A powerful potential solution to powering IoT sensors


The Internet of Things (IoT) offers enterprises access to unprecedented amounts of data for analyzing customer preferences, tracking and managing inventory, monitoring equipment, and more.

But IoT also presents daunting management challenges for enterprise IT leaders. Not only must IT pros worry about securing and integrating IoT devices into their networks, but they also are responsible for keeping IoT sensors running. And when you’re talking about hundreds, thousands or even millions of sensors located at headquarters, in transit or in remote equipment, the problem appears overwhelming.

After all, what do you do when an IoT sensor’s battery runs down? Dispatching teams to replace sensor batteries would be prohibitively expensive. Suddenly IoT starts to look like a logistical, power-draining nightmare.

Network World contributor Patrick Nelson suggests a potential solution to power management is to ensure that IoT sensors consume no power at all when they’re not actually working.

“One way to do that can be by shooting a radio pattern at them: the radio signature simply turns on the sensor,” Nelson writes. “That method could significantly reduce the required power for the entire IoT rig over time, scientists say, because the radio standing by for the alert uses less power than the actual sensor does whether it’s sleeping or not. The sensor itself is entirely dormant.”

The hitch with that plan, he notes, is the added size required for a workable sensor antenna, which could make the hardware too large to be useful. Fortunately, he says, Stanford University engineering researchers may have a solution.  Stanford News supplies the details:

Angad Rekhi, a graduate student in the Arbabian lab at Stanford, and Amin Arbabian, assistant professor of electrical engineering, have developed a wake-up receiver that turns on a device in response to incoming ultrasonic signals – signals outside the range that humans can hear.

Once attached to a device, a wake-up receiver listens for a unique ultrasonic pattern that tells it when to turn the device on. It needs only a very small amount of power to maintain this constant listening, so it still saves energy overall while extending the battery life of the larger device. A well-designed wake-up receiver also allows the device to be turned on from a significant distance.

We’re not sure when the ultrasonic wake-up receiver technology will be available to an IoT network near you, but when it is, it should go a long way toward minimizing the cost and hassle of ensuring that sensors are able to do their jobs of collecting and transmitting valuable enterprise data.


  1. Tim Coote says:

    Ok. But how can you tell that the sensor is working/not working? For IoT a major challenge is understanding the data quality, especially when things go wrong.


  2. For home automation a solution for this already exists: the Z-Wave protocol. This protocol is not a wifi level, but at an 868Mhz level, and brings a device into sleep mode once it not in use. It only consumes power in use hence a battery will last for 4 -5 years. It can also sent updates to a central hub telling you if battery replacement is needed or not. It still means that battery replacement is needed once and a while, but in the end not often needed.

  3. Daniel Munyan says:

    Working with IoT vendors every day, I see the future of power management being handled at the edge. BLE sensors and LoRa or Sigfox connected readers, with their small message package and low power consumption in particular have dramatically increased battery life, and including a battery status ping in every message means that users have plenty of warning as batteries run down. New licensed band standards like CAT-M1 and NB-IoT are also pushing out battery life for IoT devices. Device makers are getting better battery life with components like accelerometers to wake up devices from deep sleep where they only need a proof of life ping hourly or even daily. Real life battery testing in the field is showing five year life, which is plenty of time given the assets they are attached to have useful lives less than five years or require regular maintenance to which battery or tag replacement is an easy, inexpensive task.

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