The world goes into reception

The Internet of Things is already rapidly changing our lives. The wireless technology known as Low Power Wide Area Network, or LPWAN for short, has now given the movement a decisive boost.

Wireless standards – A spectrum full of possibilities Wireless standards – A spectrum full of possibilities Wireless standards – A spectrum full of possibilities

Exhausted aquifers, dry river beds, empty reservoirs: California has been in a drought for 5 years. Researchers are calling it the most extreme dry spell in 1,200 years. A catastrophe: some 40 million trees have already perished from lack of water and forest fires. Californians have long since become accustomed to the fact that water is rationed for agriculture, watering the lawn, or filling the swimming pool. Generating electricity is also difficult since many hydropower plants are dry. The drought is most likely due to climate change. California's water supply depends on the snow that falls in winter in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and then melts in spring, feeding dams, vineyards and major cities with water during the summer. But snowfall has been virtually non-existent since 2011, and predictions regarding precipitation and water levels can hardly be made anymore. Enter help in the form of “SierraNet”, a network of wireless sensors spread out over the peaks and valleys, some buried in the earth, and intended to make it possible to once again plan the water and power supply. Besides the temperature, they measure the humidity in the air and the ground, as well as the snow depth and the sun’s radiation. The process involves using what’s known as a LPWAN, or Low Power Wide Area Network. The LPWAN is a new wireless technology that makes projects such as SierraNet possible at all and which is decisive in the spread of the Internet of Things worldwide. In the Internet of Things (IoT), machines communicate with machines. Sensors collect data and transmit it wirelessly over the Internet, so that e.g. computers can independently control processes in logistics, production and service. The IoT is the technical basis of the Economy 4.0. According to a study conducted by consulting firm Gartner, some 6.4 billion devices will be connected in the IoT by the end of 2016, 30 percent more than in 2015. This represents the addition of 5.5 million networked devices each and every day. By 2020, the number of devices communicating with one another is expected to be 20.8 billion. The drivers of this will not be well-known wireless technologies like WiFi, Bluetooth or mobile wireless standards such as LTE or G5, but rather LPWANs. “Within the spectrum of wireless standards, LPWANs bridge the gap between near-field and long-distance communication. They combine many features of other wireless technologies, which makes many IoT applications economically feasible, or possible in the first place,” says Markus Termühlen, global project head of LPWAN­technologies at TÜV Rheinland. LPWAN networks are simple to install and customize. The low frequency of around 900 megahertz limits the transferable data volume to up to 50 kilobits per second, which roughly corresponds to one DIN A4 page of text. “The bandwidth is completely adequate to transmit encrypted switching commands or to read and control sensors,” says Termühlen. In this respect, LPWAN technology is similar to established standards such as Zigbee, Bluetooth and EnOcean. However, thanks to the low transmission frequency, LPWAN signals can easily penetrate buildings or be emitted from basements. The technology is consequently ideal for smart metering services. All of which is why E.On subsidiary Digimondo also plans to set up a Germany-wide LPWAN network by 2017 in order to be able to eventually have digital electricity meters communicate via LPWAN.

Wireless network for 250 Euros

In open areas, data can be transmitted over 40 kilometers and, in cities, between 2-15 kilometers. Half a dozen gateways, no bigger than a thin paperback, are enough to cover a large city like Amsterdam with a low-power wireless network. And LPWANs operate extremely economically. The sensors send data in continuous operation or at predetermined intervals. Depending on the application, the batteries last for 2 to 15 years. If, like in SierraNet, they’re connected to solar modules, the wireless infrastructure is practically maintenance-free. Soon, a sensor will only cost one to two US dollars. Small wireless sensor networks can already be set up for around €250. Mobile wireless requires a comparatively expensive infrastructure: a more dense cover of antenna masts, network connections for the transmitting units and SIM cards, which are tied to a fee-based network operator. With LPWAN, the costs are about 90 percent lower, and the functionality is better. “LPWAN will replace 2G mobile networks for long-distance transport of small amounts of data,” predicts Markus Termühlen. In 2020, 40% of long-distance communications in the IOT may already be transmitted via LPWAN networks, and over 70% by 2030. The remainder will largely be handled by the broadband mobile wireless standards LTE and 5G, as a cable-less option for large amounts of data.

Everything gets smart

Life in the network - How wireless makes everyday life smarter Life in the network - How wireless makes everyday life smarter Life in the network - How wireless makes everyday life smarter

Telecommunication providers are important rivers of the technology. They have recognized the potential of LPWAN and are investing in it. Comcast, the second largest network operator in the US, wants to create a nationwide LoRa network. In the Netherlands, KPN has already built a nationwide network, as has SK Telecom in South Korea. The idea: companies, cities and private individuals pay to connect their own sensors and smart devices to the network that is provided. In any case, the market is huge. In 2016, IoT services generated some 235 billion US dollars in revenue, with a strong upward trend. Whether a cow, refrigerator or high-bay warehouse: thanks to LPWAN technology, any object can now be equipped with a motion, temperature or fill-level sensor at low cost and send simple status messages to a smartphone. “The low costs open up unlimited application possibilities,” says IoT expert Termühlen. And one thing above all: Unlike mobile wireless, LPWAN uses license-free frequencies. Consequently, device manufacturers as well as private users can install their own closed or open wireless network independent of the big network operators. One such open LPWAN standard is the Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN