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Enabling the internet of things to impact our lives in fundamental ways

Vodafone is a leader in IOT technology, and is finding many uses for it in the agriculture sector

 

While the internet of things (IOT) is a relatively new term in the technological lexicon, it has actually been around for quite a while in a different guise, quite often referred to as machine to machine (M2M) technology. This involves placing mobile SIM cards in different devices to connect them to each other and a control system creating things like “smart” heating and security systems in the process.

But the technology has been evolving quite rapidly of late, according to Vodafone Ireland’s Lauren Morris, who heads up the IOT business for Vodafone Ireland.

“I often say to people that I work in the most exciting area of Vodafone – I get to work with very interesting people both in Vodafone and other companies who are doing really cool things,” says Morris. “The internet of things has finally got to the stage where it is impacting on our lives and on business in really fundamental ways. I have been working in the M2M space for 10 years and it used to be focused on what people might see as boring things like traffic light controls, energy metering, controlling low-value distributed assets, digital signage and so on. But it has now evolved into something much more exciting.”

Example

She cites Fleetmatics as an example of this in the transport and logistics sector. “Fleetmatics have been able to develop a global end-to-end fleet tracking solution which they are now selling around the world. Their solution delivers huge payroll and fuel savings. M2M traditionally connected the devices and stopped there. IOT extracts value by crunching the data.”

Vodafone has traditionally provided the connectivity that made these solutions work. “We have been moving away from selling quantities of SIM cards to helping our customers on their IOT journey and helping them gain a competitive advantage,” Morris explains. “A lot of Irish companies are now taking IOT technology and using it to sell their products globally and we are helping them with this.”

Morris believes the agriculture sector is particularly well suited to IOT technology.

“There is a definite opportunity for research and industry to come together to help farmers farm better and deliver the better yields that will meet the growing global demand for protein and food generally.”

One highly innovative company in this space is Moocall, which has developed a non-invasive tail-mounted calving sensor which gathers more than 600 pieces of data a second and can accurately predict when a cow is most likely to give birth.

“This is really valuable to farmers,” Morris points out. “It helps the cow survive, it helps the calf survive. The device helps ensure that a vet is called on time for a difficult labour. This is very important in a tight-margin business, particularly if you are dealing with high-value beef or dairy cattle.”

Moocall was established as a result of the direct experience of Niall Austin, one of the company’s founders, who lost a heifer and her calf back in 2010. He set about designing a non-invasive system which could alert a farmer when a cow was going to calf.

Having worked on a solution for a number of years, he approached Emmet Savage to help take it forward. Between them, with the backing of funding from Dr Michael Smurfit and Michael Stanley, the pair established the company and developed the fairly tiny device which weighs in at just 290g and is fitted to the cow’s tail in advance of labour.

“We developed an algorithm which can predict to within an hour when a cow will give birth,” says Savage, who is now chief executive of Moocall. “Each unit has a roaming SIM card supplied by Vodafone which roams automatically to the strongest network. In some cases the device gets a signal when a farmer’s phone cannot. It will send the farmer a text message and an email to alert them that the cow is within an hour of calving. We have also launched a smartphone app for the system recently. Vodafone have been fantastic to deal with in helping us with the IOT end of the solution.”

Plans to expand

Since launching in September 2014 the company has sold 9,000 units in Ireland and overseas, with staff numbers growing from two to 16 in little over a year and plans to expand to up to 60 in the coming years.

“We are selling products in 27 different countries and are working on distribution agreements in Norway, Sweden and Denmark at present,” says Savage. “The goal is to have distributors around the world. We have 450 retailers in the UK and Ireland selling the product at the moment with many of them approaching us looking for distribution agreements.”

Another company making use of Vodafone technology in the IOT space is Richard Keenan & Co.

“Their feed wagons are now in use around the world,” says Morris. “The farmer inputs the type of herd they have, the environmental factors involved, the yield they are trying to achieve, and the system will decide what the right mix of feed is for the animals. The machines are in constant contact with the control centre in Carlow and automatically adjust the feed mix when required. Keenan also has a team of nutritionists in Carlow who advise farmers around the world right the way through the year.”

Morris points out that the technology being used by Keenan is the same platform utilised by companies such as BMW and Audi.

“Some markets are more advanced than others when it comes to IOT,” she notes. “The automotive market is a leader in the area. Cobra Automotive Technologies, the company Vodafone acquired 18 months ago, offers crash detection systems, for example. This is an end-to-end solution used by Porsche and Audi and so on and has applications for the insurance industry. For example, a driver can have a device installed in their cars which monitors their driving.”

Morris believes these solutions are just the beginning.

“What you are going to see in future from Vodafone is a lot more end-to-end solutions; the possibilities are just endless. We are seeing a huge number of Irish companies with great ideas emerging in this space. We love to hear from companies trying to come up with something new or to serve their customers a bit better by innovating an existing product or service. We are there to give them a helping hand.”