IoT is everywhere – we’ve just got to know where to look. Ben Fahy got a lesson on how to find it.
Spark’s Tony Agar has a lot of explaining to do, which comes with the territory when you specialise in the Internet of Things.
“I’ve had to explain to my kids what I do a few times now and I tell them ‘I lead an IoT organisation’,” he says. “‘What’s IoT?’, they say. And I’ve learned that you don’t start with the technology. You start with how it’s used.”
He has to explain it to plenty of adults, too, and the same rules apply. It’s parking sensors that are able to tell whether there’s a car sitting on top of them or not; it’s humidity sensors in the ground that measure temperature and moisture levels; it’s a remote camera outside your front door that can wake up if there’s movement and notify you via an app; it’s AI-infused facial recognition sensors that can measure people’s temperatures during pandemics.
“That’s IoT. Then they get it.”
The world’s getting it, too. According to the IoT alliance, a group of local companies and organisations pushing for greater adoption of the Internet of Things, it’s “a collection of real-life things that are connected to the internet. These connected things collect and exchange data. Data from a connected world enables us to make better decisions, problem solve and improve productivity”.
We’re already completely surrounded by connected devices. We stream reruns of Full House on our smart TVs. We cast our Discover Weekly playlists to our smart speakers. We wear fitness trackers on our wrists and hope that notifications will inspire motivation. And we’re completely addicted to our Swiss Army knife-like smartphones and their apps, sensors and monitoring capabilities.
One report estimates there will be 100 billion IoT connections worldwide by 2025, and just as we rely on electricity to facilitate our modern lives (usually without understanding the intricacies of how the technology actually works), we rely on connectivity to facilitate IoT (again, usually without understanding the intricacies of how the technology actually works). We just expect it to work seamlessly, and it’s starting to.
Agar admits there was a gap between the promise of the technology and the reality of it about four or five years ago when the early adopters were proving the concept. But since then, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent by network providers and tech companies large and small to create the conditions for it to start flourishing (Gartner’s Hype Cycle is often used to show the trajectory of a technology and IoT has probably come through the peak of inflated expectations, out of the trough of disillusionment and into the slope of enlightenment).
The bones are certainly there: New Zealand has a great mobile network, with coverage in 98.5% of the places where people live, and world-class fibre broadband. And now the muscles are being developed.
Some of the earliest adopters of IoT are companies that provide traditional telematics where hardwired units share detailed information via mobile connectivity. They remain some of Spark’s biggest customers because they’ve proven the value of the technology. Now these companies are taking things even further, like dashcams that use facial recognition to alert drivers when they’re about to nod off, or when other vehicles get too close.
Smart electricity metering is also very advanced, he says, and has been rolled out to millions of connections. These were connected on 2G years ago, and it makes sense because the billing structure requires accurate readings. That industry has also quickly gone to the next stage of maturity.
Unlike electricity, Agar says water use hasn’t always been charged for and often still relies on manual reads. But as water becomes a more valuable asset, he sees lots of opportunity in this space.
Agar, who lived in Australia for a while, says because the country’s major centres are heavily reliant on recycled water, they’ve invested in IoT technology to improve efficiency. And with millions of public dollars being spent in New Zealand to fix our creaking water infrastructure, in part due to quality issues or leakage, he says it’s starting to become a big deal here, too.
Traditional metering devices and smart devices in the home usually have access to power, which makes them easier to manage. But sending information over a traditional 4G network is more expensive, which affects the return on investment and, more importantly, chews up battery power.
A lot of IoT devices aren’t powered, however, and if they’re not powered, then you’ve got to manage them when they’re out in the wild. But with the arrival of 5G and the availability of low-power networks, small amounts of valuable information are able to be communicated without draining the battery.
“It might ping once a day or once every 15 mins. And that could last from one year to 15 years. It could be in a field, or underground in water infrastructure and you don’t need to replace them.”
Recently, Agar got a tap on the shoulder from one of his team members who looks after Spark’s car fleet. He’d been using his Spark company car, which had been equipped with an asset tracker. This meant it was able to track things like its location, its average speed and distance travelled, and whether it was in use.
He’d been looking at the data and he gently said to Agar: “I see you’ve been really clocking up the miles visiting your customers.”
Initially, there were some in the business who felt this kind of tracking was a bit too Big Brother-ish, but it’s certainly not designed for nefarious purposes (and, let’s be honest, your activity is being tracked at work in some way already, whether it’s email monitoring or swipe cards). Agar says this is a good example of technology helping to improve employees’ health and safety.
“And from a business perspective, we’re now saying ‘do we need as many cars or can we just have a few pool cars?’ We can make those decisions because we know more about how those cars are being used now.”
Agar, who manages around 30 people – one of the biggest IoT teams in the country – says parking is another good example of an area where IoT is improving the status quo. A good chunk of inner-city congestion can be attributed to people driving around looking for a park but through its work with local company Parkable, which Spark was an early investor in, sensors can reduce the time spent hunting for a spot. Just like the sensors you see in parking buildings, it knows if a car is parked over it and communicates that information through the system. That menas empty parks can be booked through the Parkable app, and the owners of unused carparks can make money from them if they open them up to the market.
“Parking is usually a pain, but it becomes something we can have more control over,” he says.
Agar says some might be surprised to learn there are approximately 40,000 connected St John Medical Alarms in New Zealand. It’s a simple, basic solution, but it’s been proven to work over time.
