Scaling the IoT in 2021

Marc Pegulu, Vice President Wireless LoRa and IoT at Semtech.

The coming year will see dramatic changes in the Internet of Things (IoT). Key technologies are coming together for scalable networks of low-cost sensors that will enable the promise of the IoT.

From the smart factory in Industry to 4.0 through the smart city to smart retail and into the smart home, wireless technology is becoming seamless. This is down to both key technology developments in low power wide area networks (LPWAN) and the cloud.

LPWAN technology allows a significantly longer range than cellular links, with associated lower power consumption and cost. This lower cost is both in the sensors and the wireless transceivers themselves, where chip costs continue to fall, but also with the operational cost savings that come from dramatically longer battery life.

The coming year will see some dramatic changes, particularly for smart homes, based around this technology. This will make IoT business models more scalable and cost effective, driving a dramatic extension of the networks and use cases across the smart city and smart home.

Over the last few years, it has been apparent that the sensor networks are just one part of the requirement. Integration with cloud technologies for the management of the vast amounts of data is vital, and this is one key area that will expand dramatically this year. For example, the integration of the LoRa protocol seamlessly into the Amazon Web Server (AWS) cloud allows millions of nodes to be added quickly and easily.

These LPWAN sensors are already being widely used to monitor and track work in progress in the smart factory. Adding more sensor nodes, with simpler data management, builds the more complex digitalisation that starts to see the promise of Industry 4.0.

These advantages are spreading out into smart retail. Tracking items automates stock checking and supply chain management with minimal infrastructure. Projects in Germany are already showing the advantages of using the technology in retail.

The sensors are also spreading across the smart city. The longer range of LPWAN systems across 10 to 15km is ideal for air quality monitoring, traffic management and parking systems. Again, being able to feed all this data seamlessly into cloud servers to deliver actionable data will be a huge step forward in 2021.

But there are still limitations to the rollout and effectiveness of such networks, especially for the smart home. Low-cost sensors and actuators with long battery life are a key element of the IoT, but the cost and complexity of installing and managing network access points and servers has held back the technology until now.

Peer-to-peer networks such as Helium are emerging with a business model that allows one access point to service a number of homes and linking to other nearby access points. This starts to enable large scale IoT deployments with sensors for all kinds of data around the home and into the smart community.

However, the roll out of such networks has been relatively slow partly as a result of the need to install a network infrastructure. The dramatic change that will happen in 2021 is the switching on of a low power, low-cost network capability that already exists in many millions of homes.

This LPWAN capability is already designed into Amazon’s Alexa Internet-connected smart speakers and so far, has been used for monitoring and management of smart devices such as the Ring doorbell.

Now Amazon is taking a key step forward and opening up that network capability to third party sensors and actuators. Using smart speakers as the access point not just for one house but for neighbours allows the use of LPWAN systems in many more applications around the home, from smoke and gas alarms to security lighting, and energy management to leak detection.

The privacy and wider networking challenges of running lots of different data channels over an access point and broadband internet connection into the cloud have taken years to solve and required that cloud capability.

But the power of this project, called Sidewalk, extends further. The technology used in smart retail can be used in the home to track equipment and systems.

It even extends out of the smart home and into the smart city. The range of the LPWAN network allows the connections to extend into the street and the wider neighbourhood, providing data links to traffic and smart city sensors without the need for a city-wide infrastructure.

All of this is now not only possible, but happening.

Coupled with the cloud capability, this will lead to an explosion in the use of sensors across the smart city and start to deliver on the promise of the IoT.

The implications are significant. The availability of a ubiquitous network makes viable the integration of LPWAN transceivers into equipment for tracking in the smart factory during manufacture, and tracked through the retail and distribution supply chain into the smart home and outside. While this will take longer to realise, the opportunity starts in 2021.