XEROX PARC battery sensors

An engineer from XEROX PARC demos fiber optic battery sensors at the 2013 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit. Photo: Michael Belfiore.

Call it what you will, the Internet of Things, the Physical Internet, the Internet of Atoms (as opposed to bits), or the Industrial Internet, as it’s referred to by a GE-produced paper of the same name. It seems inevitable that more and more of the gadgets in the physical world will be networked and connected. It’s hard for me to imagine right now (anyone want to help me out?) why this will be all that useful for consumers. But on the Industrial scale, this could be transformative.

The GE paper gives as an example instrumented jet engines. Airplanes get taken out of service all the time for routine maintenance. The trouble is, this happens more or less on a fixed schedule, unless something goes obviously, visibly wrong. As was the case with the recent problems with Boeing 787 batteries catching fire. More on that in a sec.

But with instrumented airplane parts—that is parts embedded with Internet-connected sensors continually collecting and uploading data on temperatures, vibration, strain, and the like—maintenance techs, regulators, and engineers, would have a mass of data from which to figure out which parts actually need servicing. They wouldn’t have to guess, like they do now, with wide margins for safety built into the schedule.

Back to the batteries. I saw an example of the kinds of embedded sensors the GE paper talks about at this year’s ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit. There, engineers from XEROX’s Palo Alto Research Center showed off fiber optic sensors that can be manufactured into the substance of lithium ion batteries. There they could collect all the data that test engineers would need to build just the right sized batteries for given applications, instead of over-engineering them, as they do now. They’d also get a mass of data about how to built them lighter, cheaper, and less prone to overheating. And the flaws in production batteries that do suffer mishaps could be easily pinpointed and prevented in the future using what would amount to a black box data recorder for batteries.

Will the Industrial Internet change the world? Hard to say. But as the authors of the GE paper point out, the increased efficiencies it has the potential to introduce in a wide range of fields—from transportation and healthcare to energy extraction and power production—could become a major driver of the global economy.