FutureStructure

Smart Markers Connect Madison, Wis., to the Internet of Things

In a merger of old manufacturing with new technology, two companies are collaborating to make local data more interactive.

by Judy Newman, The Wisconsin State Journal / April 20, 2015
Madison, Wis. Flickr/Jordan Richmond
(TNS) -- Smart markers could soon help forest rangers in national parks find lost hikers, or they could give engineers data on bridge corrosion.

They could offer tourists more details about historic sites, or show construction crews what types of utility lines are buried at a digging site — all by checking a smartphone app.

Two Madison, Wis., companies — Berntsen International and SOLOMO Technology — are collaborating on the InfraMarker system, a platform for smart markers, in a merger of old manufacturing with new technology.

They are part of the evolution into the “Internet of Things” taking shape worldwide, and right here in Madison.

Berntsen, 5418 Monument Lane, has pressed out metal markers and monuments for surveying, utility, construction and parks uses since 1972. The idea took shape after a Wisconsin Department of Transportation official complained about the heavy, costly concrete monuments the agency was using back then.

Over the past 40-plus years, Berntsen has become “the de facto standard for survey marking across the world,” said Mike Klonsinski, director of business development. Berntsen markers are used in 90 countries, he said.

“We think there are at least 700,000 of them marking boundaries of federal lands (alone),” from the top of Mount McKinley in Alaska, 20,300 feet up, to the underwater Molasses Reef off the Florida Keys, Klonsinski said.

But the markers were passive, stuck in the ground (or water) denoting locations and boundaries. That is, until two developments transformed them: adding RFID, or radio frequency identification, and getting SOLOMO involved.

RFID tags let clients find the markers — such as underground utility lines — more precisely and add information to them. Berntsen began using the system several years ago and received a patent on it in February.

But then Berntsen took the concept a step further and brought SOLOMO onto the scene.

SOLOMO Technology, founded in 2010, is all about big data. Its platform, SOLOMO Exchange, helps companies collect data about customer locations and preferences, and then use the data to tailor offers to shoppers and evaluate the performance of their stores’ marketing campaigns.

Still, there was a synergy with Berntsen, SOLOMO founder and CEO Liz Eversoll said. “We’re both focused on locating devices or assets. We do that inside a location, and they do that outside a location,” she said.

SOLOMO’s software, coupled with Berntsen’s RFID-equipped markers, lets users see the marker’s information on a smartphone or tablet and update it via the cloud.

“It was just a great match,” Eversoll said.

As a result, Berntsen’s markers have gone from passive to interactive, peppered with photos and maps, “turning our location markers into communication markers,” Klonsinski said. They can speed locating underground utility lines, saving cost and even lives, he said.

In the future, a smart marker hammered into the concrete footings of a bridge will detect levels of heat and moisture and see if there’s been corrosion, he said, or at a cemetery, map gravesites and give information about the deceased.

Sensor-equipped markers in national parks might collect smartphone identification of hikers, making it easier to find them if they get lost, he said.

Another InfraMarker application in the works will give early warning of potential landslides, Klonsinski said.

Berntsen and SOLOMO came out with their first prototypes last summer, tested them, and put InfraMarkers on the market in February and March.

For Berntsen, with 25 employees, partnering with another local, privately owned business was an easy decision. “This is a family-owned business built on a handshake. It’s important to stay local,” Klonsinski said.

Eversoll, whose firm has 23 employees, said a manufacturer working with a software firm is still “fairly unique. You’re just seeing the first manufacturers making this sort of business transition,” she said.

She is convinced that the Internet of Things — where all devices and everyday objects are connected to the cloud — is inevitable and, in some cases, already possible. “Smart homes” let residents control lights, heat and other functions remotely. “You can do that with any product,” Eversoll said.

Klonsinski said marrying old with new sets the future direction for Berntsen, in its fifth decade. “We believe any marker can be a smart marker,” he said.

©2015 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC