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2020 was a record-breaking year, but some of the reasons went unnoticed because of preoccupation with the pandemic. 2020 had the sunniest April and May on record and the third-hottest day ever recorded in August. It also had the wettest February on record with the highest number of flood warnings ever issued, as well as the wettest single day ever in October. It was warm, wet and windy. 

The Met Office predict ever hotter drier summers and wetter warmer winters. With sea-levels also rising we need proactive solutions quickly. 

Flood management 

Surprisingly, the UK has no single body responsible for flood control. The Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is regarded as “the policy lead” in England. However, actual decisions depend on district and borough councils, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Communities, the Highways Authority, water and sewerage companies, independent Internal Drainage Boards, coastal protection agencies and a variety of other bodies. Even though water flows without regard to political boundaries, areas that fall inside Wales and Scotland have been delegated to their respective regional assemblies, further impeding a unified response. 

Although DEFRA specifically advocates a “free flow of information” between all these agencies, it is inevitably fragmented. Knowing what is happening at any given moment is further complicated by pumps and sluices under the control of landowners, and construction activities that change the flow of surface and subterranean water. Widespread housing developments on flood plains also change the risks. What is missing is the ability to gather instant, highly detailed information on complete water systems. 

Monitoring and planning 

Measuring water levels is not new: you can see old-style gauge boards beside many big rivers. DEFRA and other agencies rely on electronic measuring devices which are able to communicate with remote measuring stations. They provide an API which allows any interested party to access their data ( but that data is limited. 

The imminent water level in one location is often less determined by height readings in that location than by flow-rates upstream, plus other factors. Water momentum, wind direction, the saturation of flood plains and the quantity of rain falling in any particular location are all hard to measure. Air humidity, temperature, soil condition, the water table, plant growth on riverbanks and debris in sewers all contribute to creating a complex picture. 

Current systems don’t capture enough information, but they are also limited by how the data is used. Most water monitoring systems do little more than trigger an alert if the river level is high. This isn’t much better than a weather report telling you it is raining when you can look out of the window. 

Alerts are often too inaccurate, imprecise or late for those affected to act. By using more sensors and better analysis we might achieve two things, earlier and more precise predictions and proactive flood prevention. 

Coupling the IoT with AI 

Some good news is the explosion in sensor devices that communicate via the Internet of Things. This means that more types of sensor can be deployed over larger areas cost-effectively. They require no independent wired or wireless networks and there is no reason for agencies to hold information silos. Local stakeholders can deploy and extract the information they require and easily share it with regional and national interests. 

Many different kinds of sensor are available. For water level monitoring alone there are radar devices, electrical switches, gas bubbler pressure gauges, flowmeters, submersible pressure transducers. Especially interesting are ultrasonic devices such as the Wilsen sonic level [1].

 IoT devices of this type use little power so they can function for years unattended, yet still connect with internet gateways 15km away, for example the LoRaWAN® system. This means it is feasible to deploy them over larger areas, such as tributaries, drainage ditches, fields, forests and culverts. 

The other potential advance depends on AI. Not only can an AI-powered system extract better flood predictions from larger data sources, but it could also be applied to prevent flooding. By truly centralising all water management related information, AI can identify the systemic patterns that lead to loss of control over water. Solutions that could minimise flood disasters may be deployed far from the locations they devastate, replacing flood alerts with avoidance policies. 

AI and IoT approaches to flood prevention are already being explored by Fujitsu in Japan, Google in Patna India, the Lassonde School of Engineering in Canada and in the town of Cary in North Carolina using the SAS Viya AI analytics platform and Microsoft Azure.[1]

Like sonar, ultrasonic transducers can detect detailed qualities of surfaces by bouncing sound waves off them. Today’s sensors are cheap, compact and have a vast range of applications. 

The simplest ultrasound detectors in use are passive microphones but the majority of applications use a transducer - a device that combines a sound emitter and echo receiver. They are tuned to frequencies above 18 kHz, therefore inaudible to the human ear. Sound can be generated in a variety of ways but the most common methods are piezoelectric and capacitive (creating an electrostatic field between a back-plate and a diaphragm). 

The vast majority operate in a straightforward way: they measure the time lapse between the signal generation and the arrival of its reflection. This simple principle can be tuned and adapted to achieve an impressive variety of functions. Sensors can detect and record speed, weather, size, material levels, numbers of items, condensation, contours and profiles, distance or proximity. Their targets can be large or tiny, near or distant, stationary or moving. When fitted in mobile vehicles and containers, geolocation reporting is often incorporated onto the same devices. 

