Here in TEKenable, when we think ‘Farming’ we think ‘Technology’. That’s because we regularly work on projects for the Agri-Food sector.
To take just two examples, our software provides dairy farmers with price and quality information straight to their smart phones. We’ve also built a mission critical platform for a pig genetics company allowing farmers breed the best possible animals for their herd.
Working in the sector means we also take a keen interest in farming technology trends so we were naturally looking forward to the ‘Internet of Farming Things’ event hosted by Vodafone in Dublin last week.
Vodafone has been focused on the Internet of Things (IoT) for several years now, because just like other telcos it has seen a big decline in revenue from the traditional mobile phone customer. In contrast, IoT looks like being a big source of revenue growth.
And I’m delighted so say this event lived up to expectations. Vodafone brought together a very interesting audience including IoT hardware companies, software providers, a dairy co-op and other interested parties, including the State research agency, Teagasc. The company also provided a great line up of speakers.
First up was Lauren Morris, IoT/M2M Country Manager at Vodafone Ireland who opened the event and gave some context on IoT adoption across different industries.
Next came a technology presentation, with a look at how Vodafone is launching a newcommunications network to support the IoT devices that will increasingly shape Irish farming.
Then Moocall, an Irish leader in the market for wearable animal tech, shared an IoT success story. Their story is particularly interesting because this three-year old firm now has global reach, suggesting a path for other Irish IoT start-ups to follow.
First though, a quick summary of what we heard from Vodafone.
A Global Food Production Challenge
Henry Nash explained that the world faces a major food production challenge, with demand for food expected to grow 70% by 2050.
Two factors are driving the demand for food. First, global population will increase from 7.6 billion today to almost 9.5 billion in 2050. Second, huge numbers of people in developing countries are becoming wealthier and consuming more food.
Clearly, producing all the extra food will be a big challenge. That’s because the total supply of farmland and water is relatively fixed and CO2 from agriculture already accounts for over 13% of global Greenhouse Gas emissions. So in the future, farming will have to focus on getting more from less, maximising yields and minimising input costs.
Vodafone expects IoT to play a key role on the farm of the future. ‘Smart objects’ will become commonplace on farms, first in the developed world but increasingly in developing countries. By 2025, Vodafone sees the number of IoT connections on farms globally increasing to 224 million – up from 12.8 million today.
The big increase in smart devices creates its own problems because as anyone living in rural Ireland knows, coverage is frequently poor in remote locations. Making matters worse, many of the new IoT devices on farms will be located inside buildings, even below ground or immersed in liquid, making it even harder to connect to the internet.
NarrowBand IoT (NB IoT).
To get around the IoT coverage problem, Vodafone has been involved in developing a new communications standard, known as NarrowBand IoT (NB-IoT). Vodafone launched NB-IoT in Spain last week and expect roll out to start here by mid-year.
Henry Nash explained that NB-IoT is designed specifically for indoor coverage and for low cost devices transmitting small amounts of data. These devices will have a very long battery life, up to 10 years depending on the specific application.
As Vodafone sees it, NB-IoT offers several big advantages over alternative technologies. First, It’s cheap to roll out. It will be possible to retro-fit NB-IoT to the existing mobile network through a software upgrade with no need for new equipment. Next, it will accommodate massive numbers of devices - Vodafone expect to be able to connect thousands of new IoT devices to a single base station. Finally, it will run over existing licensed spectrum. This will provide better signal quality than alternative IoT solutions like SigFox which rely on unlicensed frequencies.
With NB-IoT becoming widely available this year Vodafone is looking forward to working with potential solution providers. Use cases are likely to be many and varied.
One example from another country is instructive. In Norway, where Telia has already rolled out NB-IoT one company has used NB IoT technology in a smart irrigation system. Water sprinklers are fitted with sensors that register position using GPS, send alerts in case of falling pressure and monitor the operating status of the irrigation system. Each sensor unit is connected to the mobile network with a NB-IoT module and transmits data at regular intervals.
While irrigation is obviously not the biggest problem for Irish farmers, other challenges will create opportunities for IoT service providers in the years to come, perhaps a flood warning system ! As a solution provider, we’re looking forward to an exciting time ahead.
John Larkin from Moocall then took to the stage with the fascinating story of how an Irish start-up became a global leader in the market for wearable animal Tech.
The actual idea for Moocall dates back to 2010, when farmer Niall Austin lost a heifer and calf during a difficult calving. Had he known earlier that his cow was about to calf, he believed he could have intervened more quickly, possibly saving both animals.
As a farmer Niall Austin also knew that shortly before a cow give birth it displays a characteristic pattern of tail movement. If he could find a device to record this pattern and report it back to the farmer, intervention would be possible. So he started to look for a answer.
The technical solution that emerged involved an accelerometer that could attach to the tail of a cow to measure movement. After experimenting for several years Niall Austin had perfected ‘Moocall’, a robust device that included a SIM card to send a text alert when it detected the signature tail movement.
The other challenge was funding. Niall Austin and his co-founders raised € 750,000 in early 2014 to fund development and marketing and launched Moocall at the National Ploughing Championships later that year.
Once it had successfully launched in Ireland the Moocall team focused on growing the business. Initially Moocall had generated most of its sales through direct sales at shows, events and the company website. However the company quickly realised that partnering with retailers would allow it grow more rapidly, especially in foreign markets.
Today Moocall devices are on sale through 400 retail outlets in over 30 countries, markets as diverse as Ireland, the United States, Italy, Hungary and Australia. And John Larkin added that a big distribution deal in the United States will add several hundred new outlets in that market alone.
Entering new markets provides John Larkin and the team with new challenges but also new insights on how to grow the company. In Finland for example the company found that selling the device through AI companies was very effective and this approach is being used in other markets.
Prospects for Moocall look bright, with a big addressable market and an attractive business model. This January the company’s installed base reached 20,000 and the new goal is to increase the number of devices in the field to 100,000. With more than 250 million dairy cows worldwide and over a billion cattle globally, it’s a big market and Moocall already has a headstart.
And investors also look like making money. A Moocall devices costs € 330 with an annual support cost of € 150 meaning Moocall is also starting to generate substantial revenues for those who backed the company in its two funding rounds .
With prospects bright, the focus is now on finding innovative new ways to extend the Moocall franchise. Last year the team launched a companion app to allow farmers managing the device more easily and to capture cow and calf information. John Larkin also revealed that while the company had thought about providing a Moocall type device for other animals, in the short term they were more likely to extend the offering to other stages of the cow life cycle, for example heat detection. The key however, is to keep innovating.
John Larkin’s story of how Moocall went from a simple idea to a global winner was fascinating and gives other entrepreneurs a powerful example of how an Irish internet based business can quickly capture a huge market.
It's also a great story from a Vodafone perspective. Moocall is quick to acknowledge the role Vodafone played in its success. To take two specific examples, Vodafone’s managed connectivity services allows Moocall to manage all devices from a single platform. In addition Moocall has been able to expand abroad through using the Vodafone network of roaming agreements with other service providers.
Vodafone ‘Internet of Farming Things’ event a smart idea.
Last weeks ‘Internet of Farming Things ‘was a smart idea. When launching a new technology it’s important to build relationships across the broader ‘ecosystem’ that the technology will affect. Bringing together hardware companies, software companies, potential users and research agencies as Vodafone did last week makes this easier to achieve with NB-IoT.
It's seems safe to say that The Internet of Things will play a big role in all our futures and here in TEKenable we’re looking forward to the opportunities it will create both in the farming sector and the economy in general.
Expect to hear lots more too from Vodafone as it rolls out NB IoT across Ireland in the months to come.