Episode 10: Designing IoT Solutions for Hard-to-Connect Places
With Jit Bhattacharya
Principal at Factor(e) Ventures
IoT is transforming the way we approach intractable problems like poverty, sustainability, and climate change, especially in remote regions like rural Africa. But there are many challenges inherent in bringing connected devices to these isolated places.
Topics that we covered:
- 3 challenges of developing an IoT solution for remote areas
- How lithium-ion batteries are changing the landscape
- The importance of data in developing products and gaining industry buy-in
IoT in Remote Areas
In places like Silicon Valley, engineers are dreaming up IoT solutions for pursuits seemingly ripped from the pages of science fiction — things like flying taxis and driverless cars on Mars.
But in places like the Silicon Savannah, that same technology is solving the basic human issues of the undeveloped world.
For example, one such issue is energy poverty. Over 600 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Southeast Asia still don’t have electricity in their homes. IoT solutions are making it possible to reduce that number.
“When you're working in rural areas, even with the massive amounts of money that are going into cellular networks across the world, and especially in emerging markets, you still cannot count on coverage,” says Jit.
Why? Because even if the coverage is there, it’s going to be intermittent and unreliable.
The obvious result of this is customer experience suffers. But it also impacts data collection on the back end.
That’s why Jit says it’s wise to develop an alternative solution in parallel with your IoT product development. That solution could be a manual fix.
For example, Jit helped develop a product in which an IoT lock/unlock feature was the most effective option. Even so, they also developed a manual scheme that involved entering a code when the IoT connection was unavailable.
In any case, it needs to be factored into the product design when developing IoT for these markets.
Low or Expensive Bandwidth
When collecting data or transmitting it to the system, engineers have to think very carefully about every byte of data that will pass through the system. They also have to consider how to package the data.
Jit worked for a company that encountered this issue and they used an unanticipated solution.
“We were looking at very simple compression algorithms, compression schemes that we could implement on 32-bit microcontrollers,” he says, “not something that we predicted when we first started the project.”
Limited Power Availability
It’s an issue that people working in AgTech know all too well.
How do you design connected devices that are efficient with their power so that you’re maximizing battery life?
“If you’re using a battery in a device that needs to last days before it can be recharged, that has to become part of the design specification now and an important part of how you’re configuring the technology,” says Jit.
The Durability of Lithium-Ion Batteries
It can be really difficult to service connected devices located in hard-to-reach regions. In the past, many of these devices have used lead-acid batteries which don’t last for long periods of time.
The opposite is true about lithium-ion batteries. They do last for a prolonged period of time — and have a lower lifetime cost as well.
Of course, lithium-ion batteries are not without their risks. They can be a somewhat fragile technology. Luckily, remote monitoring technology exists now which allows engineers to optimize how products are being used.
“Every single day of use is building another data point on how that battery's performing,” says Jit. “It’s giving us a little more insight into how we should be managing that system.”
Under normal circumstances, these batteries would likely be considered too risky for this application. But with remote monitoring, companies are able to deploy them with manageable risk.
Data: Your MVP’s MVP
Jit says the biggest lesson he has learned through all his work with connected devices is the importance of data.
He said that it’s absolutely integral to product development, especially at those early prototype stages when you’re trying to optimize your minimum viable product.
Data can also help you gain buy-in from an uncertain industry.
Initially, Jit had trouble convincing companies within the telecom industry to switch from lead-acid batteries to lithium-ion. They were hesitant because lead-acid was a known quantity with low upfront cost.
With data in hand, Jit was able to demonstrate how lithium-ion batteries optimized performance, lasted longer, and reduced lifetime costs.
Implementing a data pipeline will fundamentally change how you approach product development. It will give you the tools you need to quickly analyze and assess how your product is performing and iterate on the fly.
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Hosted by: Ryan Prosser
CEO at Very
As Very's CEO, Ryan collaborates daily with product, sales, and marketing to deliver the IoT solutions our clients look for. He is also a champion for our culture, fostering transparency and efficiency across our distributed team.
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