Fredrik Ahlgren with his colleagues in the IoT Lab lab

Fredrik Ahlgren is digitalised to the teeth

ARTICLE | Our everyday things are becoming ever more connected, and it is no longer only with technology such as mobile phones and computers that we expect to have an Internet connection, but also other consumer goods like, for instance, household appliances, alarm clocks, lawn mowers, coffee machines, and vacuum cleaners. There is hardly any limit to how much we can digitalise our everyday lives. Just ask Fredrik Ahlgren, who controls and measures most things around him using the latest technology.

Fredrik Ahlgren is senior lecturer at the Department of Computer Science and Media Technology and project manager for IoT Lab for SME. His academic journey is unusual. Unusual and exciting, from the marine engineering programme to doctoral studies in energy efficiency in shipping, and then on to being a teacher and researcher in computer science, with the focus on smart technology that can be interconnected.

IoT, Internet of Things

IoT, Internet of Things, is usually described as technology that makes it possible to control or exchange data online between everyday things such as household appliances, machines, vehicles, and buildings with built-in electronics and Internet connection. From a practical perspective, this can be anything from a fridge that informs you when you have run out of milk, waste bins that tell you when they are full, or toilets that keep track of your health. IoT Lab for SME is one of the projects within Linnaeus University’s knowledge environment Digital Transformations. Digital Transformations is one of the university’s seven different knowledge environments, which are tasked with taking on complex, societal challenges within different fields through interdisciplinary collaborations within research, education, and collaboration.

At present, he works mainly with the project IoT Lab for SME, which belongs to the research group EReS and is part of the multidisciplinary knowledge environment Digital Transformations. The project IoT Lab for SME is intended to strengthen the competitiveness of small and medium-sized companies with the help of connected technology. This can be done either by creating entirely new products or by optimising existing operations.

Ahlgren’s interest in technology and his work often mix together and he is passionate about coming up with practical applications for the IoT technology.

“I like it when things go from the drawing board to actual solutions as quickly as possible. I have been able to take part in the establishment of an entirely new research environment that we did not have in Kalmar before”, says Ahlgren.

On of the frames from connected beehives, full of bees and honey.
On of the frames from connected beehives, full of bees and honey.

Ahlgren and his colleagues have collaborations with a number of local businesses that have lots of ideas on how IoT can be implemented in their operations. They are, for instance, working with connected beehives for which you can use an app to check the temperature, sound level, humidity, how much honey has been produced, and whether the bees seem to be healthy.

Mikael Ekström from BeeLab and student Elin Björck blow smoke to keep the bees calm. Also on the roof is Fredrik Ahlgren.

Such a beehive can be found on the roof of one of the university’s buildings on the harbour campus in Kalmar.

Ahlgren’s team in the laboratory also helps restaurants and food companies to develop technology that can keep track of all steps in the production chain at a detailed level. Using smart sensors in restaurant fridges also makes it easier to keep the food fresh.

“This truly is a win-win situation where the companies receive help and we get new ideas on how to use IoT technology in entirely new ways!”, Ahlgren continues.

Ahlgren loves technology and lives as he preaches

Ahlgren’s great interest in machines and computers is evident also in his everyday life, and he truly lives as he preaches. His home office is something of an experimental lab. There is an abundance of cables and technology waiting to be experimented with, and he loves building things with 3D printers and various types of measurement equipment.

“My wife thinks I have way too much stuff at home, so I’ve had to move some of it to the office”, says Ahlgren.

Fredrik Ahlgren with his colleagues in the IoT Lab lab
Fredrik Ahlgren with his colleagues in the IoT Lab lab.

A fully connected home

The family lives in a house where most things are controlled and measured in different ways: everything from door locks, burglar alarm, surveillance, electricity meter, charging station, washing machine, and dryer to lamps and temperature sensors. Ahlgren is also planning to start measuring the family’s water consumption and hot water consumption, and, naturally, he has a smartwatch on his arm that is connected to many of the functions in the system he has developed himself. The watch keeps track of a whole range of things that Ahlgren does not want to miss. Among other things, it gives a beep when the mail is dropped into the physical mailbox at the house, and he can connect more or less any IoT applications he wants to the watch - which he has also done.

