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How the giant white tailed rat challenges the Australian Internet of Things

Paul Wallbank Profile picture for user pwallbank February 21, 2017
Building the Internet of Things in the Australian tropical rainforest is not easy, particularly when giant rats view your kit as lunch.

Giant White Tail Rat

Australia's far north Queensland may look striking, but it's anything but paradise for the internet of things (IoT), as James Cook University found. What the academics discovered illustrates the challenges of rolling out the IoT in tough environments.

Every aspect of this has been a challenge

says Professor Ian Atkinson, Director of the eResearch Centre James Cook University about setting up the institution’s Daintree Rainforest Observatory just north of Cairns in Australia's tropical Far North Queensland.

The observatory is an education and research centre examining how tropical rainforests behave with 600 sensors located across a hectare (2.47 acres) and monitors factors like soil moisture, tree girth, sap flow and humidity with sensors on almost every tree in the study area. This environment is not kind to sensitive technology.

In a tropical rainforest environment where sensors are everywhere, getting power to things is a massive problem, If you think of solar panels, underneath the dense tree canopy there's almost no usable light and with seven and a half metres (25ft) of rainfall a year you can imagine the difficulties.

Then there's ants, there's a whole range of other animals like white tailed rats that like to eat every cord and cable that might exist.

Any challenge you think might think you have, you'll be re-challenged. You have to armour everything and think of any eventuality up front so you can get reliable data streams to build the long term data sets you are trying to find.

Ants are a problem for Australian technology users right across the nation's north with their habit of getting into everything. The Giant White Tailed Rat is a particular nuisance in Far North Queensland with its love of chewing through plastic, rubber and electrical wires. It also turns out ethernet and fibre optic cables are a tasty treat as well which it will happily climb up trees to nibble on as well.

It isn't just animals that present challenges for rolling out technology in the rainforest, with the incredible plant growth presenting another range of potential problems.

Mould growth on humidity sensors is something amazing, the humidity is so high water condenses out of everything and then mould grows so we don't get reliable telemetry. Just trees growing over sensors because of the rate of growth.

Then you kind of lose of things because of the amount of leaf fall. So it's been challenging at every level, providing a fibre optic connection is enormously difficult. Then providing connection out of the site.

We don't have any cellular coverage, so it's only satellite and then we've got half a dozen high definition video cameras. How do we get that information from the site? Every aspect has been a challenge.

Professor Atkinson was speaking to diginomica at the opening of James Cook University's IoT research lab in Cairns. The lab, supported by Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, complements the university's Internet of Things specific Engineering degree launched last year. The degree combines the study of electronic engineering with internet technologies, wireless communications, sensor devices, industrial design and cloud computing.

For the university, the Research carried out at the IoT will help the university's focus on applying technology to it's existing strengths in marine science, agriculture and remote healthcare. Huawei also sees the knowledge gained as helping develop its IoT offerings. It's not clear how repelling Giant White Tailed Rats will fit into that plan.

My take

The Daintree Research Observatory shows how difficult it is to roll out the IoT in adverse environments. It illustrates how the focus by most startups on smarthome and consumer devices avoids the harder work of developing equipment for the much tougher industrial, agricultural and remote applications, despite the bigger potential markets.

Professor Atkinson's difficulties in the rainforest also tells us much about the challenge of obtaining reliable data streams in less than favourable conditions. For a mission critical business, corrupt or lost information due to a white rat chewing through a cable or a mouldy sensor head is less than ideal.

In this respect, Cairns seems a very good test bed for many of these industrial and agricultural applications. Along with having rainforests as test beds, the city is also one of the main gateways for the Great Barrier Reef and the cattle industry as well as being a service centre for the remote and disadvantaged communities of Queensland's far North and Torres Strait Islands, all of which have demanding technology needs.

As a relatively small city, Cairns is well placed as a smartcity test bed with its comparatively affluent population, tourist traffic and weather extremes.

In conversations with the JCU academics and Huawei executives, it's clear the Chinese vendor is looking at the research facilities to be a showcase for the company's Narrow Band -IoT standard and associated technologies. It's also a handy foothold in a country that has a great deal of official suspicion towards Chinese companies.

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