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The internet of things and digital transformation

THE NETWORK is secure and capable of integrating multiple sensors and devices to allow companies to create, aggregate, and display their critical business information. | Reuters

THE NETWORK is secure and capable of integrating multiple sensors and devices to allow companies to create, aggregate, and display their critical business information. | Reuters

Published Apr 27, 2022


WE currently live in the world of the internet of things (IoT), where billions of sensors and smart or intelligent devices collect and share data via connections to the internet.

Slowly, but certainly, IoT is transforming business, our homes and our lives. In business IoT plays a major role in various industries – from healthcare and manufacturing to transportation and farming.

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In our homes we have become accustomed to digital assistants and smart appliances with integrated artificial intelligence and a connection to the internet that allows us to control the devices and appliances remotely.

But there are still a few obstacles hampering an even faster growth of IoT in the market. One obstacle is that many companies currently provide IoT solutions, but most focus either on the software or hardware portion of the industry. Very few attempt or possess the technical know how to provide a combination of both. However, a consolidation of efforts between technology and software businesses is needed to unlock the capabilities that IoT and the new era technologies can provide.

The second obstacle is that current IoT protocols, such as LoRaWAN is an asynchronous, Aloha-based protocol, with very limited acknowledgements. This results in packet error rates of over 50% and the losing of many packets during data transfer, which makes LoRaWan and Sigfox currently inappropriate for most industrial use cases. This effect can somewhat be mitigated by building large LoRaWAN public networks with many base stations in range, but this is unfortunately an expensive solution.

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The problem of packet errors in data transfer is further complicated in that all traffic is visible in the LoRaWAN network, since the total capacity of the network is shared. The result of network sharing is an increased interference, contributing to packet errors and loss.

Recently a South African IoT company, Informed Decisions, succeeded to address both these obstacles. Based on a deep knowledge and experience of IoT product development, Informed Decisions was able to solve the first problem by understanding the customer’s business requirements and translating it into a technical product set that could be used to satisfy a multitude of challenges with a standard technology base. They consolidated the different focus areas of the IoT industry into a single platform with applied logic and enhanced data to enable trend analysis, forecasting and machine learning.

On a practical level, the consolidation entailed the designing of their own “long-range wireless network” with a range of 65km and the capability to integrate any sensor, regardless of protocol or level of sophistication. Two-way communication allows not only data gathering and monitoring, but also the control of the devices and network equipment.

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The unique design of the communications protocol and embedded software improves efficiency, range and overall versatility of the network. Where businesses are dependent on the cellular network for connection to the internet, up to a thousand IoT devices can connect via one SIM card, resulting in a major cost saving. In line with the dedicated network, bespoke hardware to facilitate the network was designed.

The deep understanding of the technology capability and customer requirements assisted the company in the designing of a product set that can be configured for multiple applications without having to redesign the technology for each application.

The second obstacle was addressed by Informed Decisions due to their vision that business would go through a maturity cycle that starts with monitoring and analytics, but would eventually graduate to a monitor and control requirement. The result was a solution that would satisfy both states and in effect future-proof the technology.

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The IDLINK solution that was developed entailed a secure multi-purpose and bi-directional command and control network. Due to a greater spectrum, IDLINK is a synchronous network with much more capacity than other networks such as LoRaWAN and does not need to share the capacity with others.

The network is therefore secure and capable of integrating multiple sensors and devices to allow companies to create, aggregate, and display their critical business information. The solution and network not only provides 10 times the functionality of existing competitor networks but has been designed to be the bridge between the current “Data Aggregation” networks and “Scada”.

Scada is the acronym for supervisory control and data acquisition and is a computer-based system for gathering and analysing real-time data to monitor and control equipment and processes that deal with critical and time-sensitive materials or events. Scada is often used to automate industrial processes in the digital transformation of businesses.

Typical applications of Scada are to monitor and control the transmission of electricity, transportation of gas and oil in pipelines, water distribution, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems, refrigeration units, temperature sensors, lighting, entry systems, traffic lights, just-in-time manufacturing, quality processes, robots, and other systems used in modern society.

This advancement in network design led to the successful deployment of cross-industry technology, multi-purpose platforms and solutions in agriculture, pharmaceutical manufacturing, asset tracking (fridges), retail (draught beer, barista coffee machines) and the consumer market (smart homes).

It is important that businesses should be able to configure the IoT system for multiple applications without having to change the technology for each situation. This multi-purpose platform stands in contrast to many current single-purpose solutions.

In addition to their own network, nodes, gateways (data concentrators), embedded software, and the device management platform, Informed Decisions developed a variety of sensors for temperature, CO2 gas, thermo coupling, dry contacts, water levels, sound, vehicle detection, light, current, grains per kilogram, humidity, liquid level, ambient temperature, assets, open/closed doors, drip tray status, pressure, contacts, rain, soil moisture, pH level, flow detection, total dissolved liquids (TDS), dual infrared, decibels, pressure differential, light intensity, access, magnetic, air quality, and wind direction.

A good example of the use of this technology is in pharmaceutical manufacturing where it is absolutely critical to carefully manage the environmental conditions. In addition to the standard monitoring and control in near real-time, a pharmaceutical solution usually includes climate control chambers, reverse osmoses management, and the monitoring of utilities, fridges, door contacts, the HVAC system, humidity, and differential pressures.

It is integrated with several enterprise business applications, devices and sensors, business intelligence and dashboards, data and process automation, data analytics and reporting, and allows constant monitoring and alerts.

Another example is the management of the quality and production of municipal water that includes the 24-hours a day tracking of water volume, filtration processes (backwash, rinse, etc), water quality (eg total dissolved liquids), ozone density measurement, UV light monitoring, and dispensed volume. The platform usually not only allows monitoring, but also automation. When any of the readings are not within specification, the system will alert the manager and trigger an action. By offering complete visibility of the water purification environment and timeous warnings of problems, labour and maintenance costs could be reduced and productivity could be increased.

It is clear that an IoT solution should be able to integrate a variety of sensors; accommodate all current major protocols in the world; be adaptable for new future protocols; and be deployable in any industry to be of real value to business.

Digital transformation has become a necessity for all businesses to stay relevant and competitive in a dynamic world. An important part of digital transformation and automation is the IoT. It opens up many new opportunities to improve efficiencies, reduces costs and risks through a better visibility of the operational environment, and therefore assists companies to become more competitive in a digital and global world.

Professor Louis CH Fourie is an extraordinary professor at the University of the Western Cape


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