The Internet of Very Cold Things: Sigfox extends its low-power radio network to Antarctica

Sigfox and its partner Sensolus are donating low-power GPS devices that could report on the location of ice-bound researchers and equipment for three to five years on a single battery charge

Sigfox, operator of a low-power, wide-area radio network for the Internet of Things, expects to be connecting objects on every continent by year-end, and has just checked off the most challenging of those: Antarctica.

The company's first base station in the southern hemisphere could be a little further south, but not by much: It's at Belgium's Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station, 200 kilometers in from the Antarctic coast, at an altitude of 1,382 meters.

In Antarctica, Sigfox is far from offering the coast-to-coast coverage its networks in France, Spain and Portugal provide: The Princess Elisabeth antenna has a range of about 50 kilometers, which means it would take over a hundred similar transmitters to cover the Antarctic coast, and over a thousand of them to cover the entire landmass -- and that's without worrying about how they would all be installed, maintained and powered.

For now, Sigfox is sticking close to existing infrastructure: The station generates its own electricity, primarily from wind turbines and photovoltaic panels, and can accommodate 25 to 40 staff, although it is inhabited for only four months of the year during the Antarctic summer.

Sensolus, a Sigfox partner from Belgium, has sent 45 of its StickNTrack GPS tags to the station. Staff there will carry the GPS trackers, each about the size of a packet of cigarettes, on their expeditions, reporting their location in real time via the Sigfox antenna. Vehicles at the base will also be fitted with the sensors, making their location available on the local network and, once the data has been consolidated and compressed for transmission via satellite, back in Belgium too. Data gathered will enable researchers to keep closer tabs on equipment use and to build up maps of practicable routes for resupply.

The trackers could even save lives if staff are lost or injured during a "white-out," a snowstorm in which visibility is reduced to almost nothing, by guiding a rescue party to their last known location, suggested Chiara Montanari, the expedition leader at the station, speaking via satellite link.

The low-power radio technology developed by Sigfox allows devices to send status updates and sensor readings for years on a single battery, although the frequency of those updates depends on the size of the battery. Sensolus CEO Kristoff Van Rattinghe said the StickNTrack can squeeze five years of hourly updates out of three AA cells, or three years of half-hourly updates. Each update includes a GPS location and a temperature reading from an internal sensor.

The temperature could be a challenge: It can fall as low as -50C at the station. Testing whether the standard industrial version of the StickNTrack will operate at such low temperatures is part of the experiment, said Van Rattinghe.

One advantage that Antarctica offers over more densely populated areas is a lack of radio interference. Because there are no other networks operating there on the same frequencies as Sigfox, signals carry almost as far as the eye can see. From the top of a mountain overlooking the icy plain that can be up to 80 kilometers, said Van Rattinghe, adding that this is achieved with a device no more powerful than a garage door remote control.

Sigfox and its partners operate nationwide commercial networks in France, Spain and Portugal, and are rolling out coverage across the U.K., the Netherlands, Italy, the Czech Republic, Belgium and parts of the U.S.

The Antarctica network, though, is not a commercial venture: It's part of a new initiative launched Tuesday, the Sigfox Foundation. Through this organization, Sigfox and other donors will offer the tracking and monitoring capabilities of Sigfox-enabled devices to research and humanitarian aid projects.

Among the possibilities being studied are "connected forests" to detect and study forest fires, and a sort of fitness wearable for rhinoceroses, designed to report on their location and stress level, something that could enable game wardens to come to their aid if they are threatened or harmed by human hunters.

At the launch of the foundation on Tuesday, Sigfox co-founder Ludovic Le Moan said he didn't want to commit to any projects until he is sure the foundation has the resources to complete them -- but he does have a keen interest in the fate of the world's remaining rhinos. The small size and low power consumption of Sigfox devices means they could be embedded in a rhino's horn, and would continue to operate until the natural growth of the horn ejected them, he said. Competing systems need their replaced every six months or so, which involves capturing and sedating the rhino.

A nature reserve in Zimbabwe was one of the first organizations to approach Sigfox when it launched its technology a few years ago, said Le Moan's co-founder, Christophe Fourtet. At the time the company didn't think it had the resources to help track the reserve's rhinos, but via the foundation this might become a reality, he said.

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