Forget Fridges: How IoT is Saving Humanity

Forget about IoT’s poster child- the connected fridge; the importance of this emerging technology goes far beyond remembering to order milk. From experimental forests to tracking elephant seals and smart beehives, scientists and technologists worldwide are running pioneering projects to examine climate change, save honeybees from extinction and even save humanity itself. In this series, we’ll explore some of the most innovative IoT projects taking place right now and their fundamental effects:

And we’re not talking about small scale projects here. Harvard has wired up a whole forest in central Massachusetts with thousands of IoT sensors in order to track real time changes and patterns in global climate change. Harvard has been gathering data here since 1907 when they first acquired the land. Until recently however, the technologies used posed many problems, from lightning strikes and animals chewing through wires to the practicalities of lack of access points for wi-fi networks.

The real advantage of the Internet of Things is the ability to create a hybrid network that doesn’t rely on one technology alone but can combine sensors, frequencies and access points to intelligently combat these problems. Instead of running cables through the forest, the scientists built five towers that communicate via 5.8-gigahertz radio links capable of very high data rates. To avoid foliage interfering with signal, 900-megahertz radios are used to transmit through leaves and branches. And undoubtedly the most substantial advance is in data collection. The deployment of IoT has stopped the scientists having to physically trek around the forest and rely on monthly data collection and now instead provides millions of observations every day.

So what exactly are the scientists measuring? Originally the site was used to solely track trees and vegetation, but since the Harvard Forest became a Long-Term Ecological Research Site (LTER) in 1988, they study the whole ecosystem from soil to streams, insects to air. As such, phenology has become the core mission of the Harvard Forest- that is the study of natural cycles. It is built upon the premise that everything in the natural world is inextricably intertwined, that even the tiniest microorganism can shape the fate of the towering oak. Ultimately, in understanding and unravelling these connections, the scientists will be able to predict what will happen in this part of the world as the planet warms.

Each experimental site in the forest has different sensors and devices associated with it, from ‘sap-flux’ sensors for trees to atmospheric sensors measuring the air and Raspberry-Pi acoustic sensors to measure animals and insects. The knowledge gathered through these networks is already uncovering fundamental discoveries about nature, its biological processes and how they have changed over the past 25 years. Through this knowledge and the ongoing study, scientists are on track to formulate strategies to combat the worst effects of climate change across the globe.

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