“A lot of people wouldn’t think of that as IoT, but that’s IoT. It’s bulletproof, it’s connected to a secure network, and it’s got all kinds of back-ups because it has to work.”
Once again, the technology behind it isn’t what people care about, but the outcome it produces, which is allowing people who are at risk to have the ability to continue living at home. And a lot of big technology companies are focusing on the home as the next big battleground, with smart speakers like Amazon Alexa, Apple HomePod and Google Home changing the way our houses are connected.
“But it’s still the first layer,” he says. “Once electricity, gas and water metering data is all available, you’ll start to see these companies change the way they provide services and add things like gamification.”
He sees a future where we might have sensors in our homes that give people points or rewards for responsible water use.
If you’ve ever received a bill from Watercare, you may have seen the comparison on the back that shows your water use compared to other households. This is a behavioural trick to incentivise saving (heard the one about the towels in the hotel rooms?). But as Agar says, seeing a bill at the end of the month when you can’t change anything is nowhere near as powerful as getting a notification saying “you’ve used 35 litres of water today, so you might want to do your washing tomorrow”.
In the home, there are plenty of small efficiency gains like this to be made. But as we saw during the recent water restrictions in Auckland, a whole lot of small individual improvements in a network – or a business – can add up to a big total improvement (heard the one about the UPS trucks that never turn into oncoming traffic?).
Agar says a lot of businesses are being asked about their next innovation play, and what they’re doing about efficiency and sustainability. New Zealand’s productivity stats are still lacklustre in comparison to other OECD nations and productivity is the cornerstone of IoT technology, he says, closely followed by sustainability. In most cases, sustainability is also a long-term efficiency play anyway, he says.
“You’re going to perform better if you use your resources better. And what’s good for the community is usually good for business. A lot of the damage you do if you’re not sustainable is also quite expensive to fix.”
One of the areas where IoT has started to find its place is in the urban environment. Walking through Wynyard Quarter on Auckland’s waterfront, you can see the future if you look hard enough – and much of it is fuelled by 5G connectivity.
As part of a partnership between Spark and Auckland Transport, what were once “dumb” objects have been infused with street smarts. Rubbish bins that would’ve once been full – and, in all likelihood, overflowing – now have sensors inside to let them know they need to be emptied. Benches that were once made of just dumb old unconnected wood or steel can now offer wireless phone charging, WiFi, air quality and noise monitoring, and even e-bike charging and tools. Street lights that would’ve once just shone down on things can now show foot-traffic heatmaps and, when connected to 5G, some can even capture high-definition video at night.
Agar says New Zealand is still a fair way behind when it comes to smart cities, but if the AT project is successful – and if these connected public assets are able to be installed without breaking the Covid-impacted bank – he expects to see more of them integrated into our larger urban spaces.
The original 5G use case, as seen in last year’s Spark campaign featuring David Farrier, is driverless cars. He says this is still in the emerging tech category internationally, and 5G will continue to find uses in industries where there’s a need for huge amounts of data to be transmitted very quickly and reliably. He points to drones that are being used for infrastructure management, remote inspections of construction sites and high-quality broadcast media. Mining vehicles and cranes are also being operated remotely using 5G.
As a nation that’s renowned for growing things, it’s no surprise we’re moving ahead in multiple areas in agritech, says Agar. Modern farms are increasingly connected, with sophisticated monitoring that can help with everything from optimal times for planting or fertiliser application, fenceless animal management or even autonomous harvesting.
Even further into the wilderness, low-powered coverage allows us to put connected devices in places where cellular signals don’t reach. This has benefits for things like forestry safety, pest control or even tracking people’s walks.
“It’s very manual at the moment,” he says. “You basically need to go out and read sensors.”
Connectivity is allowing infrared cameras to see what pests (or animals you’re trying to preserve) are around and notifications to be sent when trap baits have been emptied. And while there are plenty of justifiable concerns about the impact of technology and automation on jobs, Agar says this is about “allowing staff to do more with their time”, not about replacing them.
Out on the water, the fishing industry is already moving towards cameras on boats, and it can’t come soon enough for some, but Agar says it’s bigger than that. Using AI, cameras can measure the fish at the point of catch and quickly feedback information like “is that the right size for that breed?” He says snapper have a unique colour scheme, so these cameras could also “digitally tag” fish meaning that if you catch one (or maybe buy one), you could potentially find out its history.
Agar seems buoyed by ideas like these. And, as the connectivity improves and more people experiment with the technology, there’ll be more of them.
“A lot of products have matured, which means you can trial them cheaply and see how it affects productivity,” he says.
And just as battery technology has developed sufficiently to make electric cars cheaper, better and more appealing, the same thing is happening with IoT.
“The scale of change at the moment is exponential,” he says, with telcos and IT businesses setting up their own divisions specialising in the area.
“It’s gone beyond the pure connectivity and into solutions, and I think it will start to change the way businesses are run, disrupt a lot of businesses and create a lot of new business opportunities,” he says.
The day before I spoke with Agar, we were staying on a horse stud near Te Awamutu. My cousin manages the farm and he pretty much promised my horse-loving daughter that she would see a foal being born. The mares who look like they’re about to foal have a device put around their necks and an alarm goes off when they lie on their side for more than a few minutes, which is a good indication they’re about to go into labour. Just before 5am, my cousin woke us up and we walked to a field. The alarm had gone off, the horse was on its side, and my daughter got to witness something she may never forget: the birth of a foal nicknamed Zoe.
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