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Battery-Less IoT Could Change How, When We Gather Data

Hill Air Force Base is involved in a demonstration project to use hundreds of small, low-wattage sensors, which require neither batteries or a separate power supply. The sensors “harvest” energy from their ambient environments.

batteryless sensor
The ultra-low-power PsiKick chip can be powered by human body heat, enabling long-life wearable health monitors of vital signs like heart rate, similar to the prototype shown. Similarly powered sensors by Everactive are in use at Hill Air Force Base.
Courtesy Image/Dan Addison
In the ever expanding world of the Internet of Things, “things” can be tiny and nearly effortless to power while providing valuable data to end users.

Hill Air Force Base in Utah is involved in a demonstration project to use small, very low-wattage sensors to monitor the health of steam delivery and mechanical systems.

The air base has installed some 750 sensors, developed by Everactive, on a steam distribution system. The battery-less and wireless sensors communicate the real-time health and effectiveness of steam traps — a common feature of steam-delivery systems.

Another 550 similar machine-health sensors have been installed on devices like electric motors, pumps, fans and other rotating devices.

The sensors have a “very low-power radio” incorporated into them, explained Craig Diffie, an enterprise account executive at Everactive.

“That’s the differentiator for our technology, the power draw on our sensors is so low that they can harvest energy from the ambient environment in almost every case,” he added. “Consequently, we don’t need batteries.”

The sensors use the difference in temperature between the heat from the steam pipe or motor and the ambient temperature to develop tiny amounts of electricity, which supply the power for the device, Diffie explained.

Real-time monitoring of steam equipment helps improve overall efficiencies, said Nickolas King, base energy manager at Hill Air Force Base, a large aviation maintenance center.

“Having that being monitored real-time is a cost-savings for us, because we can get out there and replace it before we’re losing steam from stuck traps that are just blowing steam through,” said King.

“Being battery-less and wireless in communicating that real-time data definitely reduces the upfront cost of installing the sensors,” he added.

The sensors are designed to collect data, conduct some edge processing, and then communicate the data to system gateways, and then ultimately, the cloud, said Diffie.

Hill AFB is about six months into the two-year test case and the project could be the sort of entry into other IoT-type projects involving low-wattage sensors, say officials.

“It is definitely something that the Air Force is interested in,” said King, adding that the technology brings inherent cybersecurity challenges.

“It has the potential to improve our understanding, and ability to predictively maintain our infrastructure systems,” said King.

Everactive submitted a proposal about 18 months ago to a small business innovative research effort in the Air Force. The company was selected and matched up with Hill Air Force Base.

“We’re looking for places that have lots of machinery or equipment,” said Diffie, describing use cases for the Everactive technology. “Most cities have that too, if they have a central utility plant, or some sort of utility distribution situation, which most do. But specifically, we’re interested in older equipment that has been very difficult to add sensorization to.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.