A Match Made in IoT: How Bluetooth® Smart and LoRaWAN™ Technologies can be Joined to Dramatically Change the Range of Wireless IoT Implementations

Jonathan Kaye – Director of Product Management – Connectivity Solutions, Laird  – Courtesy of www.design.avnet.com

Every product engineer I know is up to their eyeballs in IoT (Internet of Things) design projects. Their pipeline is full of initiatives related to designing and deploying ultra-low power wireless devices and networks of devices for every industry under the sun, with a requirement that the implementation be reliable and secure. The sheer volume of IoT projects in those pipelines is a testament to how many applications there are for IoT devices in a world where the absence of wires opens up so many possibilities. But the reality is that most IoT design projects today have a rather limited focus. They focus on implementations that place IoT devices in environments that have convenient access to telecommunications infrastructure providing the longer-distance data communications (via the Internet, typically) that allow these personal-area or local-area networked devices to be monitored and controlled from afar.

Being able to communicate over distance in a cost-effective way is vitally important to enterprise-level IoT (which Laird refers to as EIoT) because of the environments where companies want to deploy these wireless devices. The locations for EIoT projects are dramatically different than a typical residential, consumer-level IoT use, and EIoT applications also require enhanced reliability, security and comprehensive interoperability that are far higher than the needs of general IoT technologies. Industries such as manufacturing, healthcare, financial services and utilities have far more stringent technical and security requirements because of the nature of how the devices are used, the sensitivity of the data collected and regulatory requirements. EIoT addresses those needs with a higher standard for uptime, data protection, intrusion prevention and more.

Being able to communicate over distance in a cost-effective way is vitally important to enterprise-level IoT…

Most EIoT implementations today use immediately accessible copper, fiber or cell connectivity to allow these networks of wireless devices to support two-way communication, transferring data back to a central location and receiving instructions from the people managing the devices. But despite the ubiquity of telecommunications infrastructure in urban locations, there are locations all over the map where that connectivity is nowhere to be found. That is particularly true for industrial implementations, which so often include remote sites and equipment such as holding tanks, pipelines, water treatment facilities, oil and gas equipment and more. These sites can be dozens or hundreds of miles from “civilization.” For these locations, IoT deployments are on an island with no cost-effective way to monitor or interact with the short-range network of devices that are located far off the beaten path.

avt-201610-laird-article4-bt-v1The most widely-used short-range wireless technology used in enterprise IoT deployments is Bluetooth® Low Energy (also referred to as Bluetooth® Smart and BLE). BLE is a popular solution for very clear reasons. Its power efficiency is excellent, allowing it to power devices for very long periods on a very small battery thanks to the intelligent management of sleep and active cycles. BLE also offers excellent RF signal strength even in difficult environments with lots of competing signals, RF noise, physical obstructions and nonstop vibrations from equipment. BLE has been an important ingredient in the forward momentum of Internet of Things deployments. However, for EIoT to truly reach its potential in the industrial world and in other industries faced with wireless devices in remote locations, short-range wireless technology needs a complementary technology that can provide a vehicle for longer-range communications in the absence of telecom infrastructure. That is where LoRaWAN™ technology comes in because it dramatically changes the geography of where IoT implementations can go.

avt-201610-laird-article4-lr-v1LoRa® is a new wireless technology that is often times referred to as a LPWAN (Low-Power Wide Area Network) solution because it provides secure, bi-directional data transfer and communications with IoT networks over long distances for years without a battery change. It can send and receive signals up to ten miles, and that distance can be extended much farther with repeaters that can extend the distance to hundreds of miles if needed. When LoRa is paired with short-range Bluetooth Smart technology in a single, integrated solution, the geographic restrictions that previously existed for EIoT implementations can be mitigated in a way that makes it possible for these low-power, short-range device networks to go nearly anywhere an engineer can think of without the need to build telecom infrastructure up to the site. For sites where cell service is available but expensive because of lack of competition in remote locations, this marriage of LoRa and BLE also makes EIoT implementations cost-effective where they previously were not due to the high cost of network fees when using a cell connection.

