Can a Remote IoT Stop Fuel Theft in Africa?

Oluwatobi Oyinlola
May 17, 2017


This article illustrates a concrete application scenario where the power of IoT is harnessed to solve a concrete problem with a practically immediate return on investment. In particular, it shows an IoT-based system, developed to implement a financial management system for fuel stations in Africa. The problem seems to be local to Africa, but building this IoT system has three key learnings that are global in nature. The IoT system aspires to solve a regional problem. It connects remote, poor connectivity locations. It motivates the formation of a creative secure deployment.

IoT to Solve a Regional Problem
In Africa, salespeople dispense fuel in fuel stations by hand and keep account of it manually. This leads to fuel theft by some dishonest employees. Individuals privately own groups of fuel stations. These enterprising fuel station owners end up with financial losses because of lack of ability to monitor the fuel dispensed remotely.   We connected a pulsar alongside the nozzle of each dispenser system in the fuel station. We linked the pulsar with the LCD (screen) to show the amount of fuel sold. The Automatic Dispenser system interfaces with the fuel pulsar to get each pulse in real-time. The data pulled from the pulsar is pushed to the remote server along with date and time, and the name of the sales representative.

At server side, the data is analyzed to report how much fuel was sold. The system saves the amount of fuel sold per day, per week, per month. It also emails this report to the owner of the fuel station. This transparency of fuel pumped by each employee helps to deter fuel theft and save the fuel station businesses.

Connectivity for Remote Locations
The connectivity choice made applies to any IoT system in a remote location where there are multiple options, but none are reliable all the time. It was important to ensure that the system was safe from hackers and theft. So a combination of GPRS, SMS and voice call remote connectivity options was chosen. In particular, a mobile sim card, and a GPRS enabled modem were used. The network could switch between different available mobile carrier networks and GPRS connectivity was used to push the data to the Internet. The fuel station managers have remote access so a fuel station owner can check the fuel pump usage remotely at any time. 

To ensure security the Server Name/IP address that made the data uploads were tracked. Same for the path on the server that ran the server-side script responsible for processing and storing information sent from the dispenser, which is saved with a high level of encryption for protection and can be only decrypted with a functional key from the microprocessor. These provided enhanced security and kept the system safe from tampering, making it very reliable.

Creative Secure Deployment
In remote fuel stations of Nigeria, there is no tech support personnel available. Therefore, the software and setup for the initial configurations was bundled at deployment with configuration parameters set to enable remote access control and detect unauthorized tampering. To ensure a secure deployment, the unit was programmed to detect unauthorized opening of the system without first disarming it. The system also records the date and time of each usage and forwards this information along with the next upload (litres dispensed) as a bit position in a 16-bit word value. The system guarantees continuous logging of dispenser operation with flexible user notification interfaces. This system monitors fuel level relative to a reference height using high-end industrial sensors. The system is designed to accommodate different storage tank configurations. Due to its flexible programming interface, various parameters settings allow the detection of a tank full or empty, tank temperature and percentage volume.

The system transmits the internal status of the storage container in real-time to remote technical personnel and it has many modes to accommodate the varying needs of the customers. Alarms can be configured to initiate upload when a set of user-set conditions are met. Users with registered accounts can easily access these servers for system log visualization and downloads as well as for unattended site management. Eight different alarms combination defines system’s monitoring bounds. Four output actuators operated using a mathematical formula applied to the monitored inputs and the user-set alarm conditions.

This article shows a different perspective on IoT coming from a developing Country where the lack of telecommunication infrastructure and different problems people deal with in their day-by-day living, create situations substantially different than what normally hits the headlines. Here IoT, with its low-cost, wide coverage and easy to integrate solutions, is used to address a concrete problem (fuel theft) in a region with unreliable connectivity, producing a return on (low) investment which is almost immediate, saving money for fuel dispensing station owners keeping their local business alive.

Oluwatobi OyinlolaOluwatobi Oyinlola (IEEE member) is an embedded system engineer with years of experience. He is technical lead and an embedded system engineer for various companies in Nigeria, adopting embedded systems in consumer products for smart homes, smart agriculture and smart industry. He is also member of the IoT Council in Europe and recently he has been working in the avionics sector with rLoop Incorporated (a company sharing the dream of realizing the fifth mode of transportation initiated by Elon Musk, i.e. the Hyperloop).