Cows and their part in the Internet of Things

04 October 2016

Phil Myers, Head of Innovation, Inmarsat Enterprise

  • enterprise

  • broadband
  • m2m

Cows. Not a word you’d expect to use when discussing technology, let alone satellite communications, yet here we are, not in a geostationary orbit, but instead in a field wandering around with our bovine friends. It seems slightly incongruent, I’m sure you’ll agree, but there is a good reason.

I’ve been working in the Internet of Things (IOT) world for the last year or so, more specifically focusing on low-power wide-area networks (LPWAN) such as Long Range Wide Area Networks (LoRaWAN) and Ingenu; looking at how these solutions can blend with Inmarsat’s suite of products although to be honest, the first three months was spent trying to figure out what the seemingly endless stream of acronyms was all about.

Through the numerous calls, presentations, trade shows, conferences and conversations, there was one clear theme that kept rearing its head as to where Inmarsat could really add some benefit, and that was agritech the technology used in agricultural practices. And when you think about it, that synergy is entirely logical.

Farms and agricultural areas tend to be spread across larger areas (in some cases, such as in Australia, the average cattle station can spread over thousands of square kilometres). This makes them difficult to manage at the best of times, but add in the fact that many agricultural areas aren’t serviced by the cellular networks (nobody lives there, so why would they be?), what you have is a perfect storm of a communications wasteland. Not only is there very little safety communications for the farm workers, but any sensor networks that could be pulled together would really struggle to get their data back to base for alerts, and to a point where analytics can be applied. Cue satellite comms with a sensor network attached!

So we have a remote farm, or agricultural area, with no cellular networks available, a few thousand cows (or sheep, or goats) and a farmer who has a whole heap of problems; what could we do to help? Well, this is where it gets interesting.

cows-2-670px

Where’s my cow?

Using a combination of Inmarsat’s BGAN and a LoRa network provided by Actility, it’s possible to track objects as they move through an area. As LoRa networks can cover up to 700km2 in rural environments, this is an ideal solution for tracking cattle. Add a small tag to each cow (ear or collar) and the farmer can simply look at an app on his smart phone and see where each one is. He can also set up a geofence so that if a cow moves through the virtual barrier he receives an alert and can do something about it. This brings a couple of benefits: firstly, it may be possible to identify sick animals who are behaving erratically; it will also allow any theft to be monitored.

Does my cow have what it needs?

A surprising additional benefit of the agritech use case relates to the water sources that the cattle drink from. Obviously these watering holes are remote and spread across the farm, so rather than sending a man in a van to go to each one, with the right sensor a farmer can remotely monitor his water source. These small sensors, with incredibly long battery life (up to 10 years) can monitor the pH of the water, its quality, and crucially whether there’s any water at all.

What about the humans?

Now it’s not all about the cows. Farms tend to have a few humans helping out too, so the LoRa network with the BGAN backhaul (backhaul just means aggregating all of the sensor data and sending it somewhere to be analysed) can provide data for all of the vehicles and people on the land too. Want to monitor where the diggers are? No problem. Need to check the fuel level in the gas tank? Easy. Need to know when the secure gate at the other end of the farm is opened, and take a picture of the trespasser? Of course you can!

These are just a few of the ideas that we’ve been working on over recent months, and we have a couple of proof of concepts already in motion. The more customers that we manage to meet, the more knowledge we gain and the more use cases we come across; and that’s why I really love working with the IoT. It feels like we’re at the bleeding edge of a new revolution where almost any situation can benefit from the data a simple sensor network can provide.

I did want to finish with a cow-based pun. But I’m sure you’ve herd it…

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About the author

Philip Meyers is Head of Innovation for Inmarsat Enterprise. He has almost 15 years of experience in telecommunications and has spent the last few years concentrating on satellite solutions for consumers, and developing Inmarsat’s technology agnostic LPWAN strategy. Passionate about technology and communications, Mr. Meyers implemented the first public LoRa network in the City of London, allowing applications in both asset tracking and smart building management, using satellite as a backhaul.

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