LoRa: The latest revolution in IoT wireless technologies

When considering the Internet of Things people often think of specific technologies, but in fact it consists of three separate level. The personal area networks, such as Bluetooth; local area networks, which include WiFi; and wide area networks, which up to this point could be pretty much equated to cellular networks. This last category is however being expanded with sensor networks, low power wide area networks developed specifically for Internet of Things applications.

One of the technologies that is getting a lot of attention in this field recently is LoRa (or LoRaWAN). It managed to become popular in part through the successful crowdfunded The Things Network initiative, but cellular providers are also looking to get a piece of the pie. It promises long range and low battery usage, and it’s aiming to power the next generation of Internet of Things applications as a worldwide standard for IoT communication. We’ll talk about what it can do, if it will be able to deliver, and what can be in it for your business.

This article was featured on Internet of Business.

High level technology overview

To understand if and where LoRa can be beneficial to your business, it’s important to know a little bit about the technology.

LoRa is developed by Semtech. They produce the chips (and recently licensed production to STMicroelectronics as well). This part of the protocol is proprietary. LoRaWAN however is an open communications protocol, managed by the LoRa Alliance, a non-profit organization with members such as Cisco and IBM. The fact that the protocol is open makes it very interesting for developing applications, as it makes the barrier of entry much lower.

The technology itself promises to be able to communicate wirelessly over a distance of up to 15 kilometer with a standard gateway, even though in ideal circumstances it should be possible to make up to 45 kilometer. Each gateway can handle a large number of nodes.

The battery life of the nodes is very long. A simple device with a single sensor, equipped with LoRa and connected to a 9 volt battery, should last up to 10 years. It is not yet battery-less, but enough to not have to worry about your equipment for a long time.

The bandwidth however is quite low: the maximum bandwidth is 32 kbit/s. To put this in perspective: the dial-up modems from way back when reached speeds of 40-50 kbit/s. Do keep in mind however that this network is of course not meant for browsing the Internet. If a sensor periodically has to broadcast its position or temperature, this speed will do just fine.

The protocol also supports bi-directional communication in three different modes. It also has built-in support for end-to-end encryption through the banking-strength AES128 algorithm. It also promises to support geolocation, although the existing equipment hasn’t been shown to be very accurate yet.

Finally, there are public providers for LoRa, but it is also possible to set up a private network using only your own gateways. In the private mode, it works similar to a WiFi network.

LoRa and other protocols

Of course, we already know and understand the WiFi, Bluetooth and cellular 3G/4G protocols. They’re on our phones and in all our devices, and it’s easy to work with through the existing knowledge. What does LoRa bring that these others can’t?

LoRa’s critical advantage over established protocols such as WiFi and Bluetooth are its enormously long range and its low power usage. Both WiFi and Bluetooth don’t even come close in this regard. Being able to equip a device with a battery and forgetting it for 10 years is a very powerful idea, and enables an “equip and forget” approach with your products.

Cellular networks can match LoRa when it comes to range and coverage thanks to the existing infrastructure. However, the costs of maintaining a cellular network are much higher than maintaining a LoRa infrastructure. This is because through LoRa, the used bandwidth is much lower, and as a result the demands on the underlying network will be much lower as well.

The logical consequence of this is that LoRa subscriptions are multiple factors cheaper than cellular network subscriptions.

The main disadvantage of LoRa however is exactly what enables its strengths, namely the low bandwidth. Furthermore, the protocol doesn’t allow continuous sending, due to rules on the frequency band it utilizes. Because of this, LoRa is only suited for short and periodical communications. And while the protocol supports bi-directional communication, actually using this has a direct consequence on battery life.

Applying LoRa

It is clear that LoRa will not replace WiFi or the other established protocols. Instead, it is aiming to find its own niche in the market. And because it has unique properties, it is also uniquely suited for a number of use cases.

LoRa is best applied in applications where the devices:
Have no access to electricity;
Are hard or impossible to access physically;
Are too numerous to equip with a costly cellular subscription;
Do not need instant feedback.

One of the most promising areas of application is asset tracking. It helps you answer questions such as where is my product, at what temperature is it stored and even whether your shipment still has the same weight as it had when it was initially loaded. LoRa seems to be the ideal technology for this. For transport companies this can be very interesting, but also even for producers, to track what exactly happens with their products.

Data measuring through sensors is another great use case for LoRa. It only needs periodic communication, and the sensors are often located in places that are impractical to access. Equipping an area or facility with sensors and connectivity used to require a sizeable investment only realistic for industrial-scale applications. With LoRa it can become realistic to mass-produce devices and spread them out over a large surface, such as an agricultural field.

Building automation could also be a promising area where LoRa can play a role. While WiFi and electricity is often easily available in buildings, the ease of being able to deliver a product that can simply be placed without a need for configuration can be very powerful.

It is not very probable that LoRa will play an important role in home automation. This is due to the established wireless technologies, the ubiquity of electricity in a home, and the importance of low latency in connections.

For wearables, LoRa will probably also only play a minor role. Carrying a device that is always connected and always on can be very useful. However, in most cases your smartphone will be able to satisfy this need just as well. Carrying around yet another device with its own subscription will not sound very appealing to most people.

Why LoRa is a great choice

There are many other technologies that have similar specifications to LoRa. One such technology is the French Sigfox, which is also fairly in Europe. Its coverage is currently better than LoRa and it is looking to expand worldwide.

The reason why LoRa is gaining in popularity however is mainly thanks to its open protocol. While you can become a network operator for Sigfox, you are always connected to the French network. This makes you always dependant on their infrastructure, also for privacy sensitive data.

In the case of LoRa however, operators and companies (and pretty much anyone else) can choose to set up their own networks and infrastructure. This makes an initiative as The Things Network possible, but it also allows commercial providers to roll out their own infrastructure and business model. And perhaps more importantly, as a business you can also set up your own private infrastructure for your own applications.

Finally, on the technical level, it looks like LoRa managed to find a great balance between battery life, bandwidth and features. The bandwidth in Sigfox for example is significantly lower, requiring longer transmission times and as such uses more energy. And of course the promise of geolocation in LoRa could be a true gamechanger if it works properly.

Summing up

LoRa is an extremely promising technology. While there are a number of other protocols that promise to do something similar, LoRa seems to have hit a sweet spot, thanks in part due to its open nature. It has also managed to get incredible traction, with providers worldwide rolling out networks, with The Things Network as a unique and exciting initiative. Whether LoRa will truly be a gamechanger remains to be seen, but it opens up a lot of innovative and new possibilities that could transform the Internet of Things.

LoRa is a very new technology however, and there are not many companies yet that can build systems utilizing it. This requires specialized knowledge, both on the technical level but also on a business level. Given the promises of the technology, it can however give businesses a real and immediate advantage over their competitors.

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