Internet of Sheep: Why world's biggest NB-IoT pilot is roping in woolly helpers

The world's largest Narrowband IoT pilot is under way in Norway's mountains, and involves 1,000 sheep.

The world's largest NB-IoT project involves sheep, rather than devices.

Source: Telia/Nortrace/YouTube

Using the relatively new mobile Internet of Things technology called Narrowband IoT, or NB-IoT, Norwegian mobile operator Telia and startup Nortrace are tracking 1,000 sheep in one of the country's mountainous regions this summer.

This will be the world's largest NB-IoT pilot, according to Telia.

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Using narrowband for IoT tasks allows for more devices to be connected to mobile networks at a lower cost, ultimately enabling telcos to turn IoT into a basic service.

Late last year, Telia launched the first NB-IoT service in the Nordics. The technology provides Internet of Things projects with better coverage and lower costs, compared to traditional mobile technologies.

NB-IoT also opens up the possibility of far longer battery life for connected devices -- more than 10 years -- because they communicate only occasionally, rather than constantly. These are characteristics that fit very well with the needs of Norwegian sheep farmers.

In Norway, the summer pastures where sheep graze are often on mountains and rough terrain. These areas aren't fenced in, and the animals are free to roam wherever they like, all summer long.

In the autumn, the shepherds walk in the mountains to collect their flocks and find on average 90 percent of their sheep easily. But to locate the remaining 10 percent has, until now, required shepherds to waste time on more extensive searches.

This situation spurred sheep farmer Bjørn Høyland from southwestern Norway to challenge the startup company Nortrace to design a tracking system suited to Norwegian sheep.

Høyland thinks every animal needs its own tracker, as you never know which individual sheep is going to go astray over the summer.

Nortrace came up with a low-cost collar that contains a GPS receiver, an NB-IoT communication unit, and a battery. The signals from these collars allow the location of every sheep to be plotted on a map on the farmers' smartphone, tablet, or PC.

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"This is a great example of how new technology and IoT can help meet real needs," Telia Norway enterprise head Jon Christian Hillestad said in a statement.

"Using NB-IoT for tracking purposes is one of the most important areas of IoT and 5G in the future. It can be used pretty much on everything that is mobile: animals, ships, containers and other means of transportation."

Telia also expects the pilot to provide it with valuable experience that will be put to use in other markets and applications.

"With such a big pilot, we'll get a pretty good picture of how the technology works and how it can be transferred to other applications," Hillestad said.

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