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Andrew at MEA

What does it take to be an IoT engineer?

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Tim Cara    0
On 5/3/2017 at 9:23 AM, Andrew at MEA said:


The IoT in the Outback

I’m in sheep country in far northern South Australia, walking the dirt tracks across the saltbush plains through Yalpara, Minburra and Menton stations to the Waukaringa ruins and back.

Out here life is at its most elemental. The IoT seems to exist on a different planet. There is no mobile phone coverage and therefore no Internet, power is generated at the homesteads by solar or diesel generators and all communications happen by UHF radio or satellite.

Yet the measurement problems found out here are, if anything, even more pressing, exacerbated by the tyranny of distance and the difficulties that arise in servicing and maintaining equipment and stock.

I pass windmills and more modern solar systems pumping underground bore water into storage tanks connected to stock watering troughs. Sheep trails vector in on these life-sustaining sources of water, making grazing of these vast areas possible. Knowing that water is available to remote flocks of sheep and cattle is a quintessentially Australian measurement problem.

I carry no backpack out here; I’m travelling with camel-drawn wagons that hold my swag and camping gear and food and water for ten days. The hassle involved in camel-transport has to be experienced to be believed, but it’s what my country cousins like to do, and because the camels plod along fuelled and watered only off the saltbush  and thorny scrub rather than requiring diesel fuel and expensive 4WDs.


I’m invited along because these cameleers differ in one essential way from the early Australian explorers; they have a well-developed thirst for solar power to operate fridges, lights and torches, CPAP machines, and to charge mobile and satellite phones, cameras and GPS systems. And I’m the city cousin who knows how to build such gear and keep it working, as I have done.

On these vast open plains, solar-powered satellite IoT devices will be the perfect solution, given only the prickly problems that need solutions at both ends of the chain. At the front-end, the problem is to provide affordable tank level monitoring at very low power levels and with zero maintenance for a decade or so. At the back-end, how do you effectively get data to folks who have such limited access to the Internet to check their data?

So I entertain myself with these mental puzzles as I plod along for hour after hour while the country slowly unfolds around me. And as always, the solutions involve a multi-disciplinary approach that is the hallmark of so many IoT activities.

Hi Andrew,

There are a number of ways these problems can be dealt with and as more and more migrate to cities the less people power there will be.

I feel that solar vs cost vs battery vs elements can lead to disaster or amazement. But there are things that can help.

Vertical and horizontal communication for example will contribute greatly to such cases of IoT and the problem.

I can help if you reach out to me.


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Hi Tim

I'd certainly enjoy listening to your ideas, and will look you up next time I'm in Melbourne.

But beyond just myself, there is a whole community of folk here interested in all aspects of IoT; perhaps you could reach us all by presenting a webinar on your experiences?

Contact Tim Kannegieter or Geoff Sizer through this site to take this further.

All the best


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MEA's Green Brain

Inside MEA, our on-farm IoT product – Plexus - looks like a whole bunch of sensors, radios, hardware and firmware. Where there seems to be pain, that seems to be the game.

Yet the real window into the IoT world is through our web-application named Green Brain. It’s Green Brain that our customers see daily, and their visits out to the paddocks to peer at our excellent hardware are virtually nil.

So for old hardware engineers like myself, the IoT that we’ve so painstakingly built over these past five years has almost no impact on the customer, unless it fails and stops pushing up data.

Yet this juxtaposition between on-ground hardware and in-cloud computing is entirely appropriate. Green Brain is the farmer’s shop-front into his on-farm measurements.

So MEA is becoming ‘the Green Brain company’.

Green Brain has been running for four years now, and over this past weekend, passed the half-billion record mark.

I’ll just have to seek what comfort I can from Green Brain’s reflected glory…


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The IoT and Open-Source Software

I can claim no particular moral high-ground for using an Open-Source Linux platform for our latest IoT Hub, which links our on-farm Plexus ZigBee network through to our Green Brain web app in the cloud.

Frankly, that was a decision thrust upon us by the modem manufacturer (Sierra Wireless) when they obsoleted previous generations of cellular modem chips (running the Open-AT OS), essentially forcing us to step up to their ‘MangoOH’ (Linux) platform.

So, it felt a bit odd to receive an email from Sierra Wireless asking MEA for a product testimonial.

To save time explaining Plexus, I simply sent him a link to this blog, and here’s what came back:


“Hi Andrew,

I have read and re-read your blog posts a couple of times since you sent this mail.

Seems like you and your team have done a great job in building/maintaining/diversifying the platform and also carrying the torch for IoT in Australia. Kudos on that!

One aspect that I would be interested to know is how the open source technologies like mangOH are helping your product development.

Would you be able to provide some insight into that?

As you can imagine that is a lot of effort that we put in (and it still needs more) but would be good to get input from people like you.



So I wrote back, as follows:


“Thanks for your kind words.