Proximity and distance sensing 

Some of the uses of proximity sensors are familiar - such as reversing vehicles and intruder alarms - but they have far more potential. Detectors can calculate accurate distances to the intercepted surface. The basic formula is simple: L = 1/2 × T × C - (L being the distance, T the time between transmission and reception, and C the speed of sound). Variations in the speed of sound can be allowed for as required and many sensors can work underwater or within other fluids where sound propagates differently. Detected surfaces can be irregular or diffuse, such as wire mesh, yet the sensors are resistant to interference from mist or dust. 

This principle allows sensors to monitor the level of material in tanks and silos, highly valuable for any business reliant on continuous feedlines or just-in-time reordering. Ultrasound sensors can be set to detect a concise point or to average a broad irregular field of objects such as those in municipal recycling bins. Despite irregular contents, ultrasound sensors can issue automated alerts to the collection or refilling company, ensuring perfect logistical efficiency. 

Sensors are also being deployed to monitor water levels in rivers and reservoirs, facilitating river management, water supplies, flood control and protecting natural habitats. Similarly, they can monitor levels when filling boxes and bottles or the cups in a drink dispenser. 

Velocity estimation 

Speed cameras use infra-red but discrete ultrasonic transducers can apply the same principle to estimate the speed and direction of moving objects. There are a variety of ways to implement this; sensors can emit a series of pulses, calculating the change in distance over a given time, multiple sensors can triangulate in several dimensions, and (in principle) a Doppler effect could be calculated from pitch modulations. 

Engine and motor speeds can also be safely monitored using discrete acoustic sensors. 

High speed counting

 A basic requirement on many production lines, acoustic sensors have no difficulty calculating the exact number of items that pass through an acoustic signal. Sensors can also sort boxes of different sizes, providing independent counts; useful for economic packing into delivery vehicles. 

Some of the applications are surprising, for example linking a sensor to a rotating anemometer and/or weather vane can transmit constant information about wind speed and direction for meteorological purposes. Locating them at entry and exit points can ensure car park or building occupancy is not exceeded or that all personnel have been evacuated. 

Profile scanning

 Medical ultrasound scanners are familiar, but profile sensing is now highly versatile and affordable. It can be implemented into semi-automated or robotic assembly lines, or to support shaping and finishing processes. A simple, but vital, application is to monitor stacking. They can also accurately monitor roll diameters and coil winding and unwinding operations. 

The IoT backbone

 The possibilities for acoustic sensing are vastly extended by transmitting the output from smart sensors across the “internet of things”. Multiple outputs can then be combined in a single sophisticated web-based interface and monitored in real time from any convenient location. Smart sensors can then be easily interfaced with microcontrollers and actuators to provide sophisticated remote control and record details into enterprise management software. 

Many businesses have yet to realise the wealth of opportunities that come from linking smart sensors to the IoT. Off-the-shelf devices are cheap and unobtrusive. For more demanding applications, bespoke algorithms can be implemented in the device firmware or in software at the collection point.

The Environment Protection Agency recently declared that “Air pollution has a devastating impact on the UK population, shortening lives, causing early deaths and ill health. It is a bigger global killer than smoking. It costs the UK economy over £20 billion a year.” (  

Common pollutants include ozone, sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, dioxins, polycyclic aromatics, carbon monoxide, ozone, particulates, ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulphide, chlorine, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide, phosphine and ethylene oxide. The consequences range from debilitating fatigue, headaches, hay-fever, skin disorders and eye irritation up to fatal illnesses including lung cancer, emphysema, asthma, COPD, bronchiolitis and cardio-vascular diseases. Polluted air has also been linked to mental illness, behaviour disorders, mental retardation and miscarriage.

The failure of regulation

The EU accused the UK of failing to comply with EU air quality regulations in 2017 ( and the UK government declared air pollution a national health emergency the following year ( A post-Brexit Environment Act is in the pipeline but it is unclear whether it will have any more effect than previous failed legislation. 

Outdoors, traffic fumes overtook factory chimneys as the leading problem long ago, despite which many proposals for the new Environment Act still focus on “factory emissions” as did the last Clean Air Act in 1993. The proposals also largely ignore indoor sources of air pollution. 

According to a study by the US EPA, indoor air quality is often 5 times worse than the air outside ( The main offenders are synthetic materials such as composite wood furnishings (which leech formaldehyde), synthetic carpeting, cosmetics, pesticides, office printers, photocopiers, asbestos-laden roof tiles, faulty aircon systems, domestic cleaning products, and (ironically) “air fresheners”. 

Whether the new legislation addresses these problems or not, it is clear that employers, industrial facilities, office managers, local government and the public at large should be looking for solutions. We all breathe the same air and it is a significant hidden burden on our communities and productivity.

How the IoT can help us control our exposure

Most cities and towns have a few air monitoring stations, but their coverage is poor. They are also fixed in location (often the wrong ones) and the public have little access to their readings. As such they leave us a lot of guesswork. 

