The University of Stirling have embraced technology to help them tackle climate change. Through IoT and 5G they are able to gather data and analyse it on a larger scale then ever before. Take a look at their journey so far, how BT is supporting them with their goals and their ambitions for the future.

Traditional approaches to monitoring water are labour intensive, limiting the scope and coverage and even consistency of monitoring regimes and ultimately the utility of the resulting data.

This is why our team at the University of Stirling’s International Environment Centre came up with the idea of turning the Firth of Forth into a ‘living laboratory’. The initial idea was that instead of bringing samples to Stirling for analysis in our labs, we could effectively turn the entire region into a ‘science lab’; able to do the same sophisticated analysis that we usually do in the lab, but out in the real world.

Our scientists spent three months working with BT architecting and designing a proof of concept. We eventually arrived at the idea of using EE’s 5G capabilities to build a network of remote Internet of Things (IoT) sensors that we could combine with data from other sources, such as European Space Agency satellites.

This would let us gather and analyse more precise data on a much grander scale, meaning that we could do better science and help to support and inform regional businesses and communities, creating a more detailed model of the current state of the Forth catchment.  And because 5G is more reliable than 4G, we could do this in real-time, from one location.

The sensors are placed at strategic locations around the region, reporting data back to the university in real-time. We can then share it with other organisations to fully understand the state of the environment. This means, for example, local authorities can get access to data to support their own area, environmental regulators can understand the impact of different actions to promote the opportunities of going beyond compliance, water utilities can manage supplies more effectively, and businesses have some of the risk taken out of their decision-making.

 
The team at BT were excited by our vision, and after careful technical examination offered to fund the demonstrator project of the Forth Environmental Resilience Array (Forth ERA). It was a clear example of how better connectivity, married with new IoT technology, can be transformative for a range of local partners.

To deliver the vision, we partnered with companies that specialise in data collection and processing to help us manage the incoming data. For example, we found partners to supply sensors to monitor water quality including algae and chlorophyll, and video cameras to monitor wildlife remotely. One particularly interesting challenge was that most of the sensors are ‘off grid’, so to power them we found a partner that could supply solar panels and battery storage that work in the Scottish climate.

Crucially however, we needed a central database for storing the raw data, and a storage system built so that everyone could access it. And we needed a dashboard so that we could visualise the data and see all the important metrics used to measure water quality. This is where BT’s Data Exchange platform came in useful. It had previously been tested in Manchester and Milton Keynes, and created a single hub through which all the incoming data could be viewed and downloaded.

It has been an exciting process, and one that would not have been possible were it not for a collaboration with BT and our other partners. Their belief in what we’re trying to achieve, and their expertise in helping us deliver on our vision, is what has made the living laboratory a reality.
Though we’re still at an early stage, the demonstrator for the living laboratory is now up and running. We currently have seven sensors in operation, and the rich data they provide is already helping inform our understanding of our natural environment.

For example, instead of having to rely on samples being taken, at any time of the day or night we can check our dashboard to get an immediate snapshot of the quantity and the quality of the water in those locations.

We’ve also built a forecast model which, like a weather forecast, helps us predict what conditions will be like in the future. This is a critical tool, as it means we can help to predict the emergence of health threats like E-Coli. And in the future, this could help to support flooding alerts and use data to help inform and protect local communities.
 
It’s hard to overstate the impact that the living laboratory could have on our work. We are already partnering with a wide range of organisations in the co-development of Forth-ERA to ensure that it delivers the needs of these organisations. The intelligence that can be derived from the unprecedented quantity and quality of data will help to demonstrate how we can bring the environment into decision making across sectors to inform a just transition to net zero and support a sustainable green recovery.

We’re also incredibly happy with how robust the sensor network has been so far. Despite challenging outdoor conditions, with BT’s support we’ve taken advantage of a range of different networking components. Some devices are specifically optimised to reduce power consumption, taking advantage of LoRAwan and specialist Narrowband IoT connections to save energy. But the backbone of Forth-ERA is EE’s 5G network, which ensures that all the data connected makes it back to the data exchange.

We’re very excited about the future of the living laboratory and the potential benefit it has for our local community. BT has helped us demonstrate how powerful it can be, and now our ambition is to scale up and place approximately 300 sensors around the region. Each will enrich our understanding of the local conditions in each location, and will give us a much more granular picture of the state of the environment.

We’re also hoping to expand the scope of the project. Though we’ve focused on water, the same 5G-led technology can be applied to dozens of other use-cases.

For example, air quality monitoring requires a different type of sensor, but it ultimately plugs into the same data capture, processing, and storage pipeline that we’ve created in Stirling. The same tools can be used to analyse the data, giving local services and policy makers even more data with which to make informed decisions.

We ultimately think that a wide range of sectors from transport to agriculture, to utilities, could all contribute to – and make use of – data from a living laboratory. Fundamentally, we believe that what we’re building here can also grow beyond our corner of Scotland. 5G, IoT and other new technologies are transformative tools that can revolutionise how we work, and how we understand the world.

 

I think if you’re working in a university, research body or other organisation, there is an enormous opportunity right now. The challenge is to find the right partners who understand what you’re trying to achieve, and who can help you find the right technological tools to make your vision a reality.

I’m very proud of what we have achieved in the Forth Valley with the help of BT and our local partners. We’re off to a great start developing a better understanding of our environment for the benefit of local communities, and collecting the data that is going to be critical in the fight against climate change.

To find out more about Forth ERA and how your business could get involved visit the University of Stirling’s Forth Environmental Resilience Array website.