LoRa: Kickstarting IoT innovation in the UK
Written by: Alun Lewis | Published:

As interest in the Internet of Things grows Low Power Wide Area technologies are competing for the comms industry’s attention. One that’s widening user access is LoRa, explains Alun Lewis

While the cellular community is working on standards to provide the kinds of connectivity required by the IoT, such as LTE-M and NB-IoT, other unlicensed spectrum solutions have been appearing from multiple other directions.

The main current options in this field, each with its own strengths, weaknesses, supporting business models and promoter and user communities are known as Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) technologies: SIGFOX, Weightless, Ingenu, nWave – and LoRa. The last, in particular, has cost and performance characteristics that are generating huge interest from an incredibly diverse community, ranging from local communities of geeks and engineering enthusiasts to some of the largest high-tech companies on the planet.

Meeting machines’ needs
Until very recently if you wanted to deploy M2M technology to monitor assets your choice was limited to using a mobile service provider for the connectivity element. You bought a SIM, put it in your device, bought a subscription and away you went.

The trouble with this approach is that ‘machines’ – which can include vehicles, fixed plant, electronic displays, utility meters, fitness and health monitors and so on – have very different needs to either consumer or business users of 2G/3G/4G services.

Machines may only need to wake up once or twice a day to transmit back small bits of information gathered from connected sensors. Used collectively and in conjunction with data analytic tools these tiny payloads can add up to provide incredibly valuable insights and new revenue streams for their owners. Unfortunately, comparatively high cellular tariffs meant that only really mission-critical M2M/IoT applications involving high-value assets could be justified and supported.

On top of this, cellular technologies in their current forms are very power hungry and it fast becomes a logistical nightmare having to replace batteries on potentially thousands of scattered devices.

As a result, the last two or three years have seen the appearance of a number of different LPWA technologies – designed to resolve these and other implicit problems such as building penetration or wide coverage from minimal base stations, and to give the ‘things’ the kind of connectivity they need.

The race is now on between each of these – and with the cellular communities’ own technologies mentioned above – to become the LPWA technology of choice for an infinitely interconnected IoT world.

Enter LoRa
LoRa comprises two elements – the physical radio layer and the networking protocol – and is supported by the not-for-profit LoRa Alliance. The radio element is proprietary to Semtech Corporation, can support both mesh and star topologies, and uses the ISM spectrum – in the UK that’s 868 MHz – to cover distances up to around 25 kilometres.

Chip suppliers Microchip and STM Microelectronics have both announced availability of LoRa components and more manufacturers will likely respond given the apparent rapid expansion of the market. Gateways and other LoRa devices are available from companies such as MultiTech Systems and Pycom.

The networking protocol – LoRaWan – is an open standard that’s freely available for developers to exploit and is managed by the LoRa Alliance.

In just over a year the Alliance has acquired more than 200 member companies and more than 4,000 specification downloads. On top of this the functionalities of the technology continue to grow, with work underway to add both non-GPS positioning and network roaming.

What’s especially interesting about LoRa is that in contrast to its nearest competitor SIGFOX it is being adopted by incredibly diverse users around the world. These include local community groups and municipal authorities, small enterprises, utilities, and system integrators. A number of mobile providers such as Orange, Bouygues Telecom, KPN, Proximus, SK Telecom and Swisscom are also deploying the technology to complement their cellular infrastructure.

The Things Network
Of particular importance here is the rapidly growing The Things Network, launched last autumn as a crowdsourced venture by Dutch entrepreneur and innovator Wienke Giezeman. Providing access to a growing market of low-cost LoRa devices and gateways that make it feasible for all types of players to enter the game, Things Networks have been set up in numerous locations around the world. They offer applications as diverse as alerting barge owners in Amsterdam to leaks on their boats via SMS to tracking endangered rhinos in Zimbabwe.

One example of what’s being done in the UK is Flood Network – an initiative that partly grew out of work led by innovator Ben Ward in building the Oxford Flood Network. Ward explains: “The Oxford Flood Network comprises a number of wireless water level sensors that detect levels of water around the city to visualise flooding and river conditions.

“The sensor network design gives a much higher spatial resolution than the Environment Agency’s network,” Ward adds, “and at a tiny fraction of the cost, making it suitable for temporary deployment for catchment studies, community projects and site-specific monitoring. Similar networks have or are now being rolled out by other ground-up teams in Dorset, Herefordshire, Culverdale, Leeds and the Isle of Wight.”

The IoT community joins in
UK companies from the IoT space, such as Stream Technologies in Glasgow, are also using LoRa platforms to help communities explore the emerging possibilities of accessible and affordable IoT spaces. Alan Tait, Stream’s CTO, explains: “In Glasgow we’ve set up a LoRa test network that is managed by our IoT-X platform. We’ve already got a wide range of partners from industry, academia and enterprise coming together to showcase various applications such as smart cities, intelligent transport and several smart campus projects with the three Glasgow universities.

“LoRa has a number of advantages over its closest rivals – it’s open, has good range, is low cost and isn’t controlled by one major provider,” Tait adds. “There are some mobile network operators deploying LoRa networks in other parts of the world, but the vast majority are smaller private networks that can be set up and managed for a very low capital expenditure.”

