Networks4Learning

Background

Networks4Learning Limited is a Social Enterprise based in Glasgow.  They have social and environmental concerns and promote quality learning in computer science through a Hands-on Digital Making training program for disadvantaged youth within their community in Glasgow.  They also collaborate with universities in the UK and Africa in developing and providing practical and valuable education in computer programming and Digital Making for schools and colleges in the East African region.  They set up affordable computer labs using innovative products such as the Raspberry Pi, a revolutionary mini-computer which can form a foundation for sought after hardware and software engineering skills for these students in future.

 

Challenge

The company are in the process of developing smart greenhouse farming applications for Africa.  They were looking for an academic partner to develop an affordable solution - consisting of appropriate sensors, communication gateways and other accessories - which could be exported and used cost effectively for agricultural innovation to sustainably improve output achieved by smallholder farmers in Kenya. The project will utilise LoRaWAN network technology and Raspberry Pi computers.

Smart electronic sensors are currently available but, at present, there are two polar-opposite approaches to such sensor systems:

(1) build it yourself – this approach uses open-source hardware blueprints and requires technical skills from a member of the ‘maker’ community, or

(2) a commercial off-the-shelf deployment, which is very expensive and requires significant power and compute resource.

The company’s vision is a smart greenhouse sensor kit that will sit somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.  Their system should be simple enough for non-technical users to facilitate on-site deployment and maintenance, while being cheap enough to justify affordable investment for farmers in rural Kenya, where Networks4Learning has identified a significant existing and potential client-base.

 

Solution

Interface matched the company to the University of Glasgow, who has a Raspberry Pi testbed as one of their specialist facilities.  The University also has significant research excellence in computer systems and networking, particularly in relation to low cost single board computers like Raspberry Pi.

The initial phase of this project was to develop and deliver a prototype version of a smart greenhouse monitoring kit.  The project was funded by a Scottish Funding Council Innovation Voucher, administered by Interface.

 

Benefits

Company – The primary objective of this collaborative project was to increase the sales and profits generated by the company by exporting innovative and cost-effective smart greenhouse sensor kits.  Networks4Learning now has small-scale prototypes for IoT-based monitoring of environmental conditions for horticulture, which they are deploying in a test rig at the James Hutton Institute, Dundee and Edinburgh Napier University.

The social enterprise nature of the company also means that there might be opportunities to link their Digital Making educational programmes in Glasgow with deployed systems in Africa.  In short, this is a major opportunity for Networks4Learning to open a route into a new and growing market sector.

 

Academic – This project presented the opportunity for the University of Glasgow to generate high-profile real-world impact from applications of fundamental distributed systems research. The project should identify highly appropriate use cases for managed deployments of federated Raspberry Pi clusters in remote environments, which is a key requirement in their newly commenced EPSRC-funded FRuIT project. Further, this project will create partnerships that can access future funding through the UK-wide Global Challenges Research Fund, given the initial target user-base of rural African farmers.

 

Follow-on Activity

With the results of this project, Networks4Learning will investigate the feasibility of a test deployment in Kenya with partner farmers and are currently working with the Scottish Enterprise Wider Innovation Team (SEWIT) for funding support. They will also assess the viability of mass-producing the hardware sensor nodes, with the aim of final component assembly in Kenya.

The company and the University intend to continue working together, with a view to securing further funding to support growing this initial project into a commercial product.

 

Njiraini Nganga, Executive Director of Networks4Learning said:

Networks4Learning’s Hands-on Digital Making training programme in Glasgow promotes the practical aspects of computer science which address problems such as those experienced by the farming communities in rural Kenya. Through this collaborative project, The University of Glasgow’s significant research excellence in computer systems and networking has been brought to bear, enabling a real-world impact to beneficiaries in Scotland and rural Kenya.