Most people assume that pollutants rarefy as you get further from the source. That is not always the case - many roll into low-lying areas or form invisible clouds overhead that descend to ground level when the air temperature changes (for example at dusk). Air quality in specific areas can be substantially worse than thinly sprinkled monitors reveal. In short, to understand our air pollution problems and correct them, we need more monitors. That is equally true inside our homes and places of work, and outside in our city streets and countryside. 

Before the IoT, better monitoring was impractical, but a wide range of air-quality sensors are now available. The IoT makes it easy to collect and monitor their data from almost anywhere. Detectors in fixed locations help us understand how conditions change over time, but we can also use mobile detectors to greatly extend our geographical coverage. If every council vehicle carried a monitor, blackspots would be discovered quickly and dealt with. 

High-end devices are capable of establishing the parts-per-billion of a wide range of pollutants. Others focus on particular known hazards, such as nitrogen oxides or aromatics. At the cheaper end of the range, suitable for many domestic and industrial uses, sensors can provide a simple “red-amber-green” warning system about air particulates. They are increasingly popular with urban cyclists, and alert you to don a face mask.


The most common method for connecting an air quality sensor is a simple 3G or 4G SIM card. However, there are many systems for collecting transmissions. In some parts of the British Isles, notably Scotland so far, LoRa wireless networks are available. No matter how much sophistication you require in your sensors, the vast majority of systems report to a Cloud service where the data is accessible through a simple website interface. 

Understanding the data you collect is made easy by proven off-the-peg tools such as the Tableau analytics platform. Visualisation tools make it easy to understand the results of your monitoring devices at a glance. If necessary, you can then cross-reference your readings with factors such as weather information. 

The Breathlife2030 organisation has declared September 7th 2020 as the first “International Day of Clean Air for Blues Skies”. There is no better time to be looking at IoT air quality tools than today.

Commercial theft is not only growing, but for markets contracting after Covid-19, it is even more damaging. The majority of serious thefts are conducted by career criminals, but the Covid-19 lockdown affected them too, closing access to their markets and making them conspicuous on the roads. Now the lockdown is lifting, they will be as eager as anyone to make up for lost time.

Research from the Allianz Cornhill Insurance group reveals that claims arising from plant theft grew steadily between 2013 and 2017 and are believed to have continued rising since. Agricultural, construction and manufacturing sectors are all hit hard by the loss of major items of equipment: not only are the items themselves expensive, but their loss entails downtime, leasing replacement equipment and higher insurance premiums. Unwary victims have been known to make quick purchases of replacement vehicles only to discover that they too are stolen, leased or still on HP.

Break-ins also cause substantial collateral damage to gates, fences and garage doors. Just before Christmas 2017, a stolen Manitou digger was used to smash an ATM out of a station wall in Haslemere, leaving the station building unsafe. In many cases, the damage done by thieves seems to be purely senseless.

Most thieves are not nice people as evidenced by the 80,000 face masks and other medical PPE stolen from a Salford warehouse in May. The haul, valued at £166,000, was on its way to NHS hospitals and old people’s homes in West Yorkshire, an area with high Covid-19 fatalities among patients and medical staff. To reach the PPE, the thieves cut a hole in expensive steel security doors, probably with stolen cutting equipment.

Deterring thieves and recovering property

Popular targets range from small electrical tools up to tractors, trailers, excavators and bulldozers. Fuel tanks, metals, roofing materials, aggregates and livestock are also popular. Immobilising vehicles only provides partial defence; some are simply stripped of valuable spares where they stand. 

Different kinds of theft present farms, factories, storage depots and building firms with a range of different problems. CCTV, intrusion systems, impregnable fencing and human security patrols are all highly expensive and none are fool-proof against specialist criminals. Drones are now popular on large farms, but even more expensive than the drone is the labour of its human operator. The rising rate of theft demonstrates that most technological solutions have been ineffective so far, and once stolen the chances of recovering machinery are less than 10%.

Fortunately, cheap and effective ways to deter thefts and recover many kinds of stolen goods do now exist.

The first step all farmers, building contractors, plant managers and fleet owners should take is to register their Industrial vehicles and large static machinery on national databases such as TER (The Equipment Register [1]) or CESAR (The Construction & Agricultural Equipment Security and Registration Scheme [2]). Rather than relying solely on the equipment’s VRN or serial number, which thieves will try to erase, apply and record your own unique and discrete security markings.

The main point of registration is to recover property, but it also helps to trap and convict the thieves. Registration is also a deterrent. Many thieves will think twice about taking items that are dangerous to sell on, so display a warning.

