Ramping up connectivity in remote regions
Drones, small satellites and smart software are set to enhance connectivity in some of the world's harshest environments thanks to an EU-funded project enabling innovative applications for Internet of Things devices such as polar climate sensors.
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From assessing Arctic warming or monitoring ocean pollution to managing offshore fish farms or wind turbines, wireless sensor networks will play an increasingly important role in remote regions of the world providing crucial data while minimising the need for human intervention and risky expeditions.
But for sensors and other devices to do their job gathering, analysing and relaying information far from traditional wireless and mobile networks, improved means of communication are needed that can address connectivity challenges robustly and affordably.
This is where the EU-funded SINET project comes in. It developed pioneering software-defined networking solutions that make it possible for static or mobile devices on the ground or in the ocean to connect with unmanned aerial drones and small satellites and relay information to end users anywhere in the world.
‘Communication in remote areas, especially in high-latitude regions such as the Arctic, is challenged by the lack of infrastructure and by the limited availability of resources,’ says project coordinator David Palma, an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. ‘However, these regions have high scientific importance and require efficient ways of transferring research data from different missions and deployed equipment.’
Seamless connectivity in far-flung corners
Networking in the Arctic and other remote regions currently relies on commercial satellite solutions that are limited and costly from a financial point of view and in terms of the available bandwidth and energy efficiency, according to Palma.
SINET’s alternative builds on Palma’s experience in software-defined networking to tackle heterogeneity and improve overall networking robustness, enabling sensors and other Internet of Things devices that can send and receive data to seamlessly switch communication technologies.
Used in this way, software-defined networking allows such devices to either use short-range WiFi to connect to an autonomous drone flying overhead or a long-range radio for satellite communications, depending on the circumstances. This ensures always-on or intermittent connectivity and enables data to be transferred in the most efficient manner depending on the communication carriers available.
Combined with machine learning techniques and decision-making mechanisms, each device can intelligently adjust communications methods and save battery life.
Drones as data mules or swarms of satellites?
SINET experiments included using unmanned aerial vehicles as ‘data mules’, sending them circling over an area of ocean to gather large amounts of data from nearby sensors and equipment. The project team also simulated using a freely drifting swarm of low-cost miniature satellites to support networking in the Arctic region, demonstrating the feasibility of simpler, smaller and more affordable satellite communications systems.
As a result, SINET has provided important insights for technology providers, as well as scientists and researchers, by introducing Internet of Things protocols and frameworks into areas that previously had limited options for networking.
SINET work has contributed to a number of ongoing research projects and led to several open source software solutions, including a communications system implemented in a radio developed by Norwegian autonomous device developer Maritime Robotics, where Palma spent a three-month secondment.
The dissemination of digital devices across the seas and oceans of the world is now becoming a reality, laying the foundations for sophisticated applications such as autonomous shipping or exposed fish farming, says Palma, who received funding through the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship programme.
‘In addition, these systems are typically used in areas with high societal impact, such as environmental protection and climate change, and can support efforts to address challenges facing the Arctic, such as those defined in the EU’s H2020 Blue Growth strategy,’ he says.
‘In the words of Jacques Cousteau: ‘We must turn to the sea with new understanding and new technology’.’