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Company helps prevent costly theft, catch culprits

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When you walk away from your car, you just hit a button to arm its security system.

But what does a farmer do when he has to leave one of those gigantic irrigation systems in a farm field miles from anyone able to keep an eye on the valuable equipment?

Turns out, technology can provide some security for that, too.

In the early morning hours of March 21, Columbus farmer Albert O’Conner got an alert on his phone that someone was tampering with irrigation equipment on his farmland on South Gladstone Avenue. The call didn’t come from a passer-by or the police. It came from a device on the irrigation system called Wire Rat.

The device, created and marketed since 2010 by Bloomington company Net Irrigate, gives farmers a way to fight back against a growing crime problem — theft of copper wire inside irrigation systems positioned in isolated farm fields throughout Indiana.

This was the third time thieves had targeted O’Conner’s irrigation system, he said.

Copper wiring thefts in rural areas — particularly of the large irrigation systems — have become a growing problem countywide, said

Maj. Todd Noblitt, chief deputy for the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department.

Stripping the copper wire out of an irrigation system can cost $10,000 to repair and put the system out of commission for up to a month.

In the March 21 case, Wire Rat did what it was supposed to do. It sent a wireless message to O’Conner notifying him that someone was tampering with his irrigation system, and informed him specifically which irrigation system it was — including the specific field. That allowed O’Conner to notify the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department with necessary details.

Deputies arrested a suspect who likely never knew that a security system was in place, and that’s by design, according to Edward DeSalle, Net Irrigate company founder and general manager.

“The Wire Rat is designed to look like a regular part of the irrigation system,” DeSalle said.

It has tamper-proof screws and other design aspects that would make it difficult for a thief to disable. If someone attempted it disable it, the device would immediately report the tampering and alert the owner, he said.

The way Wire Rat works, and what makes it unique, is that it is battery powered. The design allows the battery on the newest models to last up to five years.

The device will text, email or call up to 10 wireless devices regarding any tampering or attempted theft on the irrigation device, DeSalle said. The device costs about $1,350 and is installed through a network of dealers who offer it at agriculture trade shows or through irrigation system sales.

Wire Rat is only one of the products produced by Net Irrigate, but it has experienced a big growth jump — 46 percent from 2012 to 2013 — as copper wire thefts have increased nationwide, he said.

The idea for his company was a class project in 2006 at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business.

DeSalle and another student came up with an idea to give farmers the technology to remotely monitor how their irrigation system was working — how much water was it using and what days it was in use. He worked on the software-technology side of the project, while the other student came from a big farm in Kansas.

After graduating, DeSalle, on his own, started his company and offered the technology to farmers who wanted to be able to monitor systems remotely on their phone or other mobile device.

In 2010, a irrigation system dealer who had heard about the technology mentioned the increasing copper thefts and suggested adding a security component. That’s when engineering began for Wire Rat.

The name itself came from a brainstorming session among company employees.

The moniker “wire rat” has been used in other ways in the past — those in the military use the term for techies who travel ahead to a military base of operations and wire it up for operations.

There’s also the connotation of “ratting someone out” without them knowing about it, DeSalle said.

The company has a patent request in on the technology for the device and sees nothing but growth potential for the idea of wireless monitoring and security, DeSalle said.

“There are 26 billion connected wireless devices — and it’s expanding,” he said.

Eventually, almost anything, from washing machines to cars, will be able to be monitored remotely — and right now only about 15 to 20 percent of the potential market is offering the remote monitoring capability, he said.

For O’Conner, he’s not so worried about monitoring everything. Just knowing the device worked on his irrigation system has him sold on why it’s worth investing in the remote monitoring.

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