The LoRa community often points out that once you have a network set up for your own ends you can then sell capacity on it to other users. You wouldn’t necessarily trust it for truly mission-critical purposes, but its cost and coverage make it attractive for some applications – like tracking lost cats as one project in Reading is proposing.

Devices, gateways and hardware
New developers and manufacturers are also recognising the potential LoRa brings to IoT innovation, using inventive models to fund R&D.

Fred de Haro, a co-founder of Pycom (a start-up IoT module manufacturer), says: “We have been totally overwhelmed by the support for our LoPy Kickstarter campaign; an IoT development board featuring LoRa WAN, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth that also doubles up as a Nano gateway. The project was fully funded in just five days, was selected as a Kickstarter ‘Project We Love’, and now has more than 1,000 mixed enterprise and developer backers from 56 countries who have pledged 176 per cent of our initial funding goal. Funding options for the LoPy start at just €29, which will provide the backer with one LoPy board. The LoPy’s LoRa Nano gateway feature also means users don’t necessarily need access to a LoRa network.”

The Pycom team is currently working with a number of LoRa network providers to ensure wide access when the product ships in August 2016. For some backers this will mean free access to and use of LoRa networks. For example, Senet, a LoRa network operator in the US, has pledged that it will give all LoPy backers free access for up to two LoPy units.

The importance of networking groups
What’s fascinating about the role of LoRa is its potential to open up access to IoT innovation to companies and community groups who previously would have been excluded. Before anyone dismisses the role of ground-up innovation, let them consider where the world might be now without the activities of the Home Brew Computer Club in 1970s Menlo Park in California, a starting point for many famous names such as Steve Wozniak.

Duncan Purves is the founder of the IoT Thames Valley Meetup Group, one of the earliest IoT communities to start up in this country. Purves takes up the story:

“Delivering a IoT solution is complex and necessarily involves a large number of vendors and partnerships. That’s why an IoT ecosystem networking group like the Thames Valley Meetup is essential.

When I set up my consultancy business, 2 Insight Ltd, in 2013, I wanted to develop my network within the IoT community, so I joined the IoT London meet-up group. Given the Thames Valley’s technical heritage I felt strongly there should be something more local and this led me set up this group.

The IoT Thames Valley group is open – and free – for business, academic, public sector and technical professionals interested in the IoT who wish to network, share knowledge and experiences and develop business opportunities. We have more than 700 people/members from large corporates to one-man start-ups. Anyone from across the IoT community be it vendors, hardware and software developers, designers, project managers, technologists, students, consultants, geeks and makers as well as angel investors and lawyers.

We meet approximately every two months and the agenda typically comprises a number of short presentations with the bulk of the time dedicated for face-to-face networking. We have had speakers from range of companies both large – IBM, Intel, Oracle and Microsoft – to small start-ups on subjects ranging from customer uses, IoT standards, platforms, products, services and technology. These also include the emerging LPWAN systems of SIGFOX, Weightless and LoRaWAN. At the next Meetup in May we plan to have talks about the future developments of cellular narrowband IoT (NB-IoT).

We also run developer workshops. In January we supported a workshop for building a simple sensor device using an Arduino and a LoRaWAN shield, and connecting it to the open crowdsourced IoT data network, The Things Network, which is based upon LoRaWAN technology. This has led to members of the group being actively engaged in local initiatives, developing IoT solutions and deploying The Things Network around Reading.”

Wider perspectives
Robin Duke-Woolley, founder and CEO of specialist IoT analyst company Beecham Research, points out there are some things to bear in mind: “LPWA is a broad technology term and refers to making IoT connections using an increasing range of different technologies. What the market is tending to do is compare these technologies without that much reference to the applications they need to support. In other words, the market is beginning to look at LPWA technologies in the wrong way and this is adding to the confusion rather than clarifying the options.”

On the subject of UK mobile operator strategies, Duke-Woolley says: “In general these are looking at cellular variants to provide connectivity, in particular LTE-M and NB- IoT. There is no doubt that these will find a market. To some extent though we anticipate that the ISM band services will be cheaper and will cover a range of applications that are not economic for MNOs to address as well as competing directly with MNOs. I suspect the MNOs will not have it all their own way and it would be a good thing from a market

development perspective if they do not.” Finally, there’s the critical aspect of security to consider in what’s becoming an infinitely interconnected world. Rob Miller, senior security consultant at MWR InfoSecurity, explains how to build LoRa systems that are provably secure against cyber-attack: “Despite LoRa being a relatively new standard adoption is accelerating at a significant pace. With industries scrambling to take advantage of this emerging protocol MWR noticed a lack of practical LoRa security guidance available and sought to close the gap.”

During the research Miller noted that while several effective security features are designed into LoRa, companies should not consider the protocol secure out of the box. “Simply stating that a technology ‘uses AES- 128 encryption’ does not mean that solutions using this technology are therefore secure,” he says. “It should be clear to all developers that using LoRa does not guarantee security. Instead they should build LoRa solutions with the potential attacks in mind, especially as they’ll be used in systems ranging from home security through to monitoring and controller infrastructure.

“Secure systems can be developed by understanding LoRa’s security features, as long as developers accept that they are not a silver bullet. Knowing the different ways that a LPWAN solution can be attacked allows a system to be built to defend, detect and respond to cyber attacks,” Miller concludes.

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