The finest use case for Internet of Things and 5G? Planet Earth

- By Anand Swaminathan EVP and Global Industry Leader - Communications, Media and Technology, Infosys
Anand Swaminathan

In 1896, Swedish Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius predicted that fossil fuels would precipitate global warming. Arrhenius was proven correct only in the late 1950s by atmospheric carbon dioxide metrics. Governments and corporations did not pay heed to the downside of rampant industrialization, which irrevocably changed the contours of our planet – polluting air, land and water; shrinking rainforest cover; endangering animal species; increasing the frequency and intensity of natural calamities; and bringing about an existential crisis.

The human race may be unable to offset the damage caused to our ecology, but we must curb the effects of climate change. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has the potential to develop and sustain harmonious natural ecosystems. While data analytics and machine learning validate the research of climatologists, Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G technology can address environmental risks, and save our planet as well as the remaining species.

Using mobility and IoT for predictable climate
Approximately five billion people use mobile phones. Hyper-connectivity and mobile applications that keep us connected can serve as platforms for sustainable economic development. Smart IoT sensors embedded in wearable devices, homes, workspaces, industrial shop floors, logistical supply chains, agriculture fields, and oceans, can mine critical information for ‘green’ intelligence.

IoT sensors, satellites and underwater drones monitor energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, industrial and household waste, rise in sea levels, forest fires, coastal erosion, seismic activity, distribution of endangered species, and movement of wildlife population, among other biodiversity indicators. It builds on terabytes of structured data about temperature, pollution levels, resource depletion, and animal species extinction as well as unstructured data in the form of images, video, audio, and text to mitigate global environmental crises.

The multi-dimensional datasets help create, train and use advanced deep learning tools, machine learning models, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms for climate change mitigation and health studies. Green technology capitalizes on big data to ensure clean energy, sustainable urbanization, health epidemic prevention, and disaster management. Significantly, mobile phones and IoT sensors powered by 5G networks help minimize the environmental impact of human activity on air, land and water bodies.

Improving air quality
Air pollution claims more than 5.5 million lives, and costs US$ 225 billion in lost labor income and US$ 5 trillion in welfare losses annually, according to the World Bank1.

Fixed and mobile sensors mounted on automobiles and industrial equipment measure air pollutants, including PM2.5, black carbon, nitric oxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Online maps and visualization tools display such data at the unit, street and regional level in real time. Air quality readings and pollution mapping help identify the source(s) as well as affected areas. In addition, AI and machine learning tools make sense of the data and predict pollution levels up to 72 hours in advance.

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Granular visibility into air quality, analysis of long-term trends, and accurate predictions of spikes in air pollution enable researchers, town planners and analysts to address the issue with policy decisions and practical solutions. It may include optimization methods for traffic management in urban areas and IoT-powered smart services to reduce carbon emissions or new methods to estimate acid emissions at industrial manufacturing enterprises. The ‘Zero Routine Flaring by 2030’ initiative to discontinue natural gas flaring in oil production sites for combating air pollution is a pioneering climate change mitigation strategy of oil producing enterprises and countries, under the aegis of the World Bank.

Preserving the land mass
The frequency of wildfires in California has increased five times since 1972 due to a rise in peak average summer temperature, according to a study published in the AGU Earth’s Future journal . In the summer of 2020, bushfires ravaged more than five million hectares in Australia causing large-scale destruction of property, uprooting communities, and claiming lives.

The reduction in forest cover as a result of hurricanes, tropical storms, and wildfires not only affects vegetation and the distribution of tree species but also endangers humans and wildlife. Mobile devices such as tablets and drones track farmland and forests and capture high-resolution photographs that enable AI-powered solutions to share real-time insights and trigger early warning systems. Further, AI solutions analyze terrestrial maps for a better understanding of utilization and evaluation of sustainable land development.

ICT solutions determine the environmental, demographical and economic implications of deforestation on local economies, which helps policy makers prioritize mitigation and restoration initiatives. Smart phones and social media applications enable execution by supporting afforestation and wildlife protection programs. Notably, an Australian telecom company implemented a national emergency warning system that relays ~ 500 SMS alerts and makes 1,000 landline calls per second to alert more than 50,000 people in the event of a bushfire.

Preventing hydrological events
A report of the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC) highlights a four-fold increase in floods and hydrological events since 1980 and a two-fold rise since 20044.

Several coastal cities face existential risks due to rising sea levels. Heavy rains and snowmelt are flooding rivers, displacing communities, and destroying farms and critical infrastructure. Mobile phone operators can partner with municipal bodies, weather stations and other stakeholders for water resources and flood management. Operators can co-create cloud-based catalogs of meteorological and climatological activity to predict droughts and floods. Similarly, telecom networks can help monitor sea levels through sensors in fishing buoys. Further, AI models can use IoT data to anticipate geophysical events such as a volcano eruption or tsunami.

Mobile phone-based emergency communication systems rolled out across high-risk regions can alert natives about imminent events and manage evacuation via text messages and mobile apps. A mobile app that reveals the carbon quotient of daily activities can spur responsible behavior and action.

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The ubiquity of mobile platforms can enhance our understanding of the environment and disseminate information for mass awareness. Solutions range from gamification apps for participating in wildlife conservation programs and digital stores for purchasing environment-friendly products to social apps for selecting suppliers based on the carbon footprint.