The Internet of Kings: How IoT technology is helping to monitor cliffs surrounding Tutankhamun's tomb

Geologists studying the link between climate change and the stability of rock formations in the Valley of the Kings have deployed technology from a Spanish IoT company. ZDNet talked to Libelium's co-founder and CEO, Alicia Asín.
Written by Charles McLellan, Senior Editor

The Valley of the Kings near Luxor in Egypt is dominated by the pyramid-shaped Al-Qurn peak.

Image: Nikater  

The Valley of the Kings (or KV) on the west bank of the Nile outside Luxor (Thebes in antiquity) is one of the world's most important archaeological sites. Along with the rest of the Theban Necropolis, it has been a World Heritage Site since 1979. The desert valley is home to 65 rock-cut tombs, including KV62 -- better known as the resting place of Tutankhamun (c. 1342 - c. 1325 BC), which was famously discovered by Howard Carter in 1922.

To preserve the tombs and ensure the safety of the tourists who visit them, it's essential to know about the geology of the region -- and in particular the stability of the limestone cliffs that surround the valley, which experiences sporadic heavy rainfall, plus the occasional earthquake. In volume one of The Tomb of TutankhAmen (1923), Carter describes a near-miss with a storm in the early days of his excavation:

Image: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

"One scare we had. For two or three days the sky was very black, and it looked as though we were in for one of the heavy storms that occasionally visit Thebes. On such occasions rain comes down in torrents, and if the storm persists for any length of time the whole bed of The Valley becomes a raging flood. No power on earth could have kept our tomb from being flooded under these conditions, but, fortunately, though there must have been heavy rain somewhere in the district, we escaped with but a few drops." 

If climate change results in more extreme weather events, the risk of flooding and rock falls in the valley could increase.

To find out more, a team from York University (Canada), the Department of Earth Sciences at ETH Zurich and the University of Basel has been investigating the fractured cliff face above a somewhat less celebrated tomb -- KV42, which was constructed for the wife (Hatshepsut-Meryet Ra) of a pharaoh (Thutmose III), and reused by a mayor of Thebes (Sennefer) and his family.

The York/Zurich/Basel team developed a mathematical model of the rock column above KV42, which suggested that a critical reduction of rock mass strength could occur through factors like seismic or rainfall events, thermal expansions or humidity absorption. The researchers also installed a suite of IoT sensors to monitor the rock mass and its local environment.


The fractured cliff face above tomb KV42 in the Valley of the Kings (a). The sensors and data acquisition system (b). Crack meter inside the lateral fracture (c).

Image: Libelium & York University/ETH Zurich

The IoT technology is from Spanish company Libelium, which specialises in integrating sensors with wireless communication protocols, and connecting them to different cloud platforms.

The sensor suite is built around a solar-powered Libelium Plug & Sense Smart Agriculture Pro weather station with a couple of additions: a dendrometer (adapted from measuring tree growth to detect changes in the aperture of rock fractures) and a seismometer. Data from these sensors is acquired every 15 minutes, recorded to memory and uploaded to a remote server over a cellular (3G/4G) network.

"We learned about this project through the television," Alicia Asín, Libelium's co-founder and CEO, told ZDNet. "National Geographic was making a report, and suddenly we saw one of our devices, and thought 'why is nobody talking about that?' I think it summarises very well what we do, and the state of the art in the IoT industry." 


Alicia Asín, co-founder and CEO of Libelium. 

Image: Libelium

"From the very beginning [Asín co-founded Libelium in 2006], we conceived our device as a development platform, and researchers use it for all kinds of projects. When the Valley of the Kings project started, they looked for vendors and existing solutions for geologists, but these couldn't do exactly what they wanted: they couldn't program the devices to monitor every fifteen minutes; they couldn't have all the sensors they wanted; and the solutions only worked with the vendors' software platforms. If they wanted to do other things, and play with the data, they were very limited."

"That's why they decided to use Libelium products, because we provide flexibility. It's great to have our technology in such an iconic place — I'm an art and history lover, so I particularly love this kind of project."

This is the second 'heritage' application of Libelium's IoT technology, Asín said, the other one being at the Museo Provincial de Huesca, close to the company's home city of Zaragoza. "We are monitoring two tapestries, and although museums often have sensors, they're not connected: you have sensors in rooms, and daily, weekly or monthly -- depending on the protocol -- you download the data, go to a computer, and check it. If there is a sudden change in humidity or temperature that might be affecting the works, you never know. This is happening in the industrial IoT too." At the Huesca museum, Libelium's Plug & Sense devices monitor light levels and humidity around the tapestries, sending real-time data to the cloud over a 4G connection.

The Valley of the Kings project is a good fit for Libelium's agriculture-focused sensor suite: the research team closely monitor wind speed and direction, precipitation, solar radiation, air temperature, rock temperature, relative humidity and crack aperture in order, hopefully, to provide an early warning of possible failure. "Accelerated erosion could lead the rock crack to finally open and fall onto the tomb below, and even cause casualties," Asín said.

SEE: Sensor'd enterprise: IoT, ML, and big data (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

A rock fall that damages tombs and injures visitors is hardly the kind of news that Egypt's tourist industry is looking for. So are the authorities likely to take this monitoring project and scale it out to cover more of the valley? "I hope they replicate it -- the Egyptian economy relies a lot on tourism, and they cannot afford damage to their iconic monuments," Asín said.

