Q&A | AT&T’s Chris Penrose on IoT, asset tracking, smart farming

Q&A | AT&T’s Chris Penrose on IoT, asset tracking, smart farming

AT&T is a serious player in the world of IoT, and its work is regularly in the news across the spectrum, from healthcare to the enterprise, and everywhere in between.

Internet of Business spoke to Chris Penrose, president of IoT Solutions at AT&T, to find out more about some of the areas the company is working in, with its connected approach to enterprise.

Chris Penrose, President of IoT Solutions at AT&T
Chris Penrose, President of IoT Solutions at AT&T

Internet of Business: You are doing a lot of work in asset tracking at the moment and are helping to enable the IoT in agriculture. Can you tell us a bit about the projects you are involved with?

Chris Penrose: “We work with customers around the globe and across nearly every industry. Agriculture has been a particularly exciting area, where we’ve seen major transformations through our Internet of Things (IoT) solutions.

“The three essentials in agriculture are sun, temperature, and water. Our IoT solutions help farmers monitor these key factors to optimise cost and outcomes. One great example of this is with irrigation.

“Based on data collected from the soil, along with wind, temperature, and humidity data, farmers can receive alerts when it’s time to irrigate. Not over-watering saves fuel and equipment costs, and preserves an important natural resource. Plus, the data gives farmers valuable information on crop conditions.”

What benefits can these solutions bring to farmers in terms of ROI? Are you seeing improvements year-on-year with the farmers you help?

“One great example of our work in this space is with WaterBit, which distributes small, solar-powered sensors across farmers’ fields, collecting information on soil moisture and field conditions.

“The sensors require no maintenance and are placed under the foliage so they won’t interfere with field operations and harvests. Data from the sensors is sent to a communications gateway hub that can be thousands of feet away.

“The gateway uses an AT&T Global SIM card and our IoT services to send data over the AT&T LTE network to the WaterBit cloud application, where it’s analysed to determine if a section of the field needs more or less water.

“Farmers can also easily access analysis and scheduling tools through a user-friendly mobile app, allowing them to control irrigation timing and duration, fine-tuning as the soil’s needs vary.

“Devine Organics, an organic fruit and vegetable grower in California, recently turned to WaterBit and AT&T to help with its asparagus crops.

“Asparagus needs just the right amount of water to grow. Instead of manually monitoring soil moisture, WaterBit’s sensors let farmers monitor water needs from their mobile device. Water can be turned off or on – when and where it’s needed – right from their phones.

“Using our solution in just one growing season, Devine Organics not only doubled its asparagus harvest from that field, but it also reduced its water use by more 750,000 gallons. That’s enough water for 43,000 people to take a shower!

If 100 farmers used the WaterBit/AT&T solution on just 40 acres, they could collectively save about 300 million gallons of water a year. That would fill 450 Olympic-sized swimming pools. It’s a great example of what I like to call ‘IoT for Good’.

You’re also doing a lot of work around supply chain, again using asset tracking. How does IoT help here, in a way that old-fashioned GPS tracking can’t?

“From wearables and pallet sensors, to connected trucks and coolers, near-real-time data is driving innovation that’s rapidly changing the ways we live and work. The always-connected world of IoT also opens entirely new insights into running supply chain operations, with processes and applications that just weren’t possible before.

“Our Asset Management Operations Centre solution, for example, gives business customers a more streamlined way to track, monitor, and manage their deployed IoT assets. While GPS location tracking is an important capability, IoT sensors allow customers to also get data on temperature, humidity, shock, atmospheric pressure, and light.

“This can help ensure that refrigerated goods are kept at the ideal temperature and humidity levels. It also can help prevent tampering of goods and exposure to potentially harmful light rays for sensitive cargo. The solution even helps customers avoid theft and improve the recovery times of stolen assets.

Being able to see all of your assets on a single dashboard and know their condition in near-real-time is an operational game changer for our customers.”

As you’ve just indicated, IoT sensors used in asset tracking can monitor temperature, the presence of chemicals, or other data. How might this benefit the movement of assets? And can you give some specific examples?

“Using IoT sensors for asset tracking has applications across nearly every vertical industry. In manufacturing, for example, being able to track and monitor vibration, temperature, shock, and currents on a machine can help owners know when machines are in need of repairs – often before a machine failure even happens.

“Or in the medical field, vaccines can be kept at a certain temperature and humidity, and are less at risk of theft and contamination.

Companies can also use asset tracking to help with monitoring and managing their fleet operations, granting efficiencies in routing and dispatch.

“We’re even working with fine art transport companies to help keep high-value paintings and antiques – sometimes worth millions of dollars – safe from theft and damage during shipping.”

Is there a financial barrier to using IoT for asset tracking in this way? Is it only viable for larger organisations at the moment? If so, what’s the trajectory of affordability?

“We work with companies of every size to customise and deploy asset tracking solutions – from local small businesses to large, global enterprises.

“We learned early on that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to IoT solutions. We work with each of our customers to personalise a solution that best meets their budget, while also producing the greatest ROI.

“The next generation of ‘slap and track’ asset trackers will enable businesses in any industry to track and monitor assets with a regular daily ping rate. These trackers can easily attach to virtually any outdoor asset – such as tools and toolboxes, cargo, and much more.

“And it’s not just for businesses’ asset tracking can apply to consumers, too. We are connecting trackers for everything from dog collars to luggage trackers to trail cameras. There are even asset tracking tiles that you can attach to your keychain so that you never lose your keys – or other items that can go missing – ever again.”