Optimizing Your IoT Devices for Environmental Sustainability

To become more environmentally sustainable, customers commonly introduce Internet of Things (IoT) devices. These connected devices collect and analyze data from commercial buildings, factories, homes, cars, and other locations to measure, understand, and improve operational efficiency. (There will be an estimated 24.1 billion active IoT devices by 2030 according to Transforma Insights.)

IoT devices offer several efficiencies. However, you must consider their environmental impact when using them. Devices must be manufactured, shipped, and installed; they consume energy during operations; and they must eventually be disposed of. They are also a challenge to maintain—an expert may need physical access to the device to diagnose issues and update it. This is especially true for smaller and cheaper devices, because extended device support and ongoing enhancements are often not economically feasible, which results in more frequent device replacements.

When architecting a solution to tackle operational efficiency challenges with IoT, consider the devices’ impact on environmental sustainability. Think critically about the impact of the devices you deploy and work to minimize their overall carbon footprint. This post considers device properties that influence an IoT device’s footprint throughout its lifecycle and shows you how Amazon Web Services (AWS) IoT services can help.

Architect for lean, efficient, and durable devices

So which device properties contribute towards minimizing environmental impact?

  • Lean devices use just the right amount of resources to do their job. They are designed, equipped, and built to use fewer resources, which reduces the impact of manufacturing and disposing them as well as their energy consumption. For example, electronic devices like smartphones use rare-earth metals in many of their components. These materials impact the environment when mined and disposed of. By reducing the amount of these materials used in your design, you can move towards being more sustainable.
  • Efficient devices lower their operational impact by using up-to-date and secure software and enhancements to code and data handling.
  • Durable devices remain in the field for a long time and still provide their intended function and value. They can adapt to changing business requirements and are able to recover from operational failure. The longer the device functions, the lower its carbon footprint will be. This is because device manufacturing, shipping, installing, and disposing will require relatively less effort.

In summary, deploy devices that efficiently use resources to bring business value for as long as possible. Finding the right tradeoff for your requirements allows you to improve operational efficiency while also maximizing your benefit on environmental sustainability.

High-level sustainable IoT architecture

Figure 1 shows building blocks that support sustainable device properties. Their main capabilities are:

  • Enabling remote device management
  • Allowing over-the-air (OTA) updates
  • Integrating with cloud services to access further processing capabilities while ensuring security of devices and data, at rest and in transit

Generic architecture for sustainable IoT devices

Figure 1. Generic architecture for sustainable IoT devices

Introducing AWS IoT Core and AWS IoT Greengrass to your architecture

Assuming you have an at least partially connected environment, the capabilities outlined in Figure 1 can be achieved by using mainly two AWS IoT services:

  • AWS IoT Core is a managed cloud platform that lets connected devices easily and securely interact with cloud applications and other devices.
  • AWS IoT Greengrass is an IoT open-source edge runtime and cloud service that helps you build, deploy, and manage device software.

Figure 2 shows how the building blocks introduced in Figure 1 translate to AWS IoT services.

AWS architecture for sustainable IoT devices

Figure 2. AWS architecture for sustainable IoT devices

Optimize your IoT devices for leanness and efficiency with AWS IoT Core

AWS IoT Core securely integrates IoT devices with other devices and the cloud. It allows devices to publish and subscribe to data in the cloud using device communication protocols. You can use this functionality to create event-driven data processing flows that can be integrated with additional services. For example, you can run machine learning inference, perform analytics, or interact with applications running on AWS.

According to a 451 Research report published in 2019, AWS can perform the same compute task with an 88% lower carbon footprint compared to the median of surveyed US enterprise data centers. More than two-thirds of this carbon reduction is attributable to more efficient servers and a higher server utilization. In 2021, 451 Research published similar reports for data centers in Asia Pacific and Europe.

AWS IoT Core offers this higher utilization and efficiency to edge devices in the following ways:

  • Non-latency critical, resource-intensive tasks can be run in the cloud where they can use managed services and be decommissioned when not in use.
  • Having less code on IoT devices also reduces maintenance efforts and attack surface while making it simpler to architect its software components for efficiency.
  • From a security perspective, AWS IoT Core protects and governs data exchange with the cloud in a central place. Each connected device must be credentialed to interact with AWS IoT. All traffic to and from AWS IoT is sent securely using Transport Layer Security (TLS) mutual authentication protocols. Services like AWS IoT Device Defender are available to analyze, audit, and monitor connected fleets of devices and cloud resources in AWS IoT at scale to detect abnormal behavior and mitigate security risks.

Customer Application:
Tibber, a Nordic energy startup, uses AWS IoT Core to securely exchange billions of messages per month about their clients’ real-time energy usage and aggregate data and perform analytics centrally. This allows them to keep their smart appliance lean and efficient while gaining access to scalable and more sustainable data processing capabilities.


Ensure device durability and longevity with AWS IoT Greengrass

Tasks like interacting with sensors or latency-critical computation must remain local. AWS IoT Greengrass, an edge runtime and cloud service, securely manages devices and device software, thereby enabling remote maintenance and secure OTA updates. It builds upon and extends the capabilities of AWS IoT Core and AWS IoT Device Management, which securely registers, organizes, monitors, and manages IoT devices.

AWS IoT Greengrass brings offline capabilities and simplifies the definition and distribution of business logic across Greengrass core devices. This allows for OTA updates of this business logic as well as the AWS IoT Greengrass Core software itself.

This is a distinctly different approach to what device manufacturers did in the past. Devices no longer need to be designed to run all code for one immutable purpose. Instead, they can be built to be flexible for potential future use cases, which ensures that business logic can be dynamically tweaked, maintained, and troubleshooted remotely when needed.

AWS IoT Greengrass does this using components. Components can represent applications, runtime installers, libraries, or any code that you would run on a device that are then distributed and managed through AWS IoT. Multiple AWS-provided components as well as the recently launched Greengrass Software Catalog extend the edge runtime’s default capabilities. The secure tunneling component, for example, establishes secure bidirectional communication with a Greengrass core device that is behind restricted firewalls, which can then be used for remote assistance and troubleshooting over SSH.

Conclusion

Historically, IoT devices were designed to stably and reliably serve one predefined purpose and were equipped for peak resource usage. However, as discussed in this post, to be sustainable, devices must now be lean, efficient, and durable. They must be manufactured, shipped, and installed once. From there, they should be able to be used flexibly for a long time. This way, they will consume less energy. Their smaller resource footprint and more efficient software allows organizations to improve operational efficiency but also fully realize their positive impact on emissions by minimizing devices’ carbon footprint throughout their lifecycle.

Ready to get started? Familiarize yourself with the topics of environmental sustainability and AWS IoT. Our AWS re:Invent 2021 Sustainability Attendee Guide covers this. When designing your IoT based solution, keep these device properties in mind. Follow the sustainability best practices described in the Sustainability Pillar of the AWS Well-Architected Framework.

Related information

https://aws.amazon.com/blogs/architecture/optimizing-your-iot-devices-for-environmental-sustainability/

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