I’ve had a quick word with the engineer writing the new Plexus Sierra Wireless WP8548 modem code under the Legato system (which is new to MEA)

His comments were that:

  1. It’s reassuring to be using code that has been ‘stress-tested’
  2. However, this is somewhat offset by the pain of being an early-adopter, which often requires work-arounds for pieces of incomplete code that may be only partly documented. All with the risk of having to re-work stuff later.
  3. For the most part though, the new Legato platform and all the good tools that it includes is making development quicker.
  4. The real beauty of the open-source platform is that access to the vast existing code-base written by others allows one to learn, build, share, improve, contribute to the community. As a fellow engineer commented recently, he won’t even start a software project these days unless a community is involved.
  5. So, there’s ‘safety in numbers’…
  6. The licensing arrangements are a real head-spin; we’re engineers, not lawyers. Likewise, the fee structure for the Over-Air-Programming.
  7. Support for web-socket CLIENTS written in the C-language seem a bit scarce.

Hope this is helpful.

It’s all just the usual fog ahead, which happens frequently to us scouts.”


This past week at MEA, we fired up our first prototype of the next Plexus Hub running under Linux. And yes, it’s doing the same job as the old Hub.

While all this change, expense and heart-ache is invisible to our end-users, perhaps the benefits will be felt further along the product cycle in more rapid reaction to changing demands?

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The IoT and Life in the Cloud

The Internet of Things is intimately married to the Internet and its (actually ground-based) Cloud Computing. This whole centralized on-farm software has freed MEA from the tyranny of PC-based data presentation with all its upgrade issues, computer obsolescence, software on CDs and web-sites, and the constant need to cope with changing Windows operating systems.

With Cloud-based computing, we have a single web-application to maintain on a single server (someplace) in the Cloud. Serving all our users simultaneously...

Yet with these new freedoms come new responsibilities; one small slip and we have hundreds of users howling at our door. Where’s our data!!!???

And so, this whole business of cloud-computing is one of constant vigilance, late night panics, server and Internet outages and the usual costly upgrades to ensure that we are using the very latest web and graphics software tools. All this without even thinking too hard about security, backups and Acts of God.

MEA’s Green Brain web app - and the Plexus IoT on-farm hardware feeding it - celebrate five years from launch in early August this year.

The number of users has risen from one or two Early Adopters to hundreds of irrigators spread right across the map of Australia’s arable landscapes.

We’ve been working recently to connect MEA’s regional weather station networks to Green Brain; more useful data for farmers, yet a widening of MEA’s responsibility to the general farming community to keep this whole complex technical structure up and operating.

Green Brain’s data base now holds a non-trivial half-billion records and is growing apace.

So the question must be asked: “Have we created a monster or a valuable tool?”

And the answer might well be that we don’t know, because the game’s still on and we keep juggling the difficulties, making small wins, discovering weaknesses and endlessly tweaking our way out of them.

In fact, just doing what MEA has been doing since I founded the company in 1984 – getting environmental data back from the Australian bush.

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The IoT and the Startup Mirage

Hardly a week goes by without a brand-new Startup trumpeting their claims to vast IoT territories that I’ve so laboriously trudged across these past few decades - all with the vast expenditure of technical and marketing effort and the humiliation of field failures.

Sexy websites show groups of attractive and happy young people all holding slim notebook computers or sitting in front of modern terminals in airy bright atrium work spaces - all this far removed from the cluttered bench space of our working engineers and the reality of a manufacturing facility.

A quick scan of the startup's Board Members shows some pretty high-flying suits, no doubt moving through rarefied circles well beyond my ken while collecting salaries far exceeding my own hard-earned stipend.

The very occasional Case Study of a field deployment mentioned on these web sites trumpets only Success, dressed up to look like a massive product rollout that’s taken a grateful market by storm. Ringing around the marketplace throws a harsher light on these systems; they are often merely preliminary trial units on free-loan to potential customers, rather than working systems sold after winning over skeptical farmers.

Look under the News tab on these web sites and you’ll find photos of company executives in black tie and tails at Award ceremonies, being congratulated on their tremendous growth (potential).

Perhaps the final indignity is the ready cash showering down – investors seem to flock to startups, while companies demonstrating organic growth, sound management, field-proven products, job creation, customer loyalty, a high level of support and routes to market stand ignored on the sidelines.

Totally flummoxed by all this modern-day smoke and mirrors, I sought a non-engineering perspective.

I tried to follow the resulting explanation – I really did!

The bottom line seems to be that I’m a troglodyte mired in the perception that the best indication of market success is a signed purchase order and positive cash flow.

That it’s not about what you can design and sell, but about selling yourself and your startup’s ‘disruptive potential’ to groups of investors (gamblers?) based on a storyboard of your trajectory to becoming the next Google, Apple, Amazon or Tesla.

So I’m left trying to find some small crumbs of comfort amidst a tidal-wave of media releases suggesting that our end is nigh.

Perhaps I’ll just ignore all the clamour and stick to my knitting, leaving the passage of time rather than the world-wide-web to make the final judgement call on who really succeeded in making something out of the IoT.

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Heath    11

Love it. All the idle cash in the world is desperate to not miss out on the next Airbnb, and has done a sensational job of monopolising the narrative of business success. Rocket speed growth, a trail of destruction, laptops in cafeterias, and more talking than doing.

Let the trends be trends. There's no replacement for authenticity.

  • Thanks 1

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