The massive network of connected devices and sensors known as the Internet of Things (IoT) is growing at an increasingly swifter rate as new technologies provide unprecedented connectivity to more and more devices.
By Jonathan Kaye Senior Director, Product Management at Laird Connectivity
Ericsson predicts around 29 billion connected devices by 2020 with 18 billion related to IoT such as smart meters, street lights, security sensors, and industrial controls. However, to thrive in remote areas, the IoT will need a substantial infrastructure for its foundation. Most current networks (including cellular) were developed with high-speed or high-throughput applications in mind, some IoT applications are better served by the emerging Low Power Wide Area Networking (LPWAN) solutions.
Low Power Wide Area Networking (LPWAN) is a product category that includes both proprietary and open-source technologies designed to allow long-range communications at a low bit rate between connected objects, such as sensors operated on a battery. Essentially, these solutions provide wireless connectivity to extremely power-conscious devices in networks that can blanket an area as “small” as a factory floor or as large as an entire city.
The technology makes it possible for sensors and gateways to enable data acquisition, manage controls, and generate meaningful insights among the devices it connects. Some of these devices operate in applications that just a few years ago were considered impractical, inefficient, and costly to connect over long distances via traditional networks - examples include utilities, agriculture, and transportation. LPWAN is emerging as a robust, reliable wireless infrastructure for connecting and managing these devices in real world systems.
While many protocols exist in this space, the most promising and flexible is LoRa, developed by the LoRa Alliance and powered by LoRa chipsets from Semtech. The LoRa Alliance is a non-profit collective of more than 500 member companies that aim to standardise LPWAN worldwide via LoRa technology.
With the release of version 1.0 in June 2015, the LoRaWAN specification demonstrated equanimity of deployment costs, flexibility, and performance. Its core strengths make it an ideal LPWAN solution for IoT, eliminating many challenges associated with provisioning such a network, including power consumption, third-party providers, subscription costs, and risk considerations. Let’s take a look at the protocol’s key differentiators:
Generally, LPWAN technologies can be evaluated in terms of three primary characteristics: power consumption, range, and cost. LPWAN’s strength is its connectivity over long ranges utilising minimal power, but figures vary among competing solutions. LoRaWAN is ideal for IoT applications because it achieves data rates up to 27 kbps — which is suitable for the vast majority of LPWAN applications — and can collect data from thousands of nodes deployed kilometres away from a single node.
Likewise, when compared to LTE-M cellular solutions, LoRaWAN provides the same or greater range but is much less expensive. In a large and competitive field of LPWAN options, LoRa provides the most reliable path to connectivity.
While competing solutions require users to connect through existing gateways maintained by carriers for a fee, LoRaWAN enables connection via either an open (public) network or a closed (private) network.
No other current LPWAN solution offers this self-contained, full-ownership option, which mitigates the risk of entering the IoT space only to discover down the line that the provider plans to cease its support of the LPWAN offering. Additionally, this model eliminates monthly subscription costs and provides total end-to-end data control.
LoRa balances throughput and range, optimising both while using minimal power, making it a sound IoT solution. LoRaWAN Class A nodes—such as the Sentrius Series RM1xx or RS1xx sensor—achieve either a maximum range (up to 15km, around ten miles), a maximum data rate (~21.9 kbps), or a balance of each as is required by the application.
Class A LoRaWAN nodes are extremely power-conscious, only enabling their ultra-efficient 10 mA RF receivers to operate briefly after transmission, which is especially beneficial for battery-operated remote devices. All LoRa-enabled nodes and gateways are interoperable and can be certified with the LoRa Alliance, ensuring your device can migrate easily to any desired network.
In addition to AES-128 security, LoRaWAN employs a scheme of device, application, and network security keys to authenticate end nodes and secure their traffic. This three-level approach ensures that only trusted devices can interface with a device and its application.
This provides both public and private networks with heightened intelligence and the ability to screen and authorise the nodes participating in the network. LoRaWAN offers the kind of robust security that IoT networks will demand as the emergent wave of connected devices approaches.
While the benefits of the LoRaWAN protocol are clear, there is still the question of which products best maximise an LPWAN’s performance. As the growing number of LoRA Alliance member companies demonstrates, a variety of solutions are available, all leveraging the unique properties of the protocol to enhance IoT applications.
LoRa-enabled nodes are arranged in a star topology, with a gateway (or central hub for all node activity) connected to many nodes within range. Gateways bridges node data over the internet for storage, access, and processing. Because LoRaWAN is bidirectional, data also can be pushed down to the client, triggering actions based on insights from the cloud or for administrative purposes.
LoRa modules can elevate the structure of LoRaWAN to the next level. For example, the RM1xx was the first LoRa-enabled module that also contains Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology. This creates a more powerful and flexible ‘star-of-stars’ topology in which the RM1xx module acts as a bridge between the personal area network of Bluetooth v4.0 and the wide area network of LoRaWAN.
This enables BLE devices — which usually offer a range of just a few meters — to communicate for miles with the RM1xx, facilitating a massive array of new applications. Additionally, with a sensor like Laird’s RS1xx self-contained LoRa+BLE, users can transmit up-to-date temperature and humidity data directly to the RG1xx gateway with minimal setup and configuration. The benefits of such technology for countless IoT applications are clear:
Sensor data can provide business intelligence that informs strategies for maintaining efficiency and productivity, particularly in manufacturing. Via LoRaWAN, sensors can monitor and report—from the floor across an entire facility—output versus targets, downtime versus uptime, and other critical metrics.
Modules like the Sentrius Series RM1xx excel when connected to home security devices like door, window, and motion sensors.
An RM1xx-powered home security system can broadcast its status regularly to a monitoring station via a gateway. As many as eight BLE peripherals can connect to the system via a single module, creating a hub of smart BLE home sensors.
Municipal assets management
Cities and towns gain more control over street lights, traffic signals, and other municipal equipment with LoRa. Signal and sensor data can be collected over LoRaWAN faster and with greater accuracy, improving traffic flow and pedestrian safety.
Sensors can catalogue environmental data to help city planners in assessments, while damaged devices automatically can alert technicians that they need repair, saving downtime and avoiding traffic snarls. The technology could remedy many logistics issues faced by larger cities, but tracking assets across large areas requires a full-scale network. With LoRaWAN, such a network is easy to build and maintain.
The open-source LoRaWAN network protocol offers many advantages for IoT connectivity compared to other wireless technologies. Combining long-range data transmission with low-power operation, the LoRaWAN protocol is ideal for battery powered systems that require internet connectivity. LoRaWAN targets additional key IoT requirements including bi-directional communication, end-to-end security, mobility, and localisation services.
These benefits are enabling a wide range of use cases that will continue to expand deployments of LoRaWAN IoT networks around the world.