The best connected rural county in the UK - Norfolk

by Celina Bledowska, on 25 November 2020

Norfolk County Council’s (NCC) Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN) is in the news and Norfolk Developers recently had a chat with Kate de Vries,an NCC Economic Development officer and Kurt Frary, Deputy Director of the Information Management and Technology (IMT) dept, CTO and Chair Socitm (East) to learn more.

The background.

Kate is a passionate advocate of this technology and she explained the network’s beginnings.

“The project started from a local community venture in 2018. Norfolk has a thriving tech community and this is evidenced from the annual Tech Nation reports. Together with Paul Foster from Microsoft, a team approached the council and this started the ball rolling with a gateway to be placed on County Hall.”

Once the local community put the idea to Kurt in the IMT department he became an enthusiast and saw that the Internet of Things, (IoT) had masses of potential for Norfolk and he could also see how far behind Europe we were and needed to catch up by using this cost effective technology. This was when NCC decided to work in partnership with Suffolk Council and gained financial backing from the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership. £440,400 was the sum awarded in 2019.

What is LoRaWAN?

Launched in Norfolk in September 2020, the Norfolk and Suffolk Innovation network is the largest free to use LoRaWAN in the UK. This ambitious project aims to connect LoRaWAN with 220 gateways, 110 in Norfolk and 110 in Suffolk.

And it’s not simply the network itself that’s important, the sensors that are connected to LoRaWAN play a crucial part in improving connectivity throughout Norfolk. These are the ‘things’ that comprise the IoT. The sensors collect data in a variety of situations, that data is fed into LoRaWAN where it can be monitored, assessed, managed and reported.

Working in partnership with Capita, the company has supplied Norfolk with 130 gateways in order to speed up the council's IoT. And, in February 2020, Capita received a £6 million contract to upgrade Norfolk’s fragmented network to full fibre connectivity.

When asked about the project, Kurt Frary said, “it’s going to be better than we ever thought.” There are two main facets to the project, the first of which is getting the innovation project out and about across Norfolk and Suffolk and we already have 50 gateways across Norfolk alone”.

“Ultimately this project will allow us to use IoT devices/sensors wherever you go in the counties.”

“The second part of the project is expanding the use of the network. It’s not just for the county council’s use, it’s for the public to use, for businesses, and start-ups if people want to innovate.”

"Practical applications"

Kurt went on to explain that one very vital use of the technology can be applied to the perennial problem of gritting the roads and making sure the actual grit can be deployed on time and where necessary.

As he said, “Before the introduction of the network, NCC normally had sensors/weather stations around the county, they cost around £30,000- they tell you the temperature and give out a whole plethora of scientific information.”

“However, the sensors that we’re now using as a result of the IoT innovation network cost about £120. So where previously we had five or six of the expensive sensors around the county, we can put five in a single area costing us £hundreds rather than £thousands.”

Local tech involvement

Local tech company, Uniotec, deployed a number of bespoke sensors around Great Yarmouth to measure the road surface temperature. The firm’s dev team created a visualisation platform that gives realtime analysis of road temperatures together with an API that feeds both metadata and accurate road temperatures to NCC.

As a result of this we’ve been able to double the data we’re receiving at a marginal cost. Interestingly the data we’re getting from the cheaper sensors measures up to the previous information from the expensive sensors.

And with over 6,200 miles of road across the county that need monitoring the innovation network can produce savings of £8,000 per grit run as the information received from the sensors will be up to date and provide crucial information for when a road needs gritting.

Innovative uses

Kate is also excited about future possibilities for the project. “We aspire to support our local business communities, and we hope they’ll develop new possibilities that will be created in Norfolk and sold to the world.” NCC developed its own network, despite the existence of many fee charging others, because the council has always intended that the network is free to use.

Another use of the sensors is in the field of social care. The sensors are unobtrusive and can be placed in a vulnerable person’s house to allow a carer to check remotely whether the client or relative has got up in the morning. By building up a record of usual activities a carer will easily be able to see if something unusual is happening.

Endless possibilities

By talking to both Kurt and Kate it’s easy to see that the possibilities for this project are immense. Local agricultural machinery supplier, Ben Burgess, uses the field weather station sensors to monitor the effect of weather conditions on crops. The data is fed into the network and gives a farmer an accurate and contemporaneous record helping the agricultural industry create risk models for potential diseases. This practice has already cut down the use of chemical sprays and fungicides.

Doing differently

Kurt highlighted how, by using a LoRaWAN on other projects can save money. Uniotec has also worked with NCC at Gressenhall museum. As the museum is outside it’s difficult to monitor exhibit popularity, how long does the public stay at the museum, and numerous related questions. NCC installed a LoRaWAN GPS tracker to be used by the staff and the general public in a bid to answer these questions.

Talking about the network Kurt stressed, “the joy about this project is that the sensors are cheap - very cheap and easy to use.” He added that “the network is about small packets of data, you can’t use the network to make calls, even though it’s radio, or browse the internet. You can collect a lot of data from small centres that send different pieces of information.”

The limitless potential of LoRaWAN using the IoT marks a new era of innovation across Norfolk. And, this fits in well with NCC’s ambition to improve its services through the use of technology.