Sentinel – the piece of Kiwi tech helping to stop rainwater tanks running dry

by Peter Griffin / 25 July, 2018
Zach Preston.

Zach Preston with the Sentinel solar power mount on a water tank. Photo / supplied

It is the problem farmers, businesses and bach owners alike will increasingly face with a changing climate and more frequent droughts - rainwater tanks running dry.

But a team of university students think they have the answer - using so-called Internet of Things (IoT) devices communicating over the mobile network to monitor the country’s water tanks in real-time, predict water usage needs and order water deliveries before tanks empty out.

Sentinel, a start-up founded by engineering students from Auckland and Canterbury universities yesterday pitched its technology to tech experts in Seattle as part of the Imagine Cup, a Microsoft-run competition that pits teams of university students from around the world against each other, with the technology considered most promising taking home a US$100,000 prize.

Facebook and Twitter were started out of university dorm rooms. Now 18-year-old first-year University of Canterbury Bachelor of Engineering Honours student Zach Preston hopes his team’s sensor and analytics system will shake up the outmoded business of supplying fresh water around New Zealand.

“Nothing is worse, in the heat of summer than running out of water,” says Preston, Sentinel’s creator and user experience designer.

“We can let you can see your own water level in real time, how it has changed, manage multiple tanks and see statistics, such as how much water you are using.”

The system can alert tank owners in advance to order water deliveries, with the aim of avoiding the weeks-long waits for water that many off-grid homeowners experienced during last year’s unseasonably hot summer.

How Sentinel's system works

Sentinel’s system relies on a 3D-printed plastic solar power mount developed by the students that fits to a water tank and powers a sensor in the tank, accurately measuring water level.

The sensor data is sent over a radio or cellular connection to a server, with the user able to access real-time information on the tank’s level and get estimates of how long the tank’s supply is likely to last based on water usage patterns.

Data in action. Screenshot / supplied

The technology, co-developed by Sentinel’s other team members, University of Auckland engineering students Zac Lochhead and Sam Yoon, has attracted the attention of industry body Water New Zealand as well as Bachcare, which provides management services to people renting out their holiday homes.

“They get guests coming through to Mangawhai or Waiheke and they rely on tank water for the water supply,” says Preston.

“We are connecting them to water suppliers to make sure all of these tanks are always filled.”

The software the team has developed allows users to order a water delivery with the tap of a button in an app, or even automate the process for delivery when the water level reaches a certain level.

IoT technology is expected to network up all sorts of previously dumb devices when fifth-generation mobile networks go live in New Zealand in the next few years. Once connected, multiple devices, from consumer devices in the home to a city’s infrastructure, will send information back to a central point.

Never run out

Machine learning algorithms can then analyse that data to make decisions. In the case of Sentinel, sensor readings can predict how many days of water use a household has before the tank runs dry.

For many, that would replacing dipping a stick into the tank or looking at a manual gauge on the tank to determine the water level.

The use of other types of sensors could also be used to monitor the quality of tank water, says Preston.

“In future builds, we are looking to add in sensors for weather forecasting at an incredibly local level, but also the temperature and potentially, the pH and acidity.

“A big problem on farms is rats climb into the tanks, die and contaminate the water supply and the cows get sick.”

Fonterra has also partnered with Sentinel to trial the technology for water tanks used by the dairy industry and the technology can monitor other types of liquid, from chemicals to wastewater.

At a pitching session in Seattle, Preston outlined the global potential for the technology as residential users and businesses alike faced increasing uncertainty over water supply.

“In California, communities are having to turn to water tanks. There is booming demand for a device like this.”

Sentinel narrowly missed out on progressing to the Imagine Cup grand final, pipped to the post in its group by Canada start-up and crowd favourite SmartArm, which has created a $100, app-controlled robotic prosthetic for amputees.

But New Zealand was well-represented among the 49 teams from around the world competing for the prize money and mentoring from Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, with three teams from New Zealand featuring for the first time in the competition’s 16-year history.

Hypebeat - using data to make musicians more successful

Hypebeat, a University of Auckland start-up, is using big data analytics tools to analyse what makes music acts successful so it can tailor advice for fledgling musicians.

“Ed Sheeran spent years in the UK playing the same songs that top global charts, but it wasn’t until he changed strategy that people actually noticed,” says co-founder Matt Bastion.

“We power every musician with what will make a difference so they can be the next Ed Sheeran.”

The technology draws in feeds of data including playlists from radio stations and music streaming website globally as well as social media content to determine the best promotional strategies to get people buying music and attending gigs.

They’d found for instance, that social media images of a musician facing a crowd of screaming fans boosted future ticket sales as it provoked ‘FOMO’ - fear of missing out, among music fans.

Bain’s team is trialing the technology with a number of emerging artists as well as Grammy-winning acts and says Hypebeat goes beyond existing software that crunches industry data to produce generic trends data for the music industry.

“The closest technology to use is helping record labels figure out who the next big hit is.

That’s not as hard as what we are doing. We are not just predicting who the next big hit is, we are making you the next big hit.”

UniRide - bringing like-minded students together to travel

Rounding out the New Zealand teams at Imagine Cup this year, and also from the University of Auckland is UniRide, borne of frustration of its team members having to make long bus trips into the university campus every day.

Rideshare apps like carpool already let people team up to share transport, but UniRide’s founders were looking for a way to bring together like-minded students living near each other and interested in carpooling to get to uni.

“Most rideshare apps pair you off with complete strangers. It is more about getting from point A to B than the social aspect,” says co-founder Winston Zhao.

Winston Zhao. Photo / supplied

“We want to find you a group of people you can go to work or university with and enjoy the time spent with them.

UniRide draws in data from the University of Auckland’s application programming interface, allowing students to opt in to share their location and carpooling requirements. The UniRide app analyses a student’s university timetable and geographical location to pair up likely ridesharing candidates.

Zhao says UniRide was partnering with student services app Niche, which has a 20,000-strong user base and would launch during next year’s Orientation Week at the University of Auckland.

The Imagine Cup’s grand final winner will be revealed tomorrow.


Peter Griffin attended the Imagine Cup in Seattle as a guest of Microsoft


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