Asín stressed that the specific task of monitoring cracks in solid materials will be increasingly relevant in a range of sectors. "Climate change means that we'll need more of this kind of technology -- not only at historical sites, but also in many types of natural and man-made structures."

Libelium and the IoT market

As the Internet of Things has taken off in recent years, the number of IoT software platforms has grown rapidly: market researchers IoT Analytics counted no fewer than 620 in its evaluation of the 2019/2020 IoT Platform Companies Landscape, up from 450 in 2017. How much of a headache is that for a platform-agnostic company that integrates sensor data and uploads it to the cloud?

"We support forty-six platforms, but it needs to reduce dramatically -- and it will, in the coming years," Asín said. "We align with the market: 60 percent is AWS, 20 percent is Azure, and 20 percent is all the rest. In fact, we're seeing some of our solution partners rebuilding their applications to work with either AWS or Azure. There's no place for that many software platforms -- it just adds complexity to an already fragmented market."

"There are opportunities for vertical platforms that integrate domain expertise with the analytics," Asín continued. "An example is a company specialising in vineyards, analysing agricultural data that applies only to vineyards -- what should the local soil moisture parameters look like? Those solutions usually need to be configured and tuned on-site; that's an important part, and I think there will be winners in this area -- they will boost AWS and Azure too, because they will also use those platforms. But there are hundreds of general-purpose dashboards that don't offer anything special, which will disappear soon."

How about the return on investment in IoT projects such as the vineyards, or precision agriculture generally?

"We have some data. For example, in the case of irrigation, you usually save around 30 to 40% of water, which is a cost saving but also, more importantly, an environmental benefit. Also with fertilisers, you can rely on IoT data to sustain organic agriculture, and we have a case study on that in the UK. Just by monitoring soil conditions you can make more informed decisions, and avoid using excessive fertiliser."

"We also have a recent case study on a Russian dairy farm which managed to increase milk production per cow per day from 28 to 33 litres -- an 18% increase. They did that by monitoring the environment and giving the cows more food when the temperature decreased, to maintain milk yields. That allowed them to save a lot of money -- €340,000 in six months."

"These examples give you an idea of what a successful IoT project must have: you always need data, analytics and domain expertise."

Libelium's customers cover a range of vertical sectors, but the main ones, Asín said, are agriculture and water, and smart cities -- especially pollution monitoring and parking solutions. There's also increasing demand for smartphone detection, which monitors the movements of people and vehicles with wi-fi or Bluetooth devices, and can help to improve the design of urban spaces.

At the end of 2019, according to IoT Analytics, there were 9.5 billion connected consumer and business IoT devices, with 28 billion forecast for 2025 -- driven by new LPWAN (Low-Power Wide-Area Network) and 5G connections. Does this tally with Libelium's view of the growth of the IoT market?

"The reality is, it's still very fragmented and opportunity-driven," Asín said. "The PoC [proof of concept] phase is finishing, which is good news because we're ready to go to the next stage. But there's a gap to be covered, and we're in that moment. Projects may fail because you approach them in the wrong way -- maybe you try to do it all in-house, which is really difficult. And if you fail, you may look at the market and say 'this is not the right moment, there are too many protocols, let's wait for a while and identify the clear leaders with proven long-term solutions, and then we'll go again'."

Talking of protocols, what does Libelium expect from 5G: will it drive rapid IoT growth, or merely confuse by adding another connectivity option?

"On the one hand it is adding more confusion to the market because it's yet another protocol to consider -- and especially in smart cities they say 'let's wait for 5G because it looks likely to be the ultimate technology'," Asín said. "The good thing is, 5G will be on public networks, so they won't have to install LoRa or Sigfox networks in smart cities, for example. And 5G will allow more density, but that's not a problem today -- we are not populating cities with so many devices that cellular networks are congested. But it will be useful for connected cars and low-latency applications in industrial environments."

Satellite connectivity will be increasingly important as IoT projects reach remote areas like the African bush or the Amazon rainforest, where cellular signals are not available. Does Libelium support the likes of Inmarsat, Iridum and Eutelsat

"Not yet, but we are having conversations with a couple of satellite providers, and that's definitely something that will eventually happen. The problem with satellite is cost, which is very high, but there are a number of initiatives trying to make cheaper satellite models -- even Apple is moving into this space. Our platform has a modular architecture, and we've integrated new communication methods as they appear, and we'll do the same with satellite."

Image: Libelium

Connectivity emerged as the top concern when developing IoT projects in Libelium's June 2019 survey of 637 respondents from 250 companies in 42 countries. The remaining top five issues were: integration of hardware devices; interoperability between platforms; security; and total cost. Security, in particular, could prove to be something of a time bomb for the IoT.

"The problem with security is that it's usually only a check-point when you're validating a new technology. 'Can I encrypt data? Yes. Can I authenticate the devices? Yes'. But then, because it's still in the PoC phase, nobody is implementing and testing those security mechanisms. And if you don't test enough, you don't know if you can scale in a secure way," Asín said.

The Valley of the Kings project shows just how wide is the scope of the IoT and, as the researchers conclude, "could be applied to other world heritage sites". Welcome to the Archaeological Internet of Things.

Read more on the IoT

The Internet of Wild Things: How the IoT joined the battle against climate change

Weed-mapping robot moves from prototype to fleet manufacture

Connected cars: How 5G and IoT will affect the auto industry

Microsoft Azure, Cisco team up to simplify IoT deployments

What is the IoT? Everything you need to know about the Internet of Things right now

Editorial standards