Managing IoT devices at scale in the energy sector

Pilgrim Beart explores how the energy industry is looking to the IoT to meet our future energy demands and some of the challenges it faces

Depending on the predictions you believe, the IoT promises to deliver up to 20 billion connected devices by 2020. Companies in every vertical industry are already connecting their products to the Internet – from heart monitors and industrial robots to energy systems and streetlights.

As a computer engineer, I have been involved in connected products, from billions of multi-band antenna systems in smartphones to a connected home platform developed by AlertMe, which now powers British Gas Hive in the UK and Lowes Iris in the US. I am now focused on the challenge of connecting and managing devices at a totally different scale, made possible with the IoT.

The AlertMe vision was to be able to view, control and automate your home using a smartphone and end-to-end architecture, including battery-powered edge devices in the home, a Linux-class gateway, cloud service and apps. The edge devices include sensors for motion and temperature, for example, actuators such as SmartPlugs and heating controls, while also integrating up to 50 different third-party devices using ZigBee and ZWave networks.

Problems at scale

So, what have I learnt from these experiences?  Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that around 80 percent of the time and money spent – and probably 80 percent of the lines of code written – was focused on things other than the headline proposition. So, while our vison was to deliver a Home Security and Home Energy Management System, this was relatively trivial to implement compared with the challenge of keeping the whole infrastructure functional as we scaled through orders of magnitude.

This is because devices are deployed in the real world where many things can go wrong. For example, batteries go flat, networks suffer interference, code needs to be upgraded and devices get damaged. And each of these exceptions requires a process to recover from it.

In low volumes, perhaps 1,000s of devices in the field, it is possible to deal with most of these issues manually, in an ad-hoc fashion. But as volumes scale to tens of thousands of devices, this approach fails to scale, because it is far too expensive, slow and error-prone to rely on people. The only solution is to automate.

We recently completed a survey of more than 50 connected device companies. We have yet to publish the results, but it is clear that many early-stage companies are failing to address device management sufficiently seriously, which threatens to become an obstacle to their scaling.

When it comes to energy-management, we have also learnt a lot about the huge energy transition that our society will go through over the coming decades to address our climate impact and the need to become a sustainable species.  David MacKay’s book, “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air”, provides a ground-up analysis of where our society uses energy and where we can get it from. David has no agenda regarding nuclear or wind, his only concern is that any strategy we choose must ‘add up’. This means that the energy we consume must not exceed the energy we can obtain from sustainable sources.

Start-ups lead the way

It sounds obvious, but the implications are significant. In particular, since energy gained from wind and solar is variable, we need to shift from a demand-led economy, where fossil-fuel power stations respond to varying demand, to a supply-led economy where consumption adjusts to whatever is available.

We need to make interventions in every part of our energy supply chain to address this challenge, from power stations to distribution to end-user consumption in factories, offices and homes.

Energy storage has an important role to play in this. For example, we can help shift peak production from solar in the middle of the day, to match it with peak energy consumption in the evening.  One company that is already doing this in the home is Moixa, whose Maslow product looks rather like a small home boiler. Another example is a company called Open Energi, which is dynamically managing refrigerators and other large loads to reduce their consumption for short periods in response to a shortage of electricity production from renewables such as wind.

Like most modern energy systems, both these solutions fundamentally require to be connected to the internet for remote management and so that they can be commanded to store or consume energy in real-time in response to the needs of the grid. 1248 is working with both companies and others to explore the challenges of managing these types of devices. Energy is a particularly interesting market for the IoT, since if these energy products are not working or go offline, they cannot deliver their benefits. And energy is money after all.

Pilgrim Beart is CEO of 1248 who work on DevicePilot, which is now entering private alpha.