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Smart Cows and How Not to Design IoT Products to Fail

As a growing number of consumers come to rely on the power of the Internet of Things, increasing pressure will mount on product makers to ensure that their products are reliable.
By Cheryl Ajluni
Jul 15, 2018

No one sets out to build an Internet of Things (IoT) product that will fail, but it happens. From smart locks that can be hacked in little to no time at all to the recall of 440,000 smart smoke and CO detectors, stories of IoT device failures abound.

When that failure is one-off and can be easily fixed by exchanging the faulty product, the impact on a company's brand and its bottom line may be minimal. But when those IoT products are installed in hard-to-reach places or in harsh environments, all bets are off. When these products fail, a company's success or failure may be on the line.

It's a scenario that is very much a reality today as the spread of the IoT picks up steam and IoT devices find their way into some highly intriguing applications in hard-to-reach locations. Smart farming offers a perfect case in point, with IoT sensors now deployed in a range of applications designed to make agricultural production more productive and sustainable. They are used to track moisture levels in soil, weed crops, help chicken eggs hatch, and even monitor the health of cows destined for the dinner table.

In this "smart cow" application, IoT sensors are implanted in multiple locations under the cow's skin. The process requires a minor surgery with anesthetic (Figure 1). Once operational, the sensors are expected to operate without fail for at least three years. During that time, they track a range of things, such as the cow's behavior and temperature, which is a leading indicator of disease.

It sounds simple enough, but because the sensors are located inside the cow, they can't be easily accessed if something goes wrong. The sheer weight of the animals and their habit of continually rubbing up against objects poses another problem. What happens when an adult cow, weighing upwards of 1,800 pounds, decides to rub a part of its body where a sensor is located? Will the sensor become damaged?

Figure 1. Smart cows have an implanted IoT device that is used to track their behavior and other important factors like temperature. IoT tags are also used to help track cow activity and well-being 24 hours a day.
These are valid questions and point to a key differentiator between IoT devices that fail and those that succeed. Successful IoT products are intentionally designed not to fail—not just in the lab under ideal test conditions, but in the real world where many factors conspire to make them do just that. Here are five key factors that can make IoT devices fail in the real world, along with some tips on how to navigate the pitfalls:

Congestion and Load Troubles
From the moment a new IoT device is powered on, there may be hundreds of other IoT devices within its general vicinity. On one smart farm alone, there could be a herd of cattle (each with multiple implanted IoT sensors); sensors for measuring soil, plant and environmental variables; sensors for remote animal monitoring; farm bots, and farm drones—not to mention any IoT devices the farmer might be carrying. The congestion may impede the devices' ability to operate normally. A dramatic rise in network traffic has a similar effect, forcing the IoT device to continually retransmit data. Its battery may drain quicker than expected, or make it fail altogether.

To avoid such failures, product makers should test the ability of their IoT devices to operate normally with a traffic load comparable to that expected in the target environment. That testing should also be performed while simulating different traffic types, like streaming video or voice.

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