A new project to monitor the whereabouts of lions in Kenya — especially important to nearby game herders who don't want their animals to be eaten — is getting around the limited Internet infrastructure with the aid of simple cell modems.
Lions are collared with small device that sends SMS messages to a central computer system to log each animal's location. The system is cheaper than setting up the robust satellite-dependent network by which such large amounts of data would normally be collected, according to a report in MIT's Technology Review.
Built around the open-source Arduino control board, the collars include a GPS unit and an off-the-shelf cellular modem that can make calls, send SMS, or use a mobile-data network. That cellular module provides a low-cost way to link even cheap devices to the Internet over a cell network. Allowing devices to talk via the Internet is known as machine-to-machine communications, and is sometimes dubbed "the Internet of things." In the developed world, that approach typically relies on the 3G wireless networks that serve smart phones.
"A lot of problems in Africa—including health and conservation challenges—come down to large sets of data that can't be collected efficiently," says Benedetta Piantella, a cofounder of Ground Lab. "Using SMS messages, and the system set up around it, provides a practical way to do that today in places where Internet infrastructure is still developing."
This solution to the data collection problem could be a model for other projects, the leaders of Ground Lab say. One example: refrigerators that alert a central system when their temperatures begin to rise, preventing the spoilage of food or medicine.
And they think that nations that failed to develop hard-wire infrastructure in the 20th century because of a lack of resources could lead the development of the wireless data transmission networks that are still to come.
Justin Downs, Ground Lab's other cofounder, says that using SMS as a data link can allow regions like Africa to start developing smart infrastructure not even established in richer places. "Because these countries skipped the wired infrastructure, they are set to develop solutions to problems—ones that developed society solved in the 1900s with large institutions and thousands of miles of copper—in much more efficient, inclusive ways," he says. Finding ways to use SMS for smart infrastructure is a useful stopgap until wireless data access does become more practical, says Downs.
Michael Ueland, general manager for North America at Telit, which manufactures the cellular modules used by Ground Lab in its designs, says the project is an example of the value of machine-to-machine communications. "We're making the components for cellular access cheap enough to allow any device to provide real-time information to the world," says Ueland. "Ground Lab's project shows the power of being able to do that, and that it can work anywhere in the world."
If they're right, it could mean that the ideal of an "internet of things" — objects communicating data to one another in order to work better — need not happen primarily, or exclusively, in the richest countries in the world. It could happen anywhere.