“More or less everything in our house is now measured in detail. I have also installed bathing water temperature sensors at the nearest swimming location, to know whether it is a good time to go down for a swim. What is more, I have built my own burglar alarm system, with both cameras and motion sensors. That my kids’ trip to and from school is connected goes without saying, and I receive a notification when they arrive at school and when they return home. My daughter shares my interest in technology, but my son and my wife are not as interested”, Ahlgren explains.

From naval officer to teacher at the university

Ahlgren’s journey to becoming an IoT guru has not been a straight path. He grew up in Åseda outside Växjö. After doing his military service, he remained in the navy where he worked as a naval officer for nine years. It was during his time at sea that he developed his interest in technology, and his work as a technical officer later led him to study to become a marine engineer. Shortly after, he realised that he wanted to do something else.

“When you work at sea, you often have to be away from home for long periods of time and this was not right for me. I had a family and children and wanted a job with normal working hours. I also felt that it would be easier to develop as a technician on land. When I was offered a deputy position at Kalmar Maritime Academy at Linnaeus University, to teach marine engineers, I said yes. This later resulted in a permanent position”, Ahlgren continues.

His time as a doctoral student

During this period, Kalmar Maritime Academy was to transition from being a higher vocational education institution to becoming an academic programme, which meant that research was to be conducted within maritime science. This opened up an opportunity for Ahlgren to delve deeper into his interest in technology, and in 2013 he started his doctoral studies at Kalmar Maritime Academy. The ensuing five years were then spent writing his doctoral thesis on the energy-efficiency of ships.

“It was fun going from being a lecturer to becoming a ‘student’ again. The overall objective of my thesis was to study how ships could save as much fuel as possible. I studied this by looking at existing ships and analysing enormous quantities of data from them. How much fuel do they use today? What do the existing energy systems look like? How do they manoeuvre? Having a marine engineering degree is uncommon among researchers within this field, and this proved a major advantage. I could also talk to the machine staff on board on equal terms”, Ahlgren explains.

Graphics illustrating Digital twins

Closing the circle

Ahlgren’s next career move was to go from maritime science to computer science. He has always had computers at home and done a lot of programming. During his doctoral studies, there was once again more focus on computers in Ahlgren’s work. His dissertation also came to include looking at what exciting things can be done with all the collected data, and how to build what we refer to today as ‘digital twins’ – for instance, a simulation of a ship. What is simulated can be anything from the travel route, fuel consumption, heating and cooling systems, waste disposal, to number of passengers, weather conditions, and many other parameters. This can be very helpful when you want to get an overview of what changes you need to make to save energy, or in other ways optimise operations onboard the ship.

Ahlgren studied machine learning and energy systems and wrote more and more computer science articles, analysing the results that had been collected, and little by little his focus shifted towards computer science.

“I defended my thesis in 2018 and both my wife and I felt at that time that we wanted to try living abroad for a while. Following an international exchange with the British Institute of Technology in Vancouver, Canada, I established new contacts also at University of British Columbia (UBC) in the same city. I really wanted to continue teaching in Vancouver and applied for a scholarship to live and work at UBC with my family during most of 2020”, Ahlgren continues.

Sometimes it pays off not being able to decide

Shortly before Ahlgren and his family were about to leave for Canada, he was offered a job at the Department of Computer Science and Media Technology at Linnaeus University. This was quite logical, as Ahlgren had had several collaborations with the department during his years at the university. He was also becoming more and more interested in computer science and in IoT in particular, but also in machine learning.

“When I started, I immediately got to take over responsibility for the software engineering programme and give courses in introductory programming. I also took part in the development of our project courses at IoT, which has become the main part of my teaching”, says Ahlgren.

Fredrik lectures at Linnaeus University Live. Photo: Joakim Palmqvist

A more connected future

Ahlgren predicts that we are moving towards an even more connected future, with a smoother use of technology than today, with fewer apps and fewer technical gadgets and more integrated and decentralised systems. He also believes that we will see a society in which AI (artificial intelligence) becomes more important and more advanced, for good and bad. Ahlgren can see both pros and cons in technology becoming connected to the Internet to an ever-increasing degree. On the one hand, increased collection of information can violate personal integrity, and on the other, the same technology can be fine-tuned to filter out and collect only the data that is truly required.

“I do not have any simple answers for how to solve potential problems that may arise as a result of an increasingly connected society, but I am convinced that the technological development will contribute with much more good than bad, and lead to our lives becoming simpler, healthier and a bit more fun”, Ahlgren concludes.