A peek inside: The collar’s open-source design, based on the Arduino control board popular with hackers, is intended to make it possible for communities anywhere to build their own animal-tracking devices.
Justin Downs, Ground Lab’s other cofounder, says that using SMS as a data link can allow regions like Africa to start developing smart infrastructure not even established in richer places. “Because these countries skipped the wired infrastructure, they are set to develop solutions to problems—ones that developed society solved in the 1900s with large institutions and thousands of miles of copper—in much more efficient, inclusive ways,” he says. Finding ways to use SMS for smart infrastructure is a useful stopgap until wireless data access does become more practical, says Downs.
Michael Ueland, general manager for North America at Telit, which manufactures the cellular modules used by Ground Lab in its designs, says the project is an example of the value of machine-to-machine communications. “We’re making the components for cellular access cheap enough to allow any device to provide real-time information to the world,” says Ueland. “Ground Lab’s project shows the power of being able to do that, and that it can work anywhere in the world.”
Earl Oliver, a researcher at the University of Waterloo, previously worked on a system that can send data wirelessly by splitting it into chunks that are transmitted in several SMS messages, and then reconstructed later. He says that text messages can be relied upon to work pretty much anywhere, making them a good fit for areas that have limited infrastructure. Oliver is currently exploring how data sent by SMS could provide a route around Internet censorship or filtering.
“Mobile wireless networks essentially put your device behind a firewall,” he says, “so you can never directly connect to someone’s BlackBerry.” Oliver thinks that apps that usually rely on a data service might be able to sidestep filters by sending out data coded into a stream of SMS messages instead.