LoRa technology works exceedingly well for battery-powered networks of IoT devices because, like BLE, it is also an ultra-low-power technology that can operate for an extended time on a battery and requires very infrequent maintenance. The nodes are inexpensive and allow companies to bypass the high cost of cellular data fees or fiber/copper installation, which removes a major cost barrier to remote locations and means zero ongoing data charges. LoRa also works very well with device networks located indoors, including in difficult industrial environments, which might otherwise present difficult challenges to other technologies. LoRa is also highly-scalable and highly-interoperable, supporting up to a million nodes and compatible with both public and private networks for the data backhaul and bi-directional communications. The tradeoff for using a low-power, ultra-long-range technology like LoRa is throughput, which makes it a poor fit for applications that require streamed data.  But this limitation does not come into play with a wide range of IoT applications where small batches of event data are being delivered.

Talking about the technical capabilities of LoRa on their own, however, misses the point when it comes to EIoT applications. The true significance of LoRa is what it can do as a complement to other technologies like BLE, which is at the heart of so many of the IoT design project AXIOM readers are working on today. Simply put: BLE and LoRa are kindred spirits in the world of wireless technology because both are designed with a common goal in mind—make it possible for IoT devices to go anywhere, and to do so with ultra-low power consumption.

  • BLE makes that possible in the short range with all of its attributes that allow sensors, controls and other devices to be squeezed into any nook and cranny a company wants them—and then controllable via smartphones/tablets that serve as remote wireless displays.
  • LoRa makes that possible over the longer range by allowing all of those devices in nooks and crannies to be located in any geographic location on the map where a company wants them.

Those qualities make LoRa and BLE a match made in heaven—or more specifically, a match made in IoT—and opens up a much wider world for EIoT deployments in the process.

… BLE and LoRa are kindred spirits in the world of wireless technology because both are designed with a common goal in mind—make it possible for IoT devices to go anywhere, and to do so with ultra-low power consumption.

avt-201610-laird-article4-rm1xx-v1To help simplify the process of deploying LoRa, Laird has developed the first wireless module that combines LoRaWAN and Bluetooth Smart technology—giving product designers and wireless engineers a solution that integrates both the long-range and short-range capabilities into a single solution. Named the RM1xx series, this LoRa+BLE module aggregates and transmits data from Bluetooth Smart devices and sensors over the LoRa protocol to gateways as far as 10 miles away—all with power efficiency that enables the module to operate on very low power for extended periods of time. The RM1xx is also designed to accelerate the timeline for development projects, including the use of smartBASIC programming language, which enables developers to create event-driven, host-less applications quickly and easily. It also features advanced security and other capabilities that make it ideal for enterprise-class IoT initiatives.

The number of applications that we have heard from customers and partners for the pairing of LoRa and BLE is remarkable. For example, a customer in the industrial field is mapping out a project for monitoring sensors on water, fuel and chemical tanks throughout a remote facility where there would be too many obstacles to establishing bi-directional communications with traditional telecom infrastructure. The LoRa+BLE implementation will aggregate and relay information back to a central server alerting plant managers about levels that are concerning well before they rise to the level of a crisis. This will enable them to better monitor and manage a facility that they originally thought would be too costly or difficult to add to their IoT-enabled facility management protocol.

A straight-forward illustration of LoRa+BLE in action is outlined in this overview of a design project for using the RM1xx module to collect temperature data from a BLE sensor and forward it over the LoRaWAN network to be processed. Engineers who have worked on EIoT projects in the past will immediately recognize how the LoRa+BLE pairing enables much longer distances for implementations of wireless sensor networks. The case study also shows the simplicity of the programming aspect of these projects, which would be far more complex and time-consuming without the built-in smartBASIC and pre-built components that are part of the Laird module.

To learn more about LoRa technology, please visit the website of the LoRa Alliance, which has a wealth of materials for both the beginner and the user already familiar with LoRa: https://www.lora-alliance.org/. And for more information about what is possible when LoRa is paired with BLE, please visit: http://www.lairdtech.com/products/rm1xx-lora-modules.

Jonathan Kaye

Jonathan Kaye is the Product Director for Laird’s Connectivity Solutions business unit, which provides a full range of embedded wireless modules and other solutions that simplify the process of using wireless technology. Mr. Kaye has nearly 20 years of experience in the embedded wireless and product design field, including positions at EZURiO and Lever Technology before joining Laird over 10 years ago. He can be reached at jonathan.kaye@lairdtech.com.

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