An Oxford start-up is hoping to improve flood protection around the UK through the use of IoT sensors and TV white space.
Those of you who have visited the city of Oxford wouldn’t necessarily think there’s too wrong with it. It’s got stunning architecture, wonderful scenery and a prestigious education system. There are far worse places to visit, let alone live.
Yet some residents would doubtlessly disagree, because Oxford has a big problem – flooding.
The city sits on a flood plain and has been hit by a number of significant floods over the years, going as far back as 1903. The city flooded in 1947, 1954, 1959, 1979, 1998, 2007 and 2014 – and another one is predicted to hit the city sometime next year.
This is a serious concern, because not only can floods cause irreversible damage to houses and other properties, but they can also temporarily unhouse thousands of people, whilst also forcing insurers to pay out big money on home insurance policies. Storm Desmond in Cumbria was one poignant example, dominating the front pages of national newspapers.
Sadly, residents are all often poorly informed about the situation before the flood hits – meaning that there is little time to prepare for the worst.
Fortunately, in Oxford at least, help is at hand in the shape of the Oxford Flood Network.
Formed two years ago by local start-up Love Hz, the Oxford Flood Network is a citizen-focused initiative which aims to monitor water levels in the local area through the deployment of open-source, wireless water sensor networks in remote locations.
These networks, which are rolled out by citizens and local communities alike, see IoT sensors installed everywhere from bridges to underneath floorboards, with the subsequent data collected so that the Environment Agency and local authorities can act quickly when water levels run high.
Ben Ward, the founder of Love Hz, talked to Internet of Business to detail the project, as well as the benefits, challenges and his start-up’s ambitions for the future.
Starting out with IoT
Ward, an experienced telecoms professional, first set out on this path of using IoT for flood monitoring after getting frustrated visiting conferences where there was more talk than action on the Internet of Things (IoT).
“I got involved because of the lack of anything happening, and any actual case studies with IoT. I was going to conferences and finding that I was listening to the same old stuff, around security and other topics.
“I thought, ‘come on’, we must be able to get past this, and move onto the practicalities of what it takes to install [IoT].”
There was one other motive, though — Ward is himself a local Oxford resident and he lives on a flood plain. He says that Environment Agency maps only give him so much information, whilst adding that agency data can often be proprietary (closed) and thus not available to the general public.
“They don’t tell me enough to make decisions,” he admitted.
Ward added, in a separate interview late last year: “My neighbour’s house has a borehole underneath and he measures the current groundwater level with a dipstick…Friends a few roads away currently have water sloshing about under their living room in their floor void. These would both be great indicators of imminent flooding and could easily be added to the Internet of Things.”
Ward started out on the project by partnering with local technology research company Nominet for a test project. The project aimed to combine the use of his own, home-made IoT sensors with a network leveraging white space technology (or TV spectrum).
This whitespace network links the sensors mounted under floor board and bridges, and connects to some of the flood network, in order to provide useful, real-time information to the respective authorities about where – and when – water levels are high.
The sensors use ultrasound to measure the distance to a water surface from an overhang, with the wireless sensor network leveraging low-power ISM-band and TV whitespace wireless equipment for the machine-to-machine (M2M) communication.
Gateway devices help to send data back to the community member’s broadband over proprietary short-range link, and the data is then sent to a database and visualised over the Internet.
Late last year, the Oxford Flood Network revealed that this information could be viewed as an interactive, online map, giving a birds-eye view of the high-risk areas.
Less obvious improvements have come on Nominet’s back-end software, so that users can more easily identify water flows as well as remove red herrings – or ducks as it is more likely to be in the Thames and Cherwell rivers.
Ward says that Nominet helped fund the project to produce the hardware, and Oxford Flood Network later received seed funding from Bethnal Green Ventures, which resulted in the start-up being placed on the VC’s social technology funding accelerator.
This saw Ward and his colleagues form a company, Flood Network – a sure sign that he intends to take the project out of Oxford and to the rest of the UK.
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IoT business models
“We formed a company, we’re now Flood Network. I thought ‘why stop at Oxford, or the UK?’. Name it what you want it to become.”
However, he admits that making a business out of the project remains a considerable challenge.
“How do you make a business model out of that? I’ve probably been scratching my head about this for the last year, year and half.”
He’s toyed with a number of ideas but he believes that the opportunity right now is squarely in working with local authorities and environment agencies.
“We’re still aimed at the local authority market and soon to start a pilot in the North-west [of England]. The water and hydrology industry is interested in using the technology for low-cost monitoring and data collection and we’re looking at how to partner there with existing hardware and installations.
He also believes that the data collected from the sensors – Flood Monitors – could be of interest to environment agencies and insurers too, especially as the latter always want reliable data.
“What we realised was that we were collecting data from multiple sources and if I could gather as much data as possible from different sources, and build a national dataset, that opens up potential customer like insurers, who need the most accurate flood info you can get,” he said.
“The Environment Agency could also use the data, and local authorities more immediately could use it to deploy resources like people, sand bags, floor barriers, pumps and also close the roads.
“They just have to make guesses at the moment because they don’t have any detail on the ground.”
Establishing business models isn’t the only challenge, with the issues around the home-made sensors also “plentiful”, not only on deployment but also on battery life (especially when the device uses GSM to communicate).
Nominet and TV whitespace
Nominet’s director of research and development Adam Leach was also involved in the project.
He told IoB that wide-area sensors and networks in smart cities or rural areas have the “ability to be transformative”, although he admitted that questions over sensor durability and data security will remain for some time to come.
Having met Ward some months before the project went live, he saw TV whitespace – licensed from Ofcom – as a “good mechanism” for connecting the sensors in a community-based approach for those affected by flooding.
Nominet worked on the infrastructure, the back-end software and the Internet connectivity, linking the TV white space(TVWS) backhaul network with the device management and visualization. The firm also worked closely with local residents, geologists, and the local council.
There were numerous issues they still had to tackle, however.
More LoRa sensors
“One challenge was that the sensors were placed in remote areas, so you would deploy them, but how would you know they were working without coming back into the office?” asked Leach.
He adds that it was difficult to manage devices in the field, with battery life, theft, and data reliability over troublesome areas.
Leach says that the end goal is more comprehensive data and sensors which are constantly “correlating and predicting” based on their environment.
Ward adds that the Flood Network is now testing new LoRa-compatible sensors.
“We’re doing trials of our LoRaWAN compatible sensor. It works on The Things Network and allows people to just add flood sensors in an area where there’s existing TTN coverage. It also gives us flexibility to make private installations for customers.
“The change of thinking as we adopted LoRa has been very encouraging. Where previously we would have to build the entire wireless system and manage the application throughout, having a standard to fit to means we can make the most of existing network deployments where available.”