As mobile phone use soars in Africa, even Kenyan lions are sending SMS messages.
Collars worn by the lions send out messages to a computer system that maps their location. The project is aimed at cutting conflict with local Maasai herders to keep locals, lions, and livestock safe. But it also demonstrates a novel approach to getting the benefits of wireless data in areas that lack data services, and where even phone calls are still relatively expensive. Research company Ground Lab, based in New York City, made the collars and worked with nonprofits Living with Lions and Lion Guardians to fit them to lions and cattle in southern Kenya.
Built around the open-source Arduino control board, the collars include a GPS unit and an off-the-shelf cellular modem that can make calls, send SMS, or use a mobile-data network. That cellular module provides a low-cost way to link even cheap devices to the Internet over a cell network. Allowing devices to talk via the Internet is known as machine-to-machine communications, and is sometimes dubbed “the Internet of things.” In the developed world, that approach typically relies on the 3G wireless networks that serve smart phones.
“A lot of problems in Africa—including health and conservation challenges—come down to large sets of data that can’t be collected efficiently,” says Benedetta Piantella, a cofounder of Ground Lab. “Using SMS messages, and the system set up around it, provides a practical way to do that today in places where Internet infrastructure is still developing.”
Tracking animals would typically require a satellite link for data logging. “The cell-phone route is cheaper,” says Piantella. “In situations where they don’t have a good cell-phone infrastructure, we’re looking at deploying our own off-the-grid cell towers, which is still lower-cost than satellite.”
Africa has more than 650 million mobile-phone users, according to the GSMA, a global association of mobile operators. That figure is growing at more than 20 percent per year. Kenya’s government estimates that more than 63 percent of the country’s population uses a mobile phone.
Cheap smart phones are becoming established in some parts of Africa, but wireless data infrastructure is still limited, and using it is relatively expensive. However, Piantella says, even relatively remote areas of Kenya have cell-phone reception that is good enough for SMS messages, which can be sent over a connection that is too unreliable for voice calls or data access.
Ground Lab is working on other projects that use SMS as a channel for data—for example, a device that reports when a fridge used to store vaccines overheats. It could enable a central health authority to keep tabs on remote health programs.