Is Batteryless IoT the Future of Connected Devices?

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Batteryless IoT may be one of the most significant developments in the world of the Internet of Things since IoT was introduced.

As the name suggests, Batteryless IoT refers to IoT devices that don’t need batteries to operate — rather, they rely on harvesting energy from diverse sources, such as radio frequency signals, light, vibrations, and thermal energy.

These can be used in a number of applications, including environmental checks, healthcare, and industrial monitoring.

And by eliminating the need for batteries, they support the environment and reduce a source of toxic waste, which can be challenging to manage on a large scale.

Key Takeaways

  • Batteryless IoT devices harvest energy from diverse sources, such as radio frequency signals, light, vibrations, and thermal energy.
  • These devices, part of Ambient IoT (A-IoT), offer sustainability and cost-effectiveness, suitable for various sectors like smart homes, healthcare, and logistics.
  • They’re ideal for hard-to-reach areas, reducing maintenance, toxic waste, and costs, and are beginning to find Product Market Fit across industrial sectors.
  • Challenges include variable energy sources and higher initial costs, but the sector is expected to grow with improving economics and broader applications.

Batteryless IoT devices are especially effective in industries requiring devices to be in hard-to-reach areas where it’s difficult to frequently (or even occasionally) change out a battery or insert a charging cable — especially having to repeat this for dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of sensors.

They often receive power over the air via a transmitter or through ambient environmental sources, such as sunlight, a process known as energy harvesting.

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Cesar Johnston, CEO of Energous Corp, a provider of radio frequency-based wireless power network solutions, told Techopedia:

“For example, retailers have recently been deploying more electronic shelf labels into their stores, often numbering thousands per deployment.

 

“Manually recharging these via charging cables or swapping out replaceable batteries is not only an operational nightmare, but it also adds more toxic waste to our landfills, where most batteries end up.”

Reduces Maintenance, Toxic Waste, Saves Money

Batteryless IoT is a subset of devices classified as “ambient IoT” (A-IoT), a new type of IoT device that operates solely on energy harvested from the environment.

Viet Nguyen, the vice president for public relations and technology at 5GAmericas, a trade association of national wireless cellular operators and global network equipment manufacturers, told Techopedia that these devices are considered inexpensive, have a small form factor, and consume very little power.

The fact that the batteries don’t need to be replaced reduces maintenance and saves money.

“A-IoT presents a significant business opportunity,” says Nguyen.

“Using A-IoT devices reduces maintenance efforts and energy costs in many IoT networks, making them suitable for use cases where human access is difficult or costly. Their low cost and minimal maintenance requirements allow for many devices to be connected to a network.”

In addition to eliminating the toxic waste that results from improper battery disposal, implementing batteryless IoT means companies won’t have to throw out the devices when their batteries run out and replace them with new ones every few years. This eliminates more toxic waste as well as saves money.

“One of the main benefits of batteryless IoT devices is that they provide an eco-friendly solution for larger deployments,” Johnston says. “The technology does not rely on toxic batteries, 3 billion of which end up in our world’s landfills annually, according to the EPA.”

And as the number of IoT devices increases, he adds that more waste will be added to landfills unless an alternative power method, such as wireless charging, becomes ubiquitous. Implementing batteryless IoT technology can directly and positively impact this projection.

Examples and Uses of Batteryless IoT Devices

Runar Finager, chief marketing officer and co-founder of ONiO, a provider of a batteryless, wireless microcontrollers powered by ambient energy, agrees that eliminating the need for batteries reduces the environmental impact significantly.

“These devices require less upkeep, i.e., there’s no need to replace the batteries, which is especially beneficial in hard-to-access locations,” he adds.

“And batteryless technology opens up new markets that had been challenging due to the limitations of battery-powered devices. In such fields as smart city initiatives and precision agriculture, the large-scale deployment of sensors is now feasible and practical.”

Finager offers examples of specific IoT devices that could benefit from going batteryless:

  • Smart home devices: Environmental sensors, door/window sensors, remote controls, smart buttons, and computer keyboards that never need a battery change.
  • Wearable health tech: Fitness trackers and medical monitors that draw power from body heat or movement could offer uninterrupted health monitoring.
  • Agriculture: Soil moisture and climate sensors that operate independently of batteries could provide long-term, maintenance-free monitoring for precision farming.
  • Environmental monitoring: Sensors for tracking air quality, temperature, or humidity that self-power through environmental energy would be invaluable for long-term ecological studies.
  • Smart Cities: Infrastructure and traffic sensors could benefit from self-sustaining energy sources, aiding in reducing urban power consumption and optimization.
  • Industrial IoT: Equipment sensors that monitor machinery health, i.e., predictive maintenance, could drastically reduce maintenance downtime and the costs associated with battery replacements.
  • Logistics and tracking: Package tracking sensors that never run out of power would ensure consistent monitoring throughout the shipping process.
  • Energy sector: Batteryless sensors could monitor pipelines and electrical grids in remote areas, leveraging energy harvesting from thermal or solar sources.

Paul Maupin, founder and lead researcher at Mobility Connected, a connected mobility consultancy, concurs that batteryless IoT is particularly promising in such sectors as industrial monitoring, smart buildings, and healthcare.

“For instance, in industrial settings, sensors monitoring machinery health can operate indefinitely without needing battery replacements, reducing downtime and maintenance costs,” he notes.

“[With advancements in energy-harvesting technologies], we can expect to see more robust and diverse applications.”

Challenges of Batteryless IoT

Despite its benefits, there are still some challenges associated with batteryless IoT. Maupin says the biggest challenge is the dependency on ambient energy sources that are often variable and unpredictable.

“There’s also limited power output. Energy harvesting provides low power, which limits the complexity and functionality of the devices,” he says.

“In addition, the initial cost and design complexity of integrating energy harvesting technologies is significantly higher than traditional battery-powered devices.”

Nguyen offers some additional challenges of batteryless IoT.

“The challenges include managing subscriptions for many devices, authentication and authorization, association with networks, supporting registration and reachability management, and establishing connections between A-IoT devices and end users,” he notes.

The Bottom Line

Batteryless IoT refers to devices operating without traditional batteries, using alternative energy sources, such as solar, kinetic, thermal, or radio frequency.

Because of its many benefits, batteryless IoT has the potential to revolutionize the way we implement and use IoT technology, offering a more sustainable, cost-effective, and reliable solution for a wide range of applications.

Right now, the industry is in its early, albeit successful, years, and it is a segment we expect to see growing as the initial costs and economies of scale improve for the end user.

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Linda Rosencrance
Technology journalist
Linda Rosencrance
Technology journalist

Linda Rosencrance is a freelance writer and editor based in the Boston area, with expertise ranging from AI and machine learning to cybersecurity and DevOps. She has been covering IT topics since 1999 as an investigative reporter working for several newspapers in the Boston metro area. Before joining Techopedia in 2022, her articles have appeared in TechTarget, MSDynamicsworld.com, TechBeacon, IoT World Today, Computerworld, CIO magazine, and many other publications. She also writes white papers, case studies, ebooks, and blog posts for many corporate clients, interviewing key players, including CIOs, CISOs, and other C-suite execs.