The Internet of Things is one of those buzzy phrases that has driven technology and business since it was first coined nearly two decades ago. Usually it’s applied to urban areas where the idea is that your refrigerator, pantry, and grocery cart might all be able to wirelessly share data. But applying the Internet of Things outside of cities poses special challenges—and potentially even greater rewards.
“Doing this work in in the rural environment is tremendously exciting,” says Gordon Blair, a professor at Lancaster University who specializes in these distributed systems. “It’s easy to make these technologies work in a city where you have broadband and wireless everywhere.” Not so much the case in remote areas. That’s what makes one potential application so exciting—using sensor-equipped sheep and other animals as wi-fi hotspots.
Yes, scientists around the world are attempting to stitch together disparate rural areas by creating sensor networks that rely on the natural, woolly, grass-munching environment. “Sheep can be connected to the Internet or a portion of a river or a tree,” Blair said.
Over the summer, U.K. phone company EE put hotspots inside cow-shaped sculptures at Glastonbury music festival. Though these bovines weren’t alive, the very real connectivity points could just as easily go on an actual animal's collar. In Northern Scandinavia, people have tested the possibility of using reindeer to bring Internet capabilities to the Sámi people, nomadic residents of these remote, mountainous areas. The Sámi’s main source of income is the reindeer herds that they travel with, making traditional wired internet access impossible. It also makes a network of wi-fi enabled reindeer the perfect choice to bring them email and Internet access.