Have you been looking forward to a world where everything is smart and connected? A world where millions of sensor networks are deployed throughout homes, offices and factories to help make better decisions, keep people safer, enable more automation, reduce cost, and improve everyone’s overall productivity and quality of life? If your answer is yes, the good news is that this world, called the Internet of things (IoT), is just around the corner.

So what is IoT? It’s the concept that everything – literally every single “thing” on Earth (and even beyond) – will be assigned a unique address. This address allows each and every thing to communicate and interact via the Internet with every other thing.

Currently, a “thing” is defined as a device with the capability to connect to the Internet. That includes cellphones, smart TVs, refrigerators, coffee makers, jet engines, nuclear reactors, and anything else with an on and off switch. But the concept is much bigger than that. As communications technology (particularly wireless technology) becomes more advanced, there is little that will keep everything from becoming “smart.” Of course, TVs, refrigerators and coffee makers have been around for years, but only recently have they been able to connect to the Internet. Could you imagine how many other things could become connected as technology advances?

 As shown in Figure 1, the number of connected objects as of February 2015 is around 14.8 billion, but will reach around 50 billion by 2020.

Figure 1: IoT Growth Forecast (image courtesy ZDNet.com)

IoT, emerging as technology’s next megatrend, is opening up a host of new opportunities and challenges for the semiconductor industry. How to power these devices has become a question for every solution designer. Energy harvesting and wireless power technologies can help enable small batteries or battery-less solutions and eliminate power cords.

With billions of sensor nodes, the time it takes (and cost) to replace batteries is substantial. Many wireless sensors will need to be self-powered. Harvesting energy from the ambient environment becomes a favorable solution, either by extending time between battery changes by topping up rechargeable storage devices or eliminating them all together. There is a wide range of energy sources available, including solar, thermal, vibrational and even ambient radio frequency (RF). TI power-management devices can work with a wide range of harvester, storage and load technologies to extract the maximum amount of energy from various sources.

The IoT has also been driving new semiconductor investment in low-power electronics like wearables. Wearable devices, or “wearables,” have started to revolutionize personal fitness. The inconvenience of different charger cables and connectors for these tiny devices is an increasing inconvenience for consumers. Wireless power can remove this burden and improve the overall user experience, making it a catalyst for adoption. Credit Suisse predicts that smartphones will become the “personal cloud” for wearables, and the average customer will have at least one if not two of these products close by at all times within five years. Technology research firms predict that the wearable wireless device market will grow to $6 billion by 2016.

The five TI designs below provide reference circuitry to enable customers to introduce very small and efficient wireless-power, battery-charging and energy-harvesting solutions to their applications. Check them out. It’s time to power your IoT device!