IoT tech fires up savvy SA start-ups

As what has been called the coldest day of 2018 swept across Johannesburg on Tuesday, dozens of people found themselves destitute after their homes and belongings were destroyed in fires that affected 40 shacks in Alexandra and Soweto.

South Africa’s densely built informal settlements are often razed by devastating fires, which spread rapidly because secure electrical connections often don’t exist and people instead use candles, open flames and gas or paraffin stoves for lighting, heating and cooking.

But now a technology solution is at hand that could mean a faster reaction time to emergencies from residents and authorities.

Lumkani fire detectors are low-cost networked devices that can detect fires as soon as they flare up. These devices, which have been designed specifically for informal settlements, register rapid spikes in temperature, triggering an alarm that uses radio frequencies to alert devices in neighbouring homes.

The detectors are controlled by a central smart device, which locates the GPS co-ordinates of the fire and sends text messages to the neighbours to warn them. They are asked to confirm whether they can see the fire.

The aim is to spread the warning faster than the fire can spread, allowing an immediate community-wide response.

Start-up Lumkani has distributed more than 16 000 of its fire detectors in informal settlements across Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban since 2015, largely through nonprofit organisations and private companies or as part of a household insurance policy offered by one insurer.

Lumkani’s chief technology officer, Paul Mesarcik, said feedback indicates the detectors have been helpful. “In Imizamo Yethu [in Hout Bay], we installed 4 000 detectors in the last two months and so far have detected four confirmed fires. In three cases, we prevented fires from leaving the first house. In one case, the fire did spread through one or two other homes.”

Lumkani fire detectors are just one example of how the internet of things (IoT) can contribute to finding solutions for local problems while fuelling economic activity by developing new small businesses.

Ian Grant, principal consultant at technology research and consulting house Africa Analysis, said the firm estimates that in 2017 there were more than seven million devices connected to the IoT network in South Africa — and estimates that this number will double by 2022.

“South African businesses are responding well to the challenges of the IoT. Frankly, the world is generally still in the early stages of going from Scada [supervisory control and data acquisition], which is usually confined to factory floors, and closed and private infrastructure such as traffic control systems, to devices that report in from the outside world over public networks,” said Grant.

READ MORE: African start-ups draw interest after slow start

The IoT allows ordinary, everyday objects to communicate through devices and sensors that generate data, explains Phathizwe Malinga, acting chief executive of SqwidNet, an ultra-low-cost wireless IoT network provider in South Africa.

“In farming we would put a collar on a cow, which allows you to monitor where the cow is at any point. It will tell you that when the cow leaves a virtual fence, a geofence, in real time so that you can respond,” said Malinga.

SqwidNet works on French Sigfox technology, the world’s largest low-power wide-area network (LPWAN), operating in more than 45 countries. SqwidNet is one of the first IoT networks to provide nationwide coverage in South Africa and claims to be the most cost-effective in terms of network and devices.

Competition is hotting up in the market, though, with cellphone giant Vodacom recently launching its own network, which it calls narrowband IoT. It also has nationwide coverage.

Practical applications of SqwidNet’s technology include a smart water meter that can be used in conjunction with municipal meters to give consumers the ability to monitor and control their water consumption, using an app to obtain regular updates.

SqwidNet has also partnered with a recycling site that uses sensors to monitor the quality of air in a nearby settlement. These sensors trigger anti-smell technology to neutralise the odours if required, said Malinga.

SqwidNet is also collaborating with more than 30 information communication technology service providers that are deploying IoT products in various sectors. Among these is industrial automation and software developer Adroit Technologies, which makes high-end devices for industrial use, and Visiosoft, a manufacturer of IoT devices such as water meters. These IoT networks use devices connected by a low-data network called ultra-narrowband technology. Unlike the broadband used for cellular devices, which run on the GSM (global system for mobile communications) band, Sqwidnet operates on the ISM (industrial, scientific and medical) band. This is the same frequency people use to open their garage doors electronically.

The spectrum is globally designated as “free to air” but rules limit the amount of data that may be sent. SqwidNet devices transmit just 12 bytes of data a message.

Devices or sensors from SqwidNet typically cost between R500 and R2 000, depending on their complexity, and have a battery life of up to 10 years.

Malinga said the biggest adoption of the firm’s technology has been in vehicle tracking because it’s difficult to jam. “It’s easy to jam GSM technology because thieves have had access to GSM technology for a while and know how GSM works,” he explained.

“You can’t block [ISM] because of its particular radio profile [ultra-narrowband]. Jamming is based on girth; ultra-narrowband is so thin that it can go through anything.”

The head of technology market research firm World Wide Worx, Arthur Goldstuck, said the current move was towards more cost-effective ways of using IoT applications. “It’s now to get the economies of scale and cost efficiency out of the many variations of the technology.”

Grant said experience, coupled with market demand and competition, will lead to lower prices and better value for smart devices. “But it will take longer than you think, because every company has its own reasons to use IoT and this makes it harder for the supply industry to ramp up economies of scale.”

On whether the technology was secure from hackers, Grant said: “Short answer — right now, not very.” However, he said that security was receiving attention in the industry, with standards of best practice coming in quickly.

“But also, there’s not much in most IoT applications to interest traditional hackers, other than being a nuisance.”

Tebogo Tshwane is an Adamela Trust financial reporter at the M&G

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Tebogo Tshwane
Tebogo Tshwane

Tebogo Tshwane is an Adamela Trust financial journalism trainee at the Mail & Guardian. She was previously a general news intern at Eyewitness News and a current affairs show presenter at the Voice of Wits FM. Tshwane is passionate about socioeconomic issues and understanding how macroeconomic activities affect ordinary people. She holds a journalism honours degree from Wits University. 

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