit data far less frequently than would be ideal—sometimes in batches as infrequently as once every 24 hours.

This can give a plant’s operators an inaccurate picture of the data a sensor is capturing.  With updates only once a day, for example, a manufacturing plant’s team might get an erroneous picture about the environmental quality of a given facility or the condition of a given asset.

Over time these inaccuracies, as well as the potential for false positives and false negatives, can increase exponentially, rendering the sensor’s data increasingly misleading and failing to deliver on the IoT’s promise of “real-time” awareness.

Physical dimensions can limit sensor functionality

As an article in Electronic Specifier magazine explains, batteries are often the largest part of an IoT sensor system, leaving engineers limited choices of which batteries to add to their sensors.8

Moreover, as the Clemson University paper explains, the size, weight, and dimensions of the battery often limit the usefulness of the sensor.  This is because those physical characteristics of the battery can restrict both the types of applications a sensor can perform and which other components the battery can coexist with on the sensor’s board, as well as where it can be deployed (with embedded locations, of course, off limits due to required battery changes).

Possible safety risks and environmental harm

the number fiveFinally, as the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports, the lithium batteries commonly used in IoT sensors “may contribute substantially to environmental pollution and adverse human health impacts, due to potentially toxic materials.”

You can see why this might be the most concerning aspect of the continued deployment of battery-powered IoT devices around the world—particularly if these devices are rolled out in the coming years by the billions or tens of billions as predicted.

The NIH report explains that lithium batteries pose health risks to humans due to the leaching of cobalt, copper, and other substances, and they can harm the environment through leaching such substances as thallium and nickel.

bar chart hazardous waste in lithium batteries

As you can see from this National Institutes of Health graph, lithium batteries have shown far higher concentrations of all of these metals than the government’s minimum threshold required for classifying a substance as hazardous waste.

Health report, “Potential Environmental and Human Impacts of Rechargeable Lithium Batteries in Electronic Waste”

One 'Moore' Reason to Keep Batteries Out of Your IIoT Sensors

the number sixAnother important concern cited in the Clemson University paper is that, unlike other areas of technology, batteries have historically shown slow rates of performance improvement over time.

The paper points out that Moore’s Law (the observation that semiconductor performance doubles roughly every 18 months) does not apply to the chemical and manufacturing processes used in the production and research of battery technology.

For example, after batteries received their most recent “upgrade”—the move to lithium, the lightest substance available for production—performance improvements to batteries have been at most a few percent a year, not nearly enough to keep pace with the advances in computing power in general, or the increasing demands of IoT devices in particular.

A Different But Related Problem with Most IIoT Solutions

The battery problem also serves as a helpful jumping-off point here for us to explore a related weakness inherent in most Industrial IoT networks: the lack of cohesion among the various components in many IoT devices.

 

For an IoT network to work optimally, the entire ecosystem—wireless sensors, data capture and analytics tools, software—should be unified, designed at the system level to work as a unit.  Unfortunately, many IoT sensors are built with a component-level focus—pulling together disparate parts, made by different manufacturers and built with different specs and applications in mind.  This lack of system-level unification in IoT design falls short for two reasons.

Not all components prolong battery life

Yep, we’re back to the battery problem, although this subset of the problem involves a unique set of challenges.

With existing commercially available parts, the combined energy needed to power all of a sensor’s operations—data sensing, processing, memory, wireless communication—necessitates a battery, particularly if this sensor is built using disparate components from different sources.

Some manufacturers are developing components for wireless IoT sensors billed as “ultra-low-power,” and that’s great.  But when an end-user pulls together a set of disparate components, we’re back to the battery problem.

The microcontroller might be built for low power consumption, but what if the radio, or temperature sensor, or clock chip isn’t?  Ultimately, despite the burdensome integration effort, today’s available technology simply does not allow an end-user to build a useful, fully integrated sensor network that leaves the battery behind.

A sensor built on disparate components could lead to a suboptimal system

the number eightAnother weakness in sensors built from disparate components is that these sensors often can’t effectively respond to the inevitable challenges an IoT network will face.

Imagine, for example, that within some of your wireless sensors the data processing capability is becoming overloaded. If your system is comprised of disparate, standalone hardware and software components that don’t communicate seamlessly with each other, you might have difficulty solving that problem—and you might not even be alerted that the issue exists. The data processing tools will simply continue working as hard as they can to meet the demand, until they fail, and none of the other parts of your system will come to help.

Now imagine that your entire IoT network was built as a unified ecosystem—with all pieces designed to work together, from data acquisition to processing to analysis to transmission.

In this type of cohesive environment, you can much more easily modulate and adjust your system to meet your changing needs. If some of your processors are becoming overloaded, the system can transfer some of the data-processing workload to less-taxed areas of the system.

Part Three: The Solution

Continue to part three of this series to learn how Everactive has developed a solution for the Industrial IoT revolution: an end-to-end system that pulls together all of the necessary components for a robust and ubiquitous sensing solution—built around wireless IoT sensors that are entirely self-powered. “The Two-Pronged Solution.”