Plenty of farmers know the hassles and stresses of communication in rugged terrain.
As the annual Federated Famers Connectivity Survey highlights, cellphone coverage in many rural areas is patchy at best and total blackspots dot many districts. A common workaround is to use radio units but paying to use towers can be a great way to burn through money.
A backstop for the more enlightened/health and safety conscious is for the farmer and staff to carry a personal locator beacon. In an emergency they can set it off and the GPS co-ordinates can bring rescue services straight to their location. They’re a life-saver, says Ewan Kelsall, the Federated Farmers Senior Policy Advisor on health and safety, but farmers sometimes hesitate setting off their EPIRB because they fret their situation isn’t serious enough. Or because it’s a bit bulky they leave it in their vehicle, a distance away from where they’re working.
What if there was a device smaller than a radio unit, with an SOS button with the same functionality as an emergency locator beacon but one that also enables two-way communication – say, to be able to send a text or email to a partner or farm staff with messages like ‘All ok – home late’ or ‘ute stuck double gateway – bring tractor’.
ZOLEO, weighing 150 grams, is a little unit you can clip to your belt. It communicates using the Iridium LEO (low-earth orbiting) satellite that connects 66 cross-linked mesh networks, and so doesn’t rely on cellphone coverage. But when it’s paired to your cellphone, no matter how remote your location, you can use the ZOLEO App to send/receive a text or email to/from anyone on your cellphone’s contact list.
It can also be programmed to send out precise GPS location details at set times – essentially laying a bread crumb trail for rescuers as to your movements in rugged terrain if you fail to return at the time you said you would. It’s useful data, too, for other farm workers who might be trying to join you later in the day to pitch in on a task.
ZOLEO is offered by Connected Farms, a New Zealand company also active in Australia and the UK, and which last year established a base in Fairlie, Canterbury. Connected Farms specialises in offering over the farm connectivity and catering for a wide range of agri-tech layers for ‘smart farming’ (IoT, robotics, remote monitoring, etc). It was when the 7-year-old daughter of their Kiwi cousins broke a collar-bone way out the back of a farm after a crash on a peewee trail bike that New South Wales-based Tom and Melissa Andrews went looking to source a portable communications device.
“When we are talking to farmers about connectivity solutions over their land, the subject of lone worker safety always comes up,” Melissa Andrews, Country Manager at Connected Farms, says. “Everyone knows someone who has been badly injured or even worse, has been out of range and unable to get help.”
ZOLEO’s two-way communication functionality makes it more versatile than an EPIRB, and a new function in development phase will allow local emergency service operators to exchange basic triage and first aid information with whoever is in trouble. That will help with decisions on whether to send an ambulance or helicopter, for example.
There’s another aspect that particularly drew the interest of Federated Farmers Vice-President, Karen Williams, who holds the Federation’s health and wellbeing portfolio, among others. And that’s the “peace of mind” the device offers.
Karen considers top of the list of safety issues facing farmers is fatigue and stress, a state of physical and mental wellbeing on which a growing list of worries take a toll – not least difficulty recruiting enough staff and an avalanche of government regulation to be across.
Part of the stress burden on all members in a farming family revolves around being able to communicate with each other. When there’s no cellphone coverage, whoever is out in the field with a ZOLEO has the reassurance of knowing they have a device to trigger in an emergency, and keep in touch with the farm homestead.
“They know back-up is only a message away, or in the case of an emergency, just the press of an SOS button,” Karen says.
“And the peace of mind for those back at the farmhouse to know where their loved one is, and to be informed when plans change or there is an emergency, is not to be under-estimated.”
ZOLEO uses a rechargeable, long-life battery and integrates with the app which also provides accurate weather forecasts.
Connected Farms make a small margin on each of the $385 ZOLEO units they sell. Monthly connection plans are sold by Beam Communications, the satellite provider, and start at about $35 a month.
“We’re not trying to make money off people’s air time on this,” Tom Andrews says “we’re just trying to get a safety solution out there.”
- Find out more at connectedfarms.nz/farm-safety