Petnet’s failure is a warning to IoT developers

News sites  and social media has been abuzz the last few days with the situation that the Petnet automated pet feeder was experiencing system failure raising significant questions about the reliability of connected devices.

The situation unfolded on Wednesday when angry PetNet owners posted a email from Petnet to Twitter which advised them:

“You may experience a loss of scheduled feeds and failed remote feedings. Please ensure that your pets have been fed manually until we have resolved this issue”.

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The Petnet is a smart pet feeder with features including ““intelligent sensor technology, learning algorithms, and processing power that assesses the dietary requirements of a pet” and a custom feeding schedule via a corresponding app with alerts to pet owners when their pet has been fed and reminders when food supplies are running low.  It’s usage scenarios may include when an owner is late home, wanting to avoid an early morning or of course on holidays. Thus, it’s understandable that pet owners have met the situation with outrage.

According to PetNet’s CEO, Carlos Herrera, the third-party server service, that the company rents from Google, had been down for around 10 hours and did not have redundancy backups, further claiming that PetNet was preparing to roll out a workaround to the problem, as explained to The Guardian. Herra further claimed that about 10% of PetNet users were affected, and that the feeders can operate on previously set schedules without this particular third-party service, though users lose the ability to feed remotely or change the feeding schedule.

The rise of the connected pet

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Connected pets are nothing new as the era of wearables and connected technology mean pet owners are able to gain greater insight into the needs and health of their furriest family members. Automated pet feeders of old are becoming replaced by digitised versions that claim to (depending on brand) not only supply feed and water on a regular basis but also check the quantity of food and water consumed;  notify you when pet food is running low; provide camera shots and video footage of your pets; enable you to talk to your pet via your phone or laptop and distinguish your cats from each other through facial recognition technology. You can even get specific RFID tagged devices to stop your pets from stealing each others food. At any time there’s an abundance of pet products on the market including at the time of writing, over 150 connected devices on Kickstarter seeking funds. But until this week the notion of what happens when the technology fails, placing our beloved pets potentially at risk has been notably absent.

Lessons from the PetNet’s failure

It’s been a while since I heard the term ‘internet of stupid’ but a number of people on twitter have assigned it to the IoT sector in light of this situation. Inherent with connected hardware design are possible failure scenarios like problems with internet connectivity, wifi, a residential blackout or the system needing a reboot/restart. These all should have been anticipated. Surely the possibility of system failure or even a failure in internet connectivity should have been anticipated in the design phase with worst case scenario plan available such as a back up feeding schedule connected to the local unit in case of such situations?

It’s noteworthy that whilst PetNet has been able to resolve their server problem in a reasonable time frame, the stress of the situation on holidaying pet owners cannot be underestimated. It really is a great opportunity for opponents of IoT to post pictures of vulnerable kittens and puppies waiting at home, alone for their dinner. A few twitter and facebook updates and an email does not do much to reassure people. However it is commendable that the company is contacting consumers directly to ensure their system is up and working.

The biggest lesson for consumers, is there need to read the fine print associated with any connected devices they purchase, especially where at risk scenarios may result. There are some interesting limitations of service that effectively ensure that PetNet is not held responsible for any service failures:

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The situation also raises the bigger issues about the viability of automated pet feeders as devices in themselves.  Few accommodate multi-pet families where different diets for different breeds or species are required, making the product impractical for many pet owners. Then there’s the real life realities of pet ownership. Food is a useful training tool for pet owners, especially for cats that typically employ disdain to any training attempts. Animals need regular human contact, affection and play and in the case of dogs, regular exercise. Are we going a step too far placing the nutritional needs of our animals at the mercy of the failure of connected devices?

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