The Internet of Things

Another strategy that works very well for both registered vehicles and shipments of bulk materials is tracking them with a new generation of smart devices.

Today, almost any electrical or battery-powered item can be connected wirelessly to the internet. Once connected, you can communicate with it from any smart-phone or convenient computer. Tracking is a simple application, but you can also use the IoT to monitor or control your devices remotely. A connected device can also be designed to send you an alert if it is moved or disturbed in a way that it shouldn’t be.

The most common targets for thieves are portable tools such as chainsaws and grinders, levels, theodolites, BIM and GPS equipment. Favourite vehicles include breakers, diggers and excavators, generators and compressors. Farmers need to remember their trailers, horseboxes and quadbikes. There are ways to connect almost all of these items into the IoT. You can also tag your cargoes with discrete recoverable connected devices that will report their movements in real-time as they are moved around the country, or even if they are shipped abroad.

The imminent introduction of 5G connections will greatly accelerate the rollout of cheap sophisticated IoT devices, so this is a great time to review your security strategy.



Asset tracking has always been important but never more so than today. To position your contract bids or product prices competitively, you really need to know what resources and equipment you already have. With so much of industry geared to 'just-in-time' production and delivery schedules, you have to be able to mobilise, or replace them promptly. Things can go south very quickly if they aren't exactly where you need them and fit for purpose.

Even small enterprises need a long list of items to function, but for a company dependent on expensive tools, machinery and transport, losing them is no joke - it is the difference between prospering and insolvency. High levels of theft easily turn a challenging logistical problem into an unmitigated disaster. 92% of construction firms surveyed by the Chartered Institute of Building reported recent thefts from their sites; 21% said they fell victim on a weekly basis.

The total scale of losses from industrial crime is hard to assess. Estimates range from "over £1 million per week" to over £1 billion per year. Whatever the figure, the face-value of stolen tools and vehicles is only a fraction of the damage. Downtime, repairs, contract defaults, emergency equipment hire, higher insurance premiums and extra security measures probably triple the final cost.

The Construction Equipment Association has reported a surge during the Covid-19 lockdown []. In addition to tools and vehicles, fuel, roofing materials and copper bales are popular targets. On green and agricultural sites, mowers and quadbikes are popular targets. Even when an entire vehicle isn't taken, expensive components are often ripped out.

Two affordable solutions solve a host of problems

Those solutions are asset registration and tracking. In the past, neither of these things was easy. Written lists of assets were usually out of date before the ink was dry, and sticky labels didn't help you trace something that wasn't there. The Internet of Things changes all that. Tracking can now be conducted in real-time and linked directly into asset, maintenance and logistical databases. In the event of a theft, a range of rapid responses are now at your disposal, helping you quickly recover goods and vehicles and claim for any damage. It also serves to prevent you from buying equipment with a suspect history.

It is a travesty that not everyone is yet using the IoT and professional asset management services. The more farms, factories and builders that sign up, the more effective they become in deterring theft and recovering equipment. There are numerous asset registration services available, but what businesses need is one that integrates with IoT services to provide immediate reporting and analytics functions.

Crime is not the only problem state-of-the-art systems help to solve. Efficient registration and tracking helps throughout the asset lifecycle; improving your financial forecasting, bid writing, supply chain logistics, project management, maintenance regimes, health and safety compliance, uptake of subsidies and tax allowances, insurance claim validation, identification of surplus equipment, and in assessing the true net worth of the business.

Another vital asset in any enterprise is its staff resources. Once you have proactive control of your equipment, you can extend the system to match it up with qualified operators. In turn, this can inform your hiring and training investments. There are few aspects of a business that cannot benefit from a proactive asset management policy.

Rural crime boom

Plant and agricultural theft is a vocation for many criminal gangs and they have well-established routes for disposing of heavy goods. For example, three men were caught last year with a tractor and cutter stolen from Bala, trailers from Bala and Denbigh, a digger from Corwen, a quad bike from Machynlleth and ornamental stone troughs from Oswestry.

British agriculture lost at least £50 million in stolen fuel, livestock and agricultural vehicles in 2018 - a 12.1% increase over 2017. Most of the increase was from agricultural vehicles, including tractors, trailers, all-terrain 4x4s, quad bikes and horseboxes.

Even in remote locations, it is essential to lock-up all tools and vehicles and separate them from the keys. Record all serial numbers, for vehicles as well as each piece of valuable equipment fitted or stored inside them. Ideally, also photograph each item. Mark items in discrete locations with smart-water and paint your postcode or other identifier on vehicle roofs to help police helicopters.

Installing immobilisers and having the vehicle identification number etched onto the windows also helps to frustrate thieves, but tracking chips linked to the IoT are one of the cheapest solutions and hard for the professional thief to overcome.