A constellation of incidents and accidents led to Mark Bannon and Will Ferguson establishing VT Networks, the company behind the nationwide Sigfox network, which aims to power the internet of things in Ireland.
In time, the ambition is that the VT Networks Sigfox network will connect entire constellations of devices, from security equipment, domestic appliances, and industrial environments to farm machinery.
In recent months, the company launched a nationwide internet of things (IoT) network, eight months ahead of target.
‘We see huge gaps in the IoT market and we are making the careful, shrewd and strategic decisions that will help us build a global company’
– MARK BANNON, VT NETWORKS
Not only that, but the young company is building applications and services that can be deployed on the Sigfox global IoT network, which currently spans 18 countries.
This low-power network will enable communications between a plethora of future devices, from robots and smoke alarms to thermostats, smartwatches and smart interactive billboards.
Bannon, formerly an accountant with PwC, decided to embark on a more creative road. He started making short movies while bootstrapping his fledgling business by giving accountancy grinds.
The unexpected turning point came when Bannon, whose grandfather had dementia, was figuring out if there were technologies that could help loved ones keep track of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
“I started looking at various tracker devices and the problem was – and still is – that all of these are cellular and Wi-Fi-based, with batteries that last just 12 hours. This is just not feasible if you are looking after an elderly person.”
Bannon decided to make a business out of his idea but was stuck at the point of determining how to eke the most power out of devices.
“While I was visiting a manufacturer in the UK in 2014 he asked me if I had heard of Sigfox.”
At that time, Sigfox was a start-up in Toulouse, France. Today, Sigfox is backed to the tune of €115m and more than 7m devices have been registered to the Sigfox network. In the past 12 months, Sigfox has added more than 15 countries to its global coverage map and it wants to be in 30 countries by the end of this year.
VT Networks’ IoT network has 97pc nationwide coverage
Bannon moved fast and formed a relationship with Sigfox’s leadership team early on. He then negotiated and signed a deal with RTÉ subsidiary 2RN to roll out the Sigfox infrastructure.
“2RN, which is a shareholder in VT Networks, manages and maintains the network in its entirety, and we couldn’t have asked for a better partner. They have been managing radio networks since the 1930s and have 50 engineers.”
‘The beauty of the Sigfox network is that it enables seamless roaming and you can track a car from Dublin to Warsaw on the same network’
– MARK BANNON, VT NETWORKS
While a number of wireless standards are emerging to connect IoT beyond the obvious GSM, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies, in a way that requires very little power, it really looks like it could come down to two competing technologies: Sigfox vs Narrowband-IoT (Nw-IoT), which is being championed by mobile operators like Vodafone.
“Sigfox and Nw-IoT are like apples and oranges,” Bannon argued. “Sigfox is low power and low cost and next year we will see devices with energy-harvesting capabilities that have no batteries.
“Sigfox uses radio waves and the heat in the atmosphere to save batteries and the cost of a module is just $1, and we are only at the start of IoT.
“Sigfox, due to its global network, will make it feasible to have every asset and every product in the world connected to IoT and that’s when things will get really exciting. It is really efficient and low cost.
“We think that Nw-IoT, on the other hand ,will be power-hungry and, due to the cost of royalties, LTE modules will cost around $40. Also, Nb-IoT is still only a standard on paper and not yet commercially deployed.”
Educating the market about IoT
Bannon believes that it will only be a matter of time before low-power Sigfox modules become installed in smartphones or computer hardware. “Even with the battery taken out, you will still be able to track your device.”
Already, electronics manufacturers are moving to incorporate the technology. In France, for example, Bosch has deployed Sigfox in its latest boiler systems for maintenance and telemetry purposes.
“We see this kind of network connecting every machine and asset, sending back data on how machines are used and enabling predictive maintenance. This is simple data that needs to be sent nearly every day, but no maintenance or charging will be required.”
A big aspect of VT Networks’ strategy is education, and the company is currently working with five universities around Ireland to provide students with hardware for prototyping.
“IoT and low-power wide area networks are the future and Ireland is becoming a hot bed for IoT,” said Bannon.
He added that VT has also kickstarted a start-up programme aimed at providing modules, training and equipment to start-ups in the IoT space.
Earlier this year,, VT Networks raised €1.2m in funding from investors including Suretank founder Patrick Joy and Dara O’Mahony of Dome Telecom. The company has also been supported by Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers programme.
“We are in a rapid growth period and we have been very carefully making the right strategic decisions. We are now partnering with channel partners, as well as a tier 1 mobile operator, to sell Sigfox-ready products across business and retail sectors.
“IoT touches everything. It is not quite as simple as just setting up a store. You need to find a channel partner in each industry from retail to agriculture, insurance, telemetry and utilities.”
Bannon envisages Sigfox technology being adopted by the utilities sector as a low-cost way of enabling smart metering.
“In agriculture, for example, farmers can use this technology for monitoring temperature levels of soil or turf in bogs. By measuring soil moisture they will know the right time to harvest.”
Another area of interest to VT Networks is DIY security systems. “We will be bringing a Sigfox-enabled solution that will consume low energy that will retail for €300 and cost €10 a year to run thereafter. This opens up security for anyone with an apartment, a second home or agriculture property.”
Bannon hasn’t given up on his original aim of creating solutions to serve people whose family members suffer from dementia.
“The key will be creating a solution with a battery that lasts for 45 days. This could have other applications in asset management, as well as tracking pets. Another business case is oil tank monitors where, instead of measuring how much oil is in the tank for heating, we have sensors that you can put into the tank and they will transmit the data to your smartphone. The future of this could be connecting with oil companies so they can sell proactively to home and business owners and this could cut down on the cost of oil deliveries.”
Another area of interest is IoT-enabled smoke alarms and CO2 monitors.
VT has built its own R&D subsidiary it calls SunBear that is investigating all of these potential product areas.
“Farmers say the biggest problem they have is burglaries and theft of livestock and machinery. We have Sigfox-based sensors that have batteries that can last three-to-five years and that can be discreetly placed on items of value.
“Another product area is creating sensors that tell farmers if a gate has been opened or closed.”
Next on the agenda for VT Networks will be entry to the Northern Ireland market and then the UK market.
“The product development arm is where we see considerable potential.
“Our Sigfox network covers 97pc of Ireland’s landmass because it is a long range technology, and next on the agenda will be identifying partners all over the world that see a market for our SunBear solutions. For example, we see opportunities with oil companies around the world that are trying to counter the theft of oil from pipes. A solution could be to deploy sensors every two metres to detect vibrations.”
Bannon said the future is about creating IoT products that have zero battery consumption but that can harvest energy and that cost less than a dollar to buy.
“We see huge gaps in the IoT market and we are making the careful, shrewd and strategic decisions that will help us build a global company.
“The beauty of the Sigfox network is that it enables seamless roaming and you can track a car from Dublin to Warsaw on the same network.
“Our first product out of the traps will be an agricultural product and our ambition is to have it on every door and gate across the country.”