IoT for environmental management in rural areas

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This case study will address:

  • Low cost entry to IoT
  • Exploitation of legacy data, software, hardware, facilities, skills or knowledge;
  • Bequeathing a rich legacy of new or improved data sources, technology, infrastructure, facilities, practices, skills or partnerships.
  • Low and zero carbon futures (energy)
  • Sustainable environments
  • Economic/social regeneration (build back better)
  • New business models
  • Driving and supporting strong regional engagement & ecosystems
  • Data sharing ecosystems
  • Development of skills, including: technical, managerial and methods

With support from Pitch-In, this project aimed to increase capacity and raise awareness of IoT technology in rural areas. 

There are many opportunities for IoT applications in rural landscapes – environmental management, biodiversity monitoring, farming and agri-food systems, disaster monitoring and management such as flooding or fire detection and the quantifying human-environment interactions (e.g. tourist footfall, habitat use).

Furthermore, IoT applications have the potential to help the UK achieve national policy objectives and some of its most significant ambitions around the environment and land management. These include net zero and the management of carbon emissions; the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which is the first global treaty for biodiversity conservation; and Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS), which are intended to ‘leave the environment in a better state than we found it.’ 

With Pitch-In’s support, the project aimed to make the case for integrated IoT monitoring in rural landscapes by:

  • showcasing the benefits of IoT environmental sensor networks, especially for those specialising in land management.
  • laying the foundation for a future “rural observatory” building on the expertise and experience of the Urban Observatory at Newcastle. This promotes multidisciplinary research on landscape management and sustainable agriculture.
  • co-developing testbed sites with Northumberland National Parks Authority, Hepple Whitefield Estate and NU Farms.

What were the problems or barriers?

  • Awareness of IoT technologies is low outside of urban areas, especially in key sectors such as farming, tourism, biodiversity conservation and natural resources and land management.
  • Wireless communication technology is essential for IoT. However, there is a lack of the technology infrastructure in rural landscapes and rural activities are dispersed spread out, making adoption of IoT more of a challenge. 
  • Further, there are few large capital grant opportunities available to kick-start developments, build testbeds and demonstrate to the wider rural communities how transformative and beneficial IoT systems can be.

What did you do?

Proving the value of IoT in rural areas

Discussions with the Northumberland National Park Authority (NNPA) and site managers led to the design and implementation of several pilot studies:

Hadrian’s Wall: the performance of a range of Internet-enabled ‘people counters’ were tested along a section of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. This allowed visitor numbers to be monitored automatically.  The data was used by NNPA to understand the relationship between car park occupancy and footfall. 

Hepple Whitefield Estate: a pilot study was established for monitoring the estate as part of their rewilding project. Sensors were used to monitor different environmental features (air temperature, humidity, soil temperature, moisture and groundwater level) and to see how these features respond to management practices. Insect camera traps and a comprehensive weather station were also installed. GPS collars were used to monitor the movement of herds of cattle and ponies.

Nafferton Farm: water-monitoring sensors for groundwater level, and river height were tested at a Newcastle University farm, with the intention of deploying them on a larger-scale project in the future.

What was the result?

By working closely with relevant stakeholders at NNPA, pilot monitoring sites were developed that not only tested a range of sensors in remote locations and challenging conditions, but also met specific stakeholder monitoring requirements.

  • Five LoRaWAN gateways were deployed in rural locations, expanding the coverage of an open access network, The Things Network.
  • A web-based data portal was created that allowed stakeholders to download and view the data from the deployed sensors.
  • The data from the GPS collars were used to investigate the ecology of the herd of semi-wild ponies, providing insights into their behaviour and habitat preferences. For example, this showed that despite the ponies having access to a large area of the Hepple Estate, they preferred to only use a fraction of this with strong preferences for dry heathland 

Lessons learnt

  • Knowledge exchange: Pitch-In funding enabled partners to develop strong, collaborative relationships with local stakeholders, to demonstrate the usefulness of IoT technology in rural landscapes. 
  • Connecting capabilities: Much of the IoT equipment and data analysis was provided by Newcastle University.  Meanwhile, partners at NNPA were able to share their hands-on knowledge of managing each area. Ultimately this exchange meant that rural land managers were able to gather information that they could use for site management.
  • The GPS collars were particularly useful in the context of animal husbandry and protection for informing site management. The estate concerned is extremely remote and the trial demonstrated successful IoT applications in very isolated locations with challenging terrain and environmental conditions.
  • Co-development of the testbeds with stakeholders provided researchers with useful insights into how other research projects could be developed and managed in the future.
  • Off-the-shelf IoT equipment is not always fit-for-purpose and may need to be adapted for local weather or specific environmental conditions, for example, winter weather, broken animal tracking collars.

What’s next?

Discussions with stakeholders are ongoing for follow-on project ideas building on the successes of the pilot studies. The aim is to seek funding to develop an IoT-based project that focuses on supporting habitat restoration and rewilding in rural Northumberland.

Professor Yit Arn Teh, Newcastle University said:

“IoT systems such as those developed in this Pitch-In project, have the potential to transform the way in which key end-users (land owners, land managers, farmers and foresters) manage rural landscapes in response to major environmental challenges such as climate change, invasive species, pest and pathogen outbreaks, or natural disturbances such as flooding. 

They can also greatly assist our attempts to enhance biodiversity or mitigate the effects of climate change. However, the main barrier to adoption of IoT is that end-users lack the knowledge, skills or expertise to deploy or use these systems effectively, making collaborations with researchers critical for wider dissemination and uptake of IoT.”

Contact: YitArn.Teh@newcastle.ac.uk

Related projects: 

Hinterland: From smart cities to smart regions

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