LORA use skyrockets as demand for low-power long-range IOT soars

Long-range-low-power (LORA) protocol adoption has soared worldwide over the past year, as organisations across all sectors seek lower power longer range and secure solutions for IOT. This is according to Christo Keyser, IOT Engineer at Comsol, who notes that adoption is set to surge in South Africa soon.

“South Africa only has one publicly operated LORA network through Comsol, although there are in the region of 1.2 million LORA gateways deployed worldwide,” he says.

“During lockdown in 2020, LORA usage and deployment skyrocketed. It’s becoming a fast-growing standard as a result of its low power consumption delivered over long distances, and the market is realising that the LORA technology is more advanced than other low power networks for the delivery of data.”

Unpacking IOT

Keyser defines IOT as connecting physical devices embedded with sensors and software to monitor and control anything over the internet – and is not about people. “It’s about picking up sensor values from the field, such as detecting soil temperature or motion remotely in real-time. People also want computers to make decisions instead of forwarding the data to a human for evaluation. They want this process to be automated, sending the data to a bigger decision-making app at the back-end so it can decide on the appropriate next step,” he says.

However, for this to work, the data has to be digitised. Keyser explains: “This means taking the analogue values that are received from sensors and devices in the field and digitising the data so that computers can make decisions based on it.”

Digitising and analysing the data means you can identify trends. “If the temperature drops below a predetermined number in a greenhouse, the system will generate an alarm and the computer can automatically take the appropriate action to increase the temperature.”

Connecting data streams

Organisations usually want to connect multiple IOT data streams, for example, combining weather forecasts with actual data against soil conditions to identify trends that could impact farming operations, he says.

Keyser cites the example of a smart city initiative, where sensors were placed on 10 parking bays, two of which were for disabled users. It was quickly detected that those two bays specifically were occupied briefly but frequently in the early morning and late afternoon. It was then determined that people were using those bays for drop-and-go, prompting the client to allocate bays specifically for drop-and-go purposes, so freeing up the disabled parking bays.

The importance of low power

Sensors need to send small data packages (such as from a motion detector, tracking device or thermometer) over large distances without requiring frequent battery changes. “This brings us to the role of LPWAN (low-power wide-area network) and LORA (long-range-low-power),” he says. “LORA is a relatively new secure protocol used to send data from devices in the field typically using battery-operated devices for power-scarce areas or where it’s just not practical to have power.

LORA is perfect for that. A LORA sensor will wake up, send the message, then go back to sleep – effectively leveraging an event-based triggering philosophy. The encrypted data passes through a fleet of gateways to pass the message to the LNS (LORA Network Server).”

Most battery-powered devices last between one and five years before the battery needs to be replaced and have the benefit of requiring very little power yet being able to transmit data over a long range.

LORA vs GSM

A LORAWAN network has multiple advantages over a GSM network, Keyser explains: “While LORA gateways typically use a broadband internet connection to transmit its data, where no such connection exists, occasional use is made of the GSM network to transport data from the gateway to the main network controller.

The big advantage is seen when the end device is a cellphone or a tracker that uses GSM because they require a lot more power. Says Keyser: “Yes, you can transmit a lot more data on GSM but the power usage makes it difficult to have a battery-powered device that can last. Also, one has to consider the distance between an end device and a cellphone tower, which affects the distance and speed at which the data can be transmitted. A sensor would have to be located closer to a GSM tower than a LORA tower.”

LORA also offers advantages over GSM on cost, he notes. “LORA devices are priced lower than GSM devices, which makes the expansion of solutions and applications that much more affordable. Traditionally, GSM devices need a SIM card, which adds the complexity of managing multiple SIM cards across many devices. LORA doesn’t require a SIM card to provision and manage end devices,” he says.

Long-range in the field

While in urban areas and shopping centres less long-distance coverage is required, LORA solutions are invaluable for agricultural applications and use in-game reserves or smart city applications.

LORA devices can be deployed in remote areas that don’t have cellphone signals, he says.

As an open standard, anyone can set up a LORA network and use the public network. Keyser equates it to a public WiFi network. “A service provider maintains the WiFi access points and the network, the user just subscribes to it and uses it.”

There are myriad applications, Keyser says: tracking livestock, assets, monitoring crops and weather, retrieving water meter readings and, yes, even tracking your dog are just a few examples, reaching across agriculture, mining, logistics, smart cities and facilities management, to mention a few.

Differentiating in the LORA arena

Because LORA offers multiple benefits that include low power, long battery life, long-distance to transmit and low-cost devices, it is now one of the most cost-effective value propositions in the IOT ecosystem.

What sets a LORA network operator apart from the competition? Keyser clarifies: “Because anyone can set up a LORA network, the operator needs to establish a differentiator which typically is going to be the LORA network server that optimises the solution and battery life of the devices. In addition, helping users by setting up the network and managing sites with radio gateways is a significant value-add. The majority of users are only interested in the end result, ie, the data. So, helping them to source sensors, designing a network for them and helping them with a dashboard that shows their data can prove invaluable.

“Your typical IOT project contains three elements: there’s the sensor in the field, on an asset, or inside a building that records real-world values and transmits it as a radio message. The transportation of that message through the internet network. Then thirdly, there’s the application back-end or dashboard, where the data is saved, analytics carried out and action is taken. Offering this as a managed solution can assist customers to benefit from opportunities in emerging technologies such as cloud, AI, big data and smart devices without having to invest in the prerequisite infrastructure or skills, freeing the customer to focus on their core business and not the enabling technology.”

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