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SqwidNet, in partnership with Sigfox, has concluded the second round of its Internet of Things (IoT) SA University Challenge with ten university teams competing in the final pitch presentation day this week. The programme is designed to challenge students to develop and create innovative projects focused on building solutions that support the UN Sustainable Development Goals using SqwidNet / Sigfox technology.

“We were astounded by the creative thinking displayed by the ten teams that presented their solutions to the judges this week,” says Phathizwe Malinga, managing director of SqwidNet. “The solutions presented ranged from agricultural solutions for early pest detection to avoid crop losses, to generating electricity from plants by collecting electrons from roots in an anode and converting that into electricity. We also saw an IoT water monitoring solution, an early fire detection for rural communities and a two-way learning solution using artificial intelligence.”

Challenging the STEM status quo

According to UNESCO women remain extremely under-represented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) globally. According to their Cracking the code: girls’ and women’s education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) report published in 2017 only 30% of the global female student population in higher education choose STEM-related fields of study.

“As part of the IoT SA University Challenge, we have always encouraged the students to form multi-gender and faculty teams to incorporate a diversity of skills, knowledge, and areas of expertise into their solutions. We were very excited to note an increase in female student participation in this year’s challenge,” says Malinga. “We hope that Tshireletso from our winning team will set an example to other students aspiring to pursue a STEM-related field of study to do so, knowing that through technology they can change the world.”

Generating electricity from unusual sources

Tshireletso Kgabi and Sandile Mhlongo from Tshwane University of Technology emerged as the winning team on the day. They developed a power-generating floor using piezoelectric sensors to harvest energy generated from footsteps. A piezoelectric sensor uses the piezoelectric effect to measure pressure, acceleration or force, such as footsteps, and convert that into an electrical charge. The generated voltage is then fed into a microcontroller-based circuit to monitor the voltage, which is then in turn used to charge a connected rechargeable battery.

According to Sean Laval, Executive: Innovations and Solutions at SqwidNet, who mentored the students whilst they developed their solutions, consistency, and commitment were key throughout the process.  SqwidNet hosted weekly calls with the students to assist them with any technical issues leading up the final judging.  “In South Africa, we face huge challenges around energy supply. These students used this as an opportunity to use an everyday activity for most of us – our footsteps – to develop an alternative power source harvesting the energy we release,” says Laval. “Imagine the possibilities if we can harness wasted energy to reduce some of the current pressure on our energy supply?”

The winning team walks away with a cash prize to be divided between the team and their tertiary institution. “They will also receive an all-expenses-paid trip for one of the team members to present their solution at the Sigfox Paris offices and visit the Euratechnologies Innovation Hub in Lille,” concludes Malinga. Euratechnologies is a French incubator and accelerator which supports the development of digital entrepreneurs.

The runners-up in the challenge were Gareth Gericke and Rangith Kuriakose from the Central University of Technology, who developed an IoT water monitoring solution, followed by Viwe Mqaqa from the same university, who partnered with Gericke to develop an automated indoor herb garden solution.