A keynote speaker at CRN's MSP North Conference outlined how his firm is using cutting-edge Internet of Things (IoT) technology to help a social housing association detect - among other things - illegal cannabis farms.
Alasdair Rettie, technical director at Pinacl Solutions, talked up how IoT can offer MSPs a "door opener" and boost "customer stickiness" as he laid out a project the Welsh MSP had recently conducted with Newport City Homes.
Sensors measuring temperature, humidity, CO2, light and movement were preconfigured by Pinacl and installed by the housing association at each of its properties, Rettie explained. These sensors automatically connect to a low-power wide area network deployed by Pinacl, and the data is sent to a cloud run on AWS and analysed.
From there, potential issues, including with mould or vacant properties, are flagged up to the client.
Illicit activities such as cannabis farms can also be spotted by the sensors, Rettie said.
"Stranger things have happened. For things to grow you need quite high humidity and temperature, so we detect that very easily," he said.
The project addressed some of the key issues faced by social housing associations, which typically have thousands of properties to monitor but only a small team looking after them, according to Rettie.
"Quite often they won't get visibility to a problem until the tenant moves out, or dies, and they end up having a real problem with damp or mould that is too difficult or expensive to fix," he explained.
Around a fifth of properties have an urgent need of intervention which would require renovation running into the tens of thousands of pounds if not spotted early, he said.
Data collected by Pinacle's sensors enables the client to calculate ‘days to mould', among other things.
"Fuel poverty is another one we can predict and report on. And empty-property detection; believe it or not, people just up sticks and leave a property, and it can be several months before a housing association finds out. With this we can flag it up after three weeks [based on CO2 levels dropping]," Rettie said.
Pinacl's solution is based on a per-property-per-month subscription model, with costs kept low thanks to the fact that the sensors are self-installed by the housing association.
IoT a 'door opener'
Rettie (pictured) talked up the IoT opportunity greeting firms such as Pinacl, which first dipped a toe in the IoT water when it deployed sensors across Newport as part of a smart city project in the Welsh city.
"If you go in and talk about servers or storage or switches, it's very difficult to get to speak to someone," he said. "If you go in and talk about IoT, doors open. You can't go in and sell a vanilla solution - you have to listen to what their problems are - but it's a door opener, and it also builds a very strong customer-MSP partnership, which is very important as we are all about multi-year contracts.
"Everyone in this room wants their contracts and relationships to be sticky, and this approach is ideal as you get your tentacles into every part of the customer. To sum up, it's a very efficient, scalable service delivery model. Taking IoT, developing the solution and selling it as a service - we think it's a good way forward."
Rettie said recent developments around IoT have made it a "perfect storm" for the emerging technology buzzphrase.
"Low-cost, high-powered microcontrollers are now available that are a lot more cost effective than putting SIMs in," he said. "And also the accessibility of software development tools: getting a sensor to grab that data that will allow you to put a solution together to meet your customer's needs is now much more achievable."
"Quite often you can put a solution together and it's very cost effective for you to do. But that doesn't mean you have to sell it cheaply. Understand the value of what that customer will get from it and price it accordingly."
Responding to a question from the audience, Rettie said there had been little pushback from tenants.
"[The housing association] isn't doing it across the board; they are putting it into their tenancy agreements that any new buildings going up have it automatically. And with any problem properties, the tenants are happy that they are putting sensors in because they're being taken seriously."
Another audience member wondered about the specific technology used.
"The technology we're using is a low-cost WAN called LoRanWAN," Rettie answered. "It's very low speed - about 100 kilobits per second - and it's one gateway strategically installed high up covering two to four kilometres. It's a great technology.
"Narrow-band IoT, if and when it gets rolled out, is another one you can use, and Sigfox is another one that's available. It's cheaper than putting a SIM card on each property and you can't rely on the tenant to have WiFi to jump on the back of it."
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