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. Rain Master's Smart Controller Outsmarts The Thief

Fiel image.
by Staff Writers
Simi Valley CA (SPX) Jul 02, 2008
A Rain Master Eagle-i Irrigation Controller recently stolen out of a housing development just outside of Tucson traveled nearly 80 miles before rescuing itself. The smart controller is now back in place on the wall where it was originally pinched.

'The thieves were run over by technology and they had no idea what hit them," said Jim Sieminski, Chief Engineer at Rain Master, about the incident.

'In this day and age, something that may look passive like an irrigation controller may not be so passive. The thieves didn't realize they were removing equipment that features 2-way wireless communications via the Internet."

Technology tells the stolen controller story
Last November, a Maintenance Supervisor working for The Groundskeeper, a commercial landscape management company, received an error message from one of the 16 Rain Master Eagle-i controllers spread across Continental Ranch, a housing development in the Tucson suburb of Marana, Arizona.

'We're able to do the programming and communicate to the controllers through our laptops or Blackberries," said Glen Killmer, a branch manager for The Groundskeeper who is in charge of the Continental's acreage. 'This particular controller had stopped communicating."

A Groundskeeper irrigation technician sent to the site discovered that the piece of equipment, worth several thousand dollars, had disappeared.

Given the late autumn season, it was not necessary for Killmer to immediately replace the Eagle. He held out hope that perhaps the controller would turn up, even though the Marana Police Department informed him that was highly unlikely.

Three weeks later, the unexpected happened. The Maintenance Supervisor noticed a signal coming in from the stolen controller. 'He thought it was kind of odd that it was up and running," said Killmer. 'Whoever had stolen it had plugged it back in."

After sending a signal to the controller to go into rain shut-down mode, Killmer contacted Kevin Johnson of John Deere's Green Tech Division, the local Tucson distributor for Rain Master. Killmer asked Johnson if it was possible to locate the controller via the third party wireless carrier that monitors the signals to see if a location for the controller could be found.

Johnson thought it might be possible because the controller was a 2-way system rather than just a 1-way.

'The 2-way is what sets the Rain Master Controller apart from its competitors," explains Johnson. 'With the 1-way systems, a message can be sent to the controller, but there's no way for the controller to send a message back. With Rain Master, the unit confirms back that it received the message - that's how we were able to track it."

Johnson contacted Kevin Idukas, a Rain Master Support Supervisor at the company's headquarters in Simi Valley. 'He said that's a long-shot, that's crazy," recalls Killmer of Idukas' response. 'But then he said there was no harm in trying."

When Idukas subsequently contacted the wireless carrier, they triangulated the controller's signal, pinpointing a relatively small area where the unit had been reinstalled.

Using the GPS coordinates furnished by the wireless carrier, Idukas did a search on Google Earth and came up with an aerial photograph of its location.

'It was one of those America's dumbest criminal things," says Idukas. 'If these guys had only known what they had, they would have disabled the communications device and just used the basic controller by itself."

The law closes in
The Google map pinpointed the controller's location to the wall of a building on a ranch just off Interstate 10, approximately 75 to 80 miles away from Marana.

'I went down to the Marana Police Department and showed a detective the print-out of the Google map," said Killmer. 'I told them this was a case of grand theft."

Because the ranch in question was in Cochise County, the Marana police contacted the Cochise Sheriff's Department. A Cochise Sheriff's Deputy went out to the location, parking just outside the ranch entrance. Using binoculars, he spotted the Rain Master equipment at work in its new home.

The location of the controller now confirmed, the Marana Police Department sent deputies to the Cochise County ranch, where the ranch owner claimed she had no knowledge of the theft. When the deputies went to the actual site to dismantle the equipment, the controller was gone. Someone had been tipped to the investigation and had removed it.

Why are Smart Controllers so smart?
Smart controller 'internet' technology, first patented in 2003 by Rain Master, automatically adjusts water usage via a 2-way wireless communication system. The controller receives weather information on a daily basis and then sends commands to watering mechanisms to reflect the weather change. The 2-way wireless communication is also utilized to send alarm notification via email to the end user.

The Eagle-i combines an intelligent design with evapotranspiration (ET) technology, providing a variety of ET-based scheduling features that optimize the efficiency of water resource allocation for any irrigation application. When measuring flow, it automatically takes corrective action for station leaks, main line failures, or many other unscheduled events.

In addition to residential housing developments, the Eagle-i is used by municipalities, business parks, state parks and school districts.

And then, a surprise ending...
When the Marana Police reported back to The Groundskeeper that the controller had not been retrieved, Killmer abandoned his search for the errant device. 'I'd spent a lot of resources on this already - I didn't want to spend anymore," he explained. Instead, he presented the Continental Ranch Homeowner's Association with a proposal to replace the unit.

Three weeks later, a Groundskeeper Maintenance Supervisor discovered that the controller had been returned and was back in place. It is assumed that the thieves, worried that the police were still attempting to track them, decided to reverse course.

The incident brings Rain Master's 'Visionary Solutions to Water Management through Technology" to a new meaning of the term 'visionary.'

According to Mr. Killmer, not only does this technology work for recovering stolen timers, but 'the reliability and communication features that originally sold me on the product have proven themselves in the field," he said. 'The daily ET adjustments are saving maintenance time, money and of course water, which is a precious resource out here in the desert."

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