South African tech could revolutionise road safety

The University of Pretoria’s Civil Engineering department is experimenting with Internet of Things (IoT) technology that could provide an early warning system for dangerous road conditions.

UP civil engineering department head professor Wynand Steyn says that South African authorities could use IoT network systems to sense early signs of hazardous road conditions.

Steyn and his team visited MyBroadband to showcase their work.

He explained that in an area like Chapman’s Peak Drive, where heavy rainfall often leads to loose debris on the road, a grid of accelerometers and moisture sensors could detect when a slope failure might likely occur.

Authorities could then close the area off in time to implement risk control strategies and prevent unnecessary accidents.

Steyn’s team has also used sensors embedded in the road to study the thermal characteristics of paving materials and investigate road cracking.

Prof Wynand Steyn showcases SmWoef

The ability to embed IoT devices in the built environment without any effect on signal transmission “has a lot of exciting applications,” Civil Engineering PhD candidate André Broekman told MyBroadband.

He said that another student’s research project used sensors embedded in concrete to monitor the skin temperature of crocodiles at a farm in Bela Bela.

Broekman also said that the university has approximately 150 IoT-enabled sensors collecting data across its campuses for various research programs — including farming, horticulture, and security.

For instance, humidity and temperature sensors are used in UP’s Javett Art Centre to monitor the condition of expensive artworks.

Embedding sensors in the wall surrounding individuals’ property could reduce the need for electric fencing, as users will be alerted to any disturbance via a notification on their devices.

Broekman explained that they use a LoRaWAN wireless IoT network running on licence-free 868MHz spectrum.

IoT technology communicates in real-time without human intervention, allowing ways to automate repetitive and time-intensive tasks.

Low-cost IoT devices are widely available and include sensors that measure light, movement, temperature, soil moisture, and humidity — to mention a few.

Consumers can buy routers that receive the IoT devices’ radio signals and send the data to a cloud platform, where it gets aggregated.

Commercially available IoT devices like the Arduino MKR WAN 1310 have a built-in LoRaWAN radio module that lets users build their own intelligence networks, said Broekman.

LoRaWAN radio modules let devices communicate over much larger distances than Wi-Fi, making it easy to cover an entire house with one device.

“For us as engineers, it’s exciting because it is distributed sensors with very low cost”, meaning the practical application of these devices encompasses a broad spectrum, Broekman said.

André Broekman, UP Civil Engineering PhD candidate

Prof Steyn agreed and highlighted IoT devices’ practical applications within the agricultural sector.

Automation and centralisation via IoT devices can eliminate human error from data collection, allowing users to focus on analysing data sets and extracting meaning from them.

Since the data from these devices get aggregated to the cloud, data loss is also not a concern.

The cost of a LoRaWAN system with up to 15 sensors is approximately R15,000.

Considering it is such a cost-effective method to increase productivity, it is not surprising to see why “a lot of farms are moving in this direction,” Steyn said.

This low cost is particularly attractive if you consider that a LoRaWAN system can double as an indirect security system. Any offline or damaged sensor will send an alert to the user’s phone.

However, Steyn said that legal and ethical considerations surrounding data collection would become critical as network systems like these increase.

An IoT-enabled soil moisture sensor

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South African tech could revolutionise road safety