Hinterland: From smart cities to smart regions

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Introduction

This project aims to increase capacity and raise awareness of IoT (Internet of Things) technology in rural landscapes. By working closely with relevant stakeholders, we have developed meaningful pilot monitoring sites that not only test a range of LoRaWAN sensors deployed in remote locations and challenging conditions, but also meet specific stakeholder monitoring requirements.

Project aims

Adoption of IoT technology in rural landscapes is hindered by a lack of widespread wireless communication technology, the dispersed nature of rural activities, and the scarcity of large capital grant opportunities to kick-start developments, build testbeds, and communicate to the wider rural community about the transformative nature that is the promise of embedded and connected IoT systems.

The goals of this project are threefold: firstly, to develop a small testbed for low-band width IoT communications to be the seed for a larger rural network funded through further co-created capital bids; secondly, to develop a data portal to demonstrate some of the use cases of IoT in rural areas; and thirdly, to connect with rural industries and stakeholder organisations to gather requirements for present and future IoT activity. In short, this project will provide kickstart funding to “make the case” for integrated IoT monitoring in rural landscapes and generate a portfolio of ideas for future funding calls.

What was done?

We worked with the Northumberland National Park Authority (NNPA) to identify several sites in Northumberland that would benefit from IoT automated monitoring of some kind and could therefore serve as pilot study locations. We then discussed with the NNPA and site managers what their monitoring needs are, with regards to different features of the environment and its use. These discussions led to creation of a list of desirable monitoring targets that were feasible within the limitations of IoT technology and the project budget. We then investigated the range of off-the-shelf products that could fulfil these requirements, before purchasing sufficient units of each type to form meaningful datasets for the stakeholders and replication for testing purposes.

Results

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

  • Hadrian’s Wall: here we are testing the performance of a range of LoRaWAN ‘people counters’ along a section of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, which will allow automated monitoring of visitor numbers. In total, we have tested four different models for connectivity, data quality, and deployment issues/reliability. The data have been used by NNPA to understand the relationship between car park occupancy and foot-traffic along the wall.
  • Hepple Whitefield Estate: we have established a multifaceted pilot study here, which will form a key part of the monitoring system the estate is developing as part of their re-wilding project. We have deployed a variety of LoRaWAN sensors to monitor different environmental features and how they respond to management practices (air temperature and humidity, soil temperature and moisture, and groundwater level), as well as some insect camera traps and a comprehensive weather station. We have also deployed LoRaWAN GPS collars to monitor the movement of two livestock herds (one cattle, one pony), which will be useful in the context of animal husbandry and protection, and for informing site management. This is an extremely remote site that demonstrates the possibility of successful IoT applications in very isolated locations with challenging terrain and environmental conditions.
  • Nafferton Farm (Newcastle University): our stakeholders are keen to monitor river catchment features, but unfortunately our budget could not stretch to a comprehensive monitoring scheme on their site. Instead, we have deployed a small number of LoRaWAN water monitoring sensors (groundwater level, and river height) on one of the Newcastle University farms to test their efficacy ahead of future investment and larger-scale deployment.

Deliverables and other tangible outputs 

  • Created three pilot IoT monitoring sites in rural Northumberland (see Figure 1). [hardware demonstrator]
  • Deployed five LoRaWAN gateways in rural locations and thus expanded the coverage of an open access network (The Things Network). [hardware demonstrator]
  • Created a web-based data portal that allows our stakeholders to download and view the data from the deployed sensors (see Figure 3). [software product]
  • Used the data from the LoraWAN GPS collars to investigate the ecology of the herd of semi-wild ponies, providing novel insights into their behaviour and habitat preferences. 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 and showed very strong preferences for dry heathland (see Figure 4). [case study]

Impact

Our project has demonstrated that IoT monitoring devices can be an affordable solution to data collection in remote rural locations. Environmental and visitor monitoring in these landscapes is often infrequent and the data are time-delayed due to the use of volunteers and non-telemetered equipment. We have shown that IoT technology can provide rural stakeholders with a continuous and automated monitoring system that allows access to the data in near real-time. Our stakeholders have been and will continue to use this information to inform their site management and stewardship of the rural landscape.

Next steps

We are currently discussing follow-on project ideas with our stakeholders that would build on the successes of our pilot studies. Our aim is to seek further funding to develop a project that focuses on supporting and informing habitat restoration and rewilding in rural Northumberland with IoT technology.

Lessons learned

We as researchers from Newcastle University have been able to forge close links to our external collaborators that will prove useful for both parties in future. For example, there are many opportunities to run student research projects analysing the IoT data from these pilot sites, which will in turn provide more useful information for the site managers.

Most of the difficulties we faced were COVID-19 related, and so could not be avoided, but there were a few that we could have sidestepped had we anticipated them.

  • The GPS sensors for monitoring livestock locations were mounted on the animals with custom-made collars. Unfortunately, many of these collars became unattached and had to be manually recovered, which was difficult in the dense vegetation. We had to adapt stronger collar attachments when re-fitting them to the animals.
  • The gateways have operated well in general, but there have been issues relating to heavy snowfall and moisture inside the enclosures. The remote location and challenging terrain made troubleshooting very difficult. We managed to develop better weatherproofing and a mechanism to carry out remote health checks.

This project was offered a three month no-cost extension (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) less than three months before the project end-date. While we are grateful for the extension, it would have been better if it had been offered earlier, as this would have allowed better planning and execution of tasks. Unfortunately, by the time the extension was agreed, some members of staff had already made future project and employment plans that prevented further involvement.

Access to deliverables, resources and media content

Figure 1. Locations of the three pilot studies in rural Northumberland.

Figure 2. Photograph of some of the ponies from the semi-wild herd that were fitted with GPS collars on the Hepple estate (photograph credit: Richard Bevan).

Figure 3. Stakeholder web tool for viewing near real-time livestock locations (we cannot provide a link to this data portal as access is restricted to protect the animals)

Figure 4. Comparison of habitat use by the herd of semi-wild ponies on the Hepple estate in relation to the total area of habitat available.

What has Pitch-In done for you?

The Pitch-In funding has allowed us to develop strong collaborative relationships with local stakeholders, demonstrate the usefulness of IoT technology in rural landscapes, and ultimately assist rural land managers in gathering information that they can use to inform site management.

Project Lead

Professor Philip James – Newcastle University

 

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