The Internet of Things holds incredible promise – sensors embedded in everything from shipping pallets to cars and fridges, passing on data and making everything “smart”.
The data could be varied — temperature, location, condition and activity among them. The uses are innumerable. But for all of this potential to be realised, there has to be a way to connect it all.
A system to allow millions of little sensors to easily and cheaply network. This is the opportunity an Australian startup called Thinxtra is going after.
You can get a sense of the potential of IoT simply by looking at companies like The Yield, a Tasmanian startup bringing smart sensors to the Oyster industry and potentially saving millions in wasted time and product with precise monitoring.
In these kinds of closed environments, or at your home or office, the Internet of Things is already very powerful. You can just hook up your smart scale or thermometer to your wifi network. Instantly, your devices can talk to each other through automation services like If This Then That, or some other analytic or automation platform.
Imagine the potential of IoT when it’s extended beyond confined spaces. Logistics companies knowing the precise location and condition of goods, mining companies being able to monitor the wellbeing of workers, security companies receiving alerts and notifications everywhere.
But once you step outside the range of a WiFi network, it all starts to become more complicated. To connect your IoT devices you’ll need a data plan with one of the telcos, and that can be expensive, patchy or both.
Thinxtra is building an Australia-wide data network just for the Internet of Things. It’s similar to the networks run by the telcos, but a bit more spartan. Unlike phone calls or text messages, the data sent and received by a smart pallet or sensor is actually quite small, not requiring the kind of huge and expensive infrastructure that the big telcos have built. In fact, the company is aiming to blanket the entirety of Australia and New Zealand with their IoT network for about $15 million.
The secret lies in the kind of base station that Thinxtra is employing, an invention of their French partners Sigfox. The Sigfox base station is roughly the size of a briefcase, and, thanks to the low data requirements of its network, can broadcast widely and requires little power. The base stations are such low impact, they can simply be placed on rooftops or on billboards. Sigfox is operating on a grand scale — building an IoT network that spans the globe, of which Thinxtra’s network will be but one small piece.
Another notable aspect of Thinxtra’s business model is that they are operating their network as a service, essentially becoming an input for other businesses. You can imagine some day, companies like Fitbit or Toll, providing their trackers or shipping palettes to customers, charging extra for data and analytics. In recent years we’ve started to see more and more “analytics as a service“. But these have largely been confined to digital operations, not really extending to insights about the physical world.
“We will have B2B customers, and ultimately B2B2C end users, but we don’t interface with the end users. Because there are so many things. You need someone to deliver a service to deliver value. Our role is just a network operator, and we enable companies to deliver connected services for their customers,” Thinxtra CEO Loic Barancourt said at the French Australian co-innovation forum.
Thinxtra started building its network in April, and is aiming for a “big chunk” of Melbourne and Sydney to be covered by the end of June, and 30% of the populations of Australia and New Zealand by the end of the year. While not all devices can or will connect to the network immediately, Sigfox is already live in 18 countries. Positioning the system well for future tech rollouts, like the adoption of 5G.