Putting the innovation into IoT

As the market for IoT technologies grows in South Africa, mobile private networks present incredible opportunities to leverage these connected things on an industrial scale.
Read time 5min 30sec
Pavesh Govender, Vodacom.
Pavesh Govender, Vodacom.

In the past few years, we’ve seen the adoption of new technologies that transform the way people work, communicate, entertain themselves, exercise, shop and travel increase exponentially. And often, many of the tools and solutions that we’re using today feel pretty futuristic. Like a wearable device that is able to track the user’s pulse or steps and even inform a person that they’ve received a message or an email. There are irrigation systems that measure soil moisture and notify a farmer when it’s time to water their crops. Autonomous cars are able to navigate busy highways and city streets without a driver at the wheel.

All of these are great examples of the Internet of Things (IoT) in action. Globally, IoT is moving mainstream and use cases for this tech are on the rise. According to Mark Walker, the IDC's associate VP for South, East and West Africa, the market for IoT technologies in South Africa is expected to grow by 14% a year from 2020 to 2025, with adoption expected to increase in the telecommunications, manufacturing, logistics, transport and government sectors, as well as financial services, energy, agriculture and healthcare industries.

These innovations promise to transform how companies improve and advance their processes and realise new efficiencies so that they can be locally, and globally, competitive, says Vodacom’s managing executive for IoT, Pavesh Govender. The use cases across different industries are massive.

“Why is this important for Africa and other emerging markets? Well, if you look only at investment in infrastructure in emerging markets, it tends to fall behind the amount of money being spent in more developed markets. But IoT and other emerging technologies allow these economies to really catch up.”

MPNs as an IoT enabler

Deriving real value from IoT demands ubiquitous and reliable connectivity. This is where mobile private networks (MPNs) can prove their value, notes Govender. “The use cases for MPNs range quite broadly, but these networks really are some of the most impactful innovations that we are currently experimenting with. As a mobile network operator, we can build out a bespoke solution for a customer based on a specific outcome. This means that we can create a unique experience and a unique network for a specific customer or for a certain area.

“With MPNs, we can increase coverage footprint and density, making it possible to design a network based on a customer’s specific needs. So any large, industrial sites that require mass amounts of connection, low latency, mission-critical communications and lots of automation stand to benefit from MPNs because the closer the network is to the customer, the lower the latency,” he adds. “MPNs are a key part of the Vodafone group’s local and global strategy. To date, we’ve deployed just over 23 mobile private networks across the world.”

When you look at the use cases for MPNs, we’re talking about enabling critical business systems and delivering high availability. The biggest hurdle to enjoying this kind of connectivity at the moment is a lack of 5G end points.

Pavesh Govender, Vodacom

According to Govender, an organisation can deploy a 4G/LTE MPN or a 5G MPN, depending on its needs. But he believes that 5G just makes more sense in the long-term. “When you look at the use cases for MPNs, we’re talking about enabling critical business systems and delivering high availability. The biggest hurdle to enjoying this kind of connectivity at the moment is a lack of 5G end points. But we’ll get there.”

In terms of use cases for the technology, Govender clarifies that because MPNs bring services closer to the customer using mobile edge computing, they enable more systems and machine-driven outcomes. “The commercial construct is different to the way that you would consume traditional mobile technology because you’re building something that’s specific to a customer or a requirement.”

Business enabler

An IoT-enabled what?

While there are so many incredible use cases for IoT, there have also been a few unusual innovations developed using this technology. Some are still available, others have had a more limited lifespan.

  • The LavvieBot is a smart cat litter tray that cleans and refills itself automatically so you don’t have to worry about dealing with a smelly litter box. The litter box also connects with an app, called PurrSong, which will send cat owners notifications about when their feline friends have been to the loo.
  • The Nora snoring solution consists of a smart pad that is placed under your pillow, which gently moves your head to open your airways when you start snoring.
  • Click Stick was described as the ‘world’s first’ smart deodorant. The device is designed to dispense the perfect amount of product to guarantee user comfort and sustainable use.
  • Toasteroid is a smart toaster that ‘makes burning your bread far more fun’ by connecting with other Toasteroids and allowing users to send their friends a picture on a piece of toast.
  • SMALT isn’t a regular saltshaker, it’s an ‘interactive centrepiece and salt dispenser’. SMALT promises to ‘enhance your dining experience’ by playing music and producing great mood lighting and, obviously, measuring out the perfect amount of salt.

Let’s use the example of a large mining facility located in a rural area. This mining facility needs to connect different assets and processes on the mine in order to run efficiently. Historically, it would use WiFi networks to keep tabs on its remote drilling operations or to connect vehicles so that it’s possible to track where assets are. These WiFi networks would also be used to enable something like a proximity solution, which is used for health and safety purposes. “One of the use cases we currently have is a mine using an MPN to optimise its remote drilling operation. It has a driller who sits in a room somewhere and connects to and controls a drill operating on-site. The mine needs to have really reliable connectivity to make sure that production runs as smoothly as it would if someone was working in the ground.”

Ports present another interesting use case for this technology, continues Govender. In April this year, Verizon, in partnership with Nokia, signed a deal with Associated British Ports (ABP) to deploy 5G connectivity at the Port of Southampton, the UK’s largest shipping port. This MPN enables ultra-low latency at the premise, real-time analytics, workflow management, higher levels of security, critical asset tracking and much greater efficiency. One of the first applications for this private 5G network will be for the deployment of drones as part of port maintenance. The port will use this 5G network to transmit high-definition video captured by drones deployed to inspect cranes after storms. Rather than sending human inspectors, drones present a faster alternative to assess any issues so that it’s possible to get operations up and running again as quickly as possible.

When most telcos talk about IoT, it’s all about connectivity, says Govender. But we’ve moved beyond this. “IoT is not just about the new. It’s about integrating the old with the new and providing efficiencies across the old and the new, using IoT as a business enabler and a mechanism to make an impact.”

* This feature was first published in the December - January edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.

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