Internet of smart things

Dr Simon Egerton talks efficient next-generation technology

By Dr Giselle Roberts

Dr Simon Egerton is an expert on the Internet of Things, or IoT. “What is that, exactly?” I hear you say. Refreshingly, Egerton sticks to the basics. “The Internet of Things is a complex technology,” he admits, “but if we were to distil it down to a single word, it would be efficiency. It is exploring how we can use networks of sensors to gather information, share it, and improve the efficiency of just about anything, from manufacturing to agriculture.”

British-born and Bendigo-based, Egerton prefers to call it the “Internet of Smart Things,” and sitting in his workroom filled with weather sensors helps me to understand why. In collaboration with the City of Greater Bendigo, Egerton’s Clever Weather project is using a long-range radio network and over 100 sensors to transform how we collect data and, with it, how we plan Australia’s cities of the future.

GISELLE ROBERTS: Simon, IoT is turning information overload into something quite remarkable. How does it work?

SIMON EGERTON: IoT is a giant network of devices that collect and share information. Sensors gather data from their environment, and that data is then sent across a network to the cloud, where it is processed by software and turned into useful information. A user might be able to check that information directly, or the software may perform an action based on rules. Those rules may be predefined, or more interestingly, self-taught. It may, for example, send an alert to the user if the temperature of a piece of machinery has exceeded its limit.

GR: The concept of IoT is so big – there are different networks and different sensors – and it has so many applications, that it is difficult to comprehend. Not only that, but sensors can be attached to almost anything. And so we can collect data on almost anything.

SE: Yes, IoT is a game-changer. A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report predicts that IoT will achieve potential annual benefits of up to $A308 billion over a period of 8-18 years in construction, manufacturing, healthcare, mining and agriculture.

GR: How does it do this?

SE: By increasing productivity and competitiveness. Take a factory, for example, with long production lines and manufacturing equipment. If one line goes down unexpectedly, it may cost thousands of dollars per hour. IoT can fit the factory with sensors that measure vibration levels, energy levels, and wear levels to determine when a particular part might fail. Maintenance can be scheduled before a malfunction occurs and at a time when there is less demand on the system. It makes 24-hour production a reality.

GR: In your own research, you are using IoT to monitor the weather in Bendigo. Why?

SE: It started with the idea of establishing a long-range radio network in Bendigo. Long-range IoT networks operate similar to WiFi hotspots. They allow us to collect and transmit data from sensors spread over several kilometres; 10-15km is typical, with 20km achievable under the right conditions. The City of Bendigo wanted to establish a network and La Trobe, in collaboration with the amateur radio and electronics society, had the skills necessary to build it. We purchased a batch of gateway boxes and set up a network across the city. We tested our coverage by attaching mapping devices to council garbage trucks. They travelled around the city, and we were able to pick up their location in areas where there was coverage. Within a few weeks, we were able to determine our reach and identify where we needed to do further networking.

GR: So, it is 2018 and the network is up and running. Did anyone know what to do with it?

SE: No. We decided that the best way to sell the network to the community was to demonstrate its capability. And the Clever Weather project was born. We built an IoT sensor that measures temperature, humidity, pressure and dew point, and sent out a call for volunteers. We now have over 100 sensors sitting in backyards all over Bendigo that transmit weather data to the long-range network. Before this project, there was only one source of weather data in Bendigo, taken by the Bureau of Meteorology at Bendigo Airport. Now we have data points all over Bendigo and are gathering highly granular information. We have identified significant temperature variations, up to six degrees in some parts of the city. We are building on this idea to use IoT to create a distributed real-time weather station.

GR: So what are some of the applications for this data?

SE: It will allow the city to make planning decisions. Perhaps more trees need to be planted because of higher temperatures, or different building structures need to be considered. City planning becomes far more informed thanks to IoT. In the future, sensors could be used to collect information on the city itself including when certain areas are being used, and how frequently. It could enable early detection of bushfires. Air quality could be monitored. Heat mapping of public housing could be undertaken. The sky is the limit.

GR: And you are changing how we live and work, one sensor at a time.

SE: IoT is an exciting technology and, in Bendigo, we have driven this idea of a community-initiated and supported network. We hope that people will see the results coming from Clever Weather, think up their own ideas, and create new innovations and efficiencies out of next-generation technology.

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