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

Peter Sayer | Jan. 20, 2016
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.


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