Revolutionizing Infrastructure Through the Internet of Things (IoT)

The infrastructure revolution lies with the Internet of Things. Quality infrastructure underpins the international economy, helping to ensure the efficient movement of people, products, and services around the world. Critical infrastructure — like dams, bridges, ports, railroads, and more — are complex systems that usually operate at enormous cost and require significant performance and safety monitoring. These large infrastructure systems often require personnel to travel to remote, sometimes dangerous, portions of the system to inspect components and determine if maintenance or upgrades are required. The Internet of Things — the billions of physical devices embedded with sensors to collect and exchange information over the internet — presents an innovative approach to offset physical inspections through “smart” infrastructure.

Real-Time Sensors Save Lives

One example is the Shinkansen, the collection of high-speed railway lines that run through Japan. Often called “bullet trains,” they connect the entirety of the Japanese islands and carry hundreds of millions of passengers each year. When the system was first developed in the 1960s, technicians and engineers had to regularly inspect the ever-expanding system — thousands of miles of rail lines — risking the possibility of human error, failures between inspection intervals, and more. With little room for error — as more than 1,000 riders pack into the system’s trains at a given moment — the Japanese turned to automatic, real-time sensors, which can relay information to central operations centers to either inform key personnel about efficiency concerns or automatically trigger action related to the operations of the trains or the master system.

This approach benefited the Japanese government by freeing up critical manpower, while simultaneously installing a more robust inspection regime with an eye toward efficiency and strategic growth rather than triaging challenges that may have already gotten out of hand. As a result of this growing reliance on automatic sensors and real-time monitoring of system operations, tens of thousands of lives were likely saved in 2011, when an 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit Japan and destroyed railroad tracks in nearly 2,600 parts of the country. Just seconds before the full force of the earthquake was felt, a seismometer integrated with the rail network’s operations — one of 97 across the country — sent an automatic stop signal to the Shinkansen system and halted the movement of 33 active trains in areas impacted by the disaster.

The seismographic sensor — part of the burgeoning Internet of Things — reacted to the crisis at a speed that a human operator likely could not have replicated, saving thousands of lives. In addition, automated infrastructure systems and sensor networks save costs over the long term. Given the capital and manpower-intensive nature of developing large infrastructure projects, especially in challenging terrain, IoT technologies provide an effective solution to offset long-term costs.

“Smart Ports” Enhance Efficiency and Safety

One key infrastructural domain that could significantly benefit from further automation via IoT and related sensory technology are ports and seaborne trade. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), maritime transport is the “backbone of international trade and the global economy.” Nearly 80 percent of global trade by volume and more than 70 percent of global trade by value is transported by sea and passes through ports around the world. How the countries’ ports are positioned to manage the complex logistics of importing and exporting goods is critical within the larger global trade regime. A port equipped with IoT technologies — often called a “smart port” — would rely significantly less on manual labor and human monitoring to process container ships and instead employ a fully automated and integrated system that would enhance efficiency, safety, and be ready to strategically pivot as circumstances change.

A large port fully integrated with IoT, for example, can monitor the progress of unloading ships and make automated decisions about intake plans for incoming vessels (i.e., shifting docking instructions from one slip to another). Traditional port management approaches, on the other hand, rely on estimated guesses from workers who must determine whether to redirect an incoming vessel or make it wait, wasting invaluable travel time. A smart port can also enhance key customs and security monitoring processes by integrating with x-ray machinery used to assess the content of shipping containers and alert port staff to potential issues.

Built to Last

Smart infrastructure projects can help make large infrastructure projects more palatable for investors in emerging markets, as they ensure the longevity of these massive undertakings. Key for development practitioners — and as previously discussed by WBD here — IoT can also effectively monitor and evaluate projects and associated outcomes around the world. If a government constructs a new hydroelectric dam or develops a wind farm, an investment in smart technologies will capture, among other things, the overall increase in electricity yields, the number of individuals and households reached, and the environmental impact while also monitoring and addressing operational challenges.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 9 aims to “build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation.” Incorporating IoT technologies — like sensors on physical infrastructure components that feed into a centralized cloud — help to achieve this ambitious task. Strong investments in smart infrastructure today will provide not only immediate benefits, but guarantee long-term, cost-effective management of critical systems that serve hundreds of millions around the world. Capitalizing on IoT in the infrastructure domain will improve operational efficiency, provide safer working conditions, and avert disasters before they manifest in full. The IoT can revolutionize how the world approaches infrastructure development and improve the lives of hundreds of millions in the process.

Author: Trey Fields, Senior Associate at WBD, is a strategy and an international development professional engaged with the firm’s Private Sector Engagement Support award with the United States Agency for International Development.