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Why the “what” of IoT will drive the “how” of network evolution.

Most of our customers at RMA can be divided into two broad camps. Those who care about “how” data is transmitted, and those who care about “what” the data is. The first group includes companies that provide infrastructure help optimise quality; enable interconnection and transport; and enable assurance to ensure smooth operations, for example. The second are more interested in the applications that are enabled by the data transmitted. They are more concerned with interaction and actions that result.

For a long time, it’s been easy to characterise IoT applications as being more in the latter camp. Many of today’s IoT applications have placed minimal demands on the networks that transport their data. As a result, the emphasis has largely been on device longevity, low power consumption and range of transmission. Of course, we all recognise this is going to change, as more demanding applications are emerging all the time. But, evolution can be expected in established domains too, as more sophisticated services emerge.

Take agriculture, for example. This is an area in which we have a burgeoning interest – partly for historic reasons, but also because we’re now working with several companies in this domain. Agriculture is expected to benefit from IoT in many ways. The connected farm is not a new idea – some may remember Telenor talking about connected sheep at various SDP conferences over the last decade. More recently, ABI Research, an analyst firm, has predicted that there will be more than 36 million connected cows by 2024.

The concept of connected livestock has often raised a smile among audiences, but there’s some serious stuff going on here, particularly in promoting wellbeing and ensuring better health and quality in the food chain. Additionally, we have to consider the benefits of using sensors and data collection to optimise production processes – by reducing and more efficiently managing irrigation, for example. ABI also predicts that there will be more than 2 million connected farms by the end of the same period. These farms will collect and use data to optimise production and to control consumption, among other things.

This is where it all starts to get very interesting indeed. In the UK, as the government seeks to change agricultural subsidy programmes, it’s expected that funds will shift towards stewardship – in other words, farmers may be paid subsidies for protecting the environment through various measures. If this happens, then they will need to demonstrate that they deliver on the agreed KPIs – which means that data will need to be collected and shared with the relevant agencies before funds can be disbursed.

We’ve spoken to people working on this front. At the centre of such programmes will be a range of data collection and monitoring devices that must have a ceiling price below a certain level in order to be affordable at scale. So, the UK may well embark on a massive programme of equipping farmers with devices that can meet the requirements of the coming subsidy and stewardship regimes. Of course, other countries are exploring similar programmes.

Until now, agricultural IoT has looked very much like a case for small scale data transmission (that is, small volumes, infrequently updated, but from many remote devices), so the “how” data is transmitted question hasn’t been terribly important, beyond using an established means of connecting to whatever macro network is available. However, there is an increasingly sophisticated range of devices that is emerging.

For example, one of our customers, Frontier Connect, has gone beyond the capture of environmental and physical data with the launch of its Teraseya service solution, which includes biological indicators, such as insect species recognition. This is important, because it will allow farmers to obtain early indicators of pest activity, in turn allowing more efficient use of pesticides. By aggregating such data, early alerts can be provided to farmers in more distant locations, allowing preventative actions to be taken before the threat spreads.

However, species recognition will require image analysis – which will greater larger data flows and may mean that the current macro wireless IoT connectivity options (LoRa, Nb-IoT, etc) which are optimised for low-data transmission with long-term and long-range deployments, may prove to be inadequate for such novel use cases, as is suggested, here.

Just how important the early and remote detection of pest and pathogen species could be is illustrated by the recent rise of a dangerous bacteria, Xyllela fastidiosa. This infects many plants, but it’s a particular threat to olive trees. Evidently, early symptoms are similar to those of drought, but laboratory confirmation is required to verify an outbreak. Put simply, it kills olives and requires massive programmes of culling and the establishment of buffer zones. In Puglia, where the disease is now spreading, this is a serious problem.

That’s because Puglia is responsible for 40% of the olive oil production in Italy (according to Wikipedia), so anything that impacts this will have a serious economic impact – both locally and nationally. If agricultural innovation can lead to effective remote detection of such pathogens, enabling efforts to be more targeted, then economic damage can be contained and limited.

Of course, that’s somewhat speculative, but what we can see if that there is a clear link between costs (losses, expenditure to minimise outbreaks, and compensation schemes) and the evolution of practical technology. And, more sophisticated solutions will likely require more than current macro networks can offer.

So, it’s with this kind of innovation that the “whats” and the “hows” begin to intersect. It’s a fascinating evolution and we can only begin to imagine the extent of the possibilities at this point. One thing's for sure though – the “how” camp needs to really get to grips with the “what”, because it’s these kinds of use cases that will determine how future networks will be built and optimised. Suddenly, our mobile ecosystem has got a lot more interesting!