IoT is the perfect technology to work on sustainability outcomes

March 2024 - In this interview, Professor Marcos Katz from the University of Oulu describes his research activities in the IoT arena and SUPERIOT, a Horizon Europe project that he is currently leading. He also talks about the reasons why telecommunications organizations need to look beyond energy consumption and approach sustainability in holistic terms.

Q: Would you begin with by introducing yourself to our readers?

MK: I am a Professor in the Centre for Wireless Communications at the University of Oulu in Finland, where I have been working since 2009. I come from an industrial background and began my career with Nokia in Finland before moving to join Samsung Electronics in South Korea. I held a variety of roles, including product development, before making the transition into research with a focus on multi-antenna and MIMO systems, cooperative communications, and more recently, optical wireless communications. I also worked at VTT, the Technical Research Centre of Finland, before joining the University of Oulu.

Q: What research topics are you currently working on?

MK: One of the topics my group focuses on is the application of radio and optical wireless technologies for communications systems. In particular, we are looking at IoT systems based on the use of light as well as other systems that combine radio and light. Although we have had LEDs since the 1960s, the interest in using light for wireless communications systems emerged around 2000 when blue LEDs became available. This development led to the production of white light LEDs at which point people started to think about modulating light for communications purposes. At that time, I was working for Samsung where light-based systems were of strategic importance in the context of Samsung’s consumer appliances and mobile devices portfolios.

The use of light is interesting for other reasons. For example, it suits environments where security, privacy and safety are a priority. Another consideration is that we are surrounded by a lot of lighting infrastructure which opens up the possibility to harvest energy from ambient light. Compared to other sources such as RF, heat, mechanical vibrations, and others, we can get up to several orders of magnitude more energy from light. In our lab, we have developed zero-energy IoT devices that use energy harvesting to power communications in up- and down-links, sensor operation and signal processing.

Q: Where does IoT fit in your research activities?

MK: We start with the idea that IoT is the best technology to create truly sustainable systems. IoT is not as demanding as cellular systems for human communications in terms of capabilities and complexity. Because of this, IoT has the potential to become the first communication technology that will be developed as truly sustainable.

Sustainability in wireless communications systems is a key issue for our group. For the most part, the communications community thinks of sustainability in terms of energy efficiency. We believe that it is important to go much further and think about making communications systems sustainable as a whole. Consider the coming decade during which industry projections are for hundreds of billions of IoT nodes. How much energy and resources will those nodes consume and how much electronic waste will we accumulate as these devices reach the end of their service lives? The answers to these questions lead us in the direction of a holistic, life-cycle approach to sustainability.

 Image Source: Towards truly sustainable IoT systems: the SUPERIOT project

One avenue we are exploring to make sustainable IoT devices involves the use of printed electronics (PE) technology. PE is well known for sustainability because it consumes less energy during production. There is less reliance on clean rooms and devices are easier to recycle. Some researchers are already developing biodegradable devices using PE technology.

Q: How are you planning to work with printed electronics technologies?

MK: Our long-term goal is to produce a fully printed IoT node that is capable of energy harvesting, which is to say ‘batteryless.’ At present, PE technologies are not as mature as those used in silicon-based electronics. PE currently does not support a high degree of integration. Also, components are not as stable which results in performance drifting over time. These are a few of the challenges we are investigating through our research.

In our lab environment, our initial studies involve hybrid IoT solutions. We are using some printed components such as solar cells, displays, optical components. As time goes by, more and more printed components are being developed and we are incorporating them into our solution. Next, we expect to integrate printed supercapacitors, diodes, and others into our solutions. Some components, such as microcontrollers, are for the time are based on conventional silicon-based electronics.

Q: How do these concepts fit into the Horizon Europe research project you are leading?

MK: SUPERIOT, which is short for Truly Sustainable Printed Electronics-based IoT Combining Optical and Radio Wireless Technologies, is the name of a three-year SNS project. Funding for the project comes from the Smart Networks and Services Joint Undertaking (SNS JU) under the European Union's Horizon Europe research and innovation program and there is also an element of top-up funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). There are eleven contributing partners spanning academia, applied research and commercial sectors.

The project is in its second year and the team has progressed on developing early prototypes energy autonomous IoT nodes exploiting radio and light. PE components are part of the solution at the IoT node level. Next year, we expect to have four demonstrators. The first will implement dual-mode (light-radio) communications, energy harvesting and positioning functions with hybrid IoT nodes. A second demonstrator will be a reduced complexity IoT node with quite simple functionality but fully printed. The third demonstrator will focus on showing how PE nodes fit in a hospital or medical ICT use case. The fourth demonstrator will involve greater complexity and combine PE nodes with repeater devices and potentially demonstrate RIS (reconfigurable intelligent surface) technologies.

I mentioned earlier that our work focuses on IoT nodes using light and radio communications. We are exploring techniques to switch dynamically between the two based on environmental considerations or requirements connected to security or data privacy factors. Optical systems are inherently more secure because communications beams are confined within a system compared to radio waves that disperse easily. Another concept we are planning to explore involves techniques to send information partly by radio and partly by light which makes it difficult to intercept messages completely.

Q: What factors will affect the adoption of PE technologies in IoT systems?

MK: The next decade will be important for PE because we expect projects such as SUPERIOT will contribute to the maturity of the technology.

We hear about expectations for massive sensing and actuation which will come about for added-value reasons. For this to happen, we need to see pricing for IoT nodes at level of a few cents per device and the ability to create sticker-like IoT nodes that can be directly attached onto objects. These are some of the ideas that influence our research activities.

Q: What kind of ecosystem do you see forming around PE for communications and IoT?

MK: I am most familiar with Finland where there is an active IoT community, even in Oulu where there is a sizeable cluster. VTT is one of the leading organizations in PE and I am lucky enough that I can walk 500 meters if I want to visit a PE facility. As you might imagine, Taiwan looks to be another active market in PE technology.

Q: Do you have any closing thoughts for companies looking at IoT?

MK: Yes, ten to fifteen years ago, everybody was talking about ‘green’ networks and systems, and by green we meant being energy efficient. Today, we all talk about sustainability and still, we mostly refer to energy efficiency. This narrow approach needs to be changed. We need to be holistic and think about sustainable implementation, sustainable usage, and life cycle issues. IoT is the perfect technology to address sustainability priorities and serve as a model for other, more complex technologies. We need to learn how to develop an IoT system that is sustainable by design, implementation, usage, and disposal. Adaptability, flexibility, and modularity are part of the toolkit to enable sustainability.