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It could help save koalas, ensure the pub never runs out of beer and address Wollongong’s flooding issues. It’s the Internet of Things.

In March this year, the body of an 11-year-old boy was found close to the opening of a stormwater drain where he had been playing in Riley Park, Wollongong. It had been raining heavily and children were playing in the floodwaters on their boogie boards, sliding down the hill, then walking up, and doing it all over again.

The entry to the drain was covered by water, which is thought to have sucked the boy in, like water disappearing down a plughole. In the days after the tragedy, staff at Wollongong City Council had to defend why the drain was not covered by a grate. So they issued a statement:

“The size of the culvert, likelihood of blockage, consequences of culvert blocking and causing flooding elsewhere and the depth of flood waters at the location are all considered when deciding if culverts have grates placed over them.”

Flooding has always been a major issue in Wollongong. The city is flanked by the ocean on one side and the escarpment on the other, off which a complex network of small streams quickly flow, causing flooding to occur in ways that are difficult to predict.

So the more that can be known about those flood patterns, the more the city can plan for them and avoid what has in the past been catastrophic damage to both property and life.

Huge storms hit the Illawarra in 2016 leaving a path of flooding and destruction. Photo: Sylvia Liber / Illawarra Mercury

“We’ve got a real need to better understand how floods work and how streams rise and fall in various rainfall events,” David Farmer, the council’s general manager, explains.

When he heard about the Digital Living Lab set up by the University of Wollongong and the SMART Infrastructure Facility, he jumped at the chance to become the inaugural challenge for this ground-breaking project.

Data deluge

Using a network of six transmitters that connect the region using long range and low bandwidth (LoRaWAN) technology, the free-to-air network is designed to address key social and environmental challenges within the region.

Mr Farmer says the Council will place low cost sensors into stormwater drains to measure and record the volumes of water after rain events.

The information gained will allow the council to plan better for the region’s 14,000 flood-effected properties, and learn about issues such as blockages, or lack of capacity with the stormwater system before they create problems.

The critical success factor is identifying an information need for the community and building it from there. All too often in our industry, we see people pushing technology for the sake of technology.

Catherine Caruana-McManus

“This is a great opportunity to collect a lot of data and therefore further refine our flood models, and allow people to be more confident about the flood impacts on their property,” Mr Farmer says. “Each rainfall event is different, so more data allows you to build a more robust and reliable model.”

Helping to oversee the Digital Living Lab is Catherine Caruana-McManus, director of Meshed, one of the few Australian companies working to set up the Internet of Things in communities.

“The Internet of Things is everything that has some sort of IT connection, which will be connected to the internet,” she says. “We’re talking about every thing or object, and information that can be transmitted so people can understand what’s going on with that object.”

And when she says object – that could mean anything from koalas to beer kegs.

Digital living labs

For example, the Gold Coast is concerned by its rapidly disappearing koala population, and urgently needs to control feral animals such as foxes, cats and wild dogs to safeguard biodiversity of native fauna. Rangers are using 35 foothold traps in remote locations to trap these feral animals, but they need to know as quickly as possible if an animal has been caught, or if the trap has been damaged or stolen.

Currently, rangers are spending more than half their time on trapping activities, but are now considering equipping each trap with a sensor that will transmit data via LoRaWAN transmitters. This will give them the information they require, from remote areas with no mobile coverage, at a fraction of the current effort and expense. Problem solved.

“The fundamental critical success factor is identifying an important information need for the community and building it from there,” Ms Caruana-McManus says. “All too often in our industry, we see people pushing technology for the sake of technology.”

She identifies four main areas where communities use the Internet of Things – smart cities (lighting, parking and so forth), environmental monitoring (like stormwater drains), asset management (like foothold traps, or building maintenance), and entrepreneurship and innovation.

It is the final category that she believes is where a project like Wollongong’s Digital Living Lab is going to produce the most exciting ideas, and where she is keenest to enlist the help of the community.

“In our discussion of technology, it’s about ‘Can we generate jobs in the region?’. We are living proof that it’s possible,” she says.

The launch of the network comes after the visit of Dutch entrepreneur Wienke Giezeman, who visited Wollongong last year as a speaker at the International Symposium for Next Generation Infrastructure. Mr Giezeman set up the first LoRAWAN network in Amsterdam in 2015, and now hosts a community of almost 16,000 people in 200 cities, including Wollongong, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.

“Because of its open character, because it’s bottom up, and because it’s very low entry, that’s resulted in a global adoption,” Mr Giezeman says. “The scalability of it [means] that we’re not needed to make this work. We just provide the platform and everybody can add to it.”

The cost is low, there is no need to involve telecommunications corporations, the sensors can cost as little as $30 each and can continue transmitting for three years or more on the power of an AAA battery. The technology is also ideally suited to a city like Wollongong and its constraints caused by the escarpment and the ocean. So just six gateways are needed to provide coverage from Austinmer to Shellharbour, and five kilometres out to sea.

While the gateways will never handle large bundles of data like movie downloads, they are ideal for small packets of information coming from many information points. The gateways are funded by the University of Wollongong as a gift to the community, however the real value will come not from the technology, but from the ideas that come from the community.

Project manager Benoit Passot with one of the gateways that will connect Wollongong to an Internet of Things network. Photo: Paul Jones

For the people, by the people

For one of the prime movers behind the idea – Professor Pascal Perez, director of the SMART Infrastructure Facility – the open source, creative commons technology is innately democratic, and is one of the network’s core strengths.

“There are two dimensions here, technology and people,” he says. “Many of the projects around Australia focus on the technology, but we have forgotten about the people. The Digital Living Lab in Wollongong will be the Internet of Things for people, by people.”

Success, for Professor Perez, is not in the technology, but rather what the application of that technology can do for people. That may be as simple as ensuring that the local hotel never runs out of their favourite beer, thanks to sensors located in kegs and linked to the network.

Or it may be as life-changing as the easy monitoring of an elderly parent, who wants to remain living independently at home, but whose mental and physical health is becoming increasingly frail. Where relatives or health workers may need to visit daily for a welfare check, the Digital Living Lab will change all that.

In two years time, if you ask anyone in the street, they will be able to tell you what the Internet of Things is – and what it’s doing for them.

Professor Pascal Perez

“You don’t want to put cameras in the houses, but you could have simple and cheap sensors telling you how often the fridge door opens every day, how often the bathroom door opens every day,” Professor Perez says.

“It just gives the family an indication that everything is fine. If the pattern becomes abnormal, that’s when you send someone around.”

Another foundation project will be the mapping of the University of Wollongong campus, accessible from an app, so when emergency services arrive, they know the location of all fire hydrants, defibrillators, gas and chemical storage areas.

For Professor Perez, this is just the beginning.

“We are just making it as we go,” he says. “In the spirit of people first, we want as many of these applications as possible to be public. We hope it will be all about people and sharing information, otherwise we are going to miss something here.

“The Digital Living Lab is all about letting people know what’s happening. In two years time, if you ask anyone in the street, they will be able to tell you what the Internet of Things is – and what it’s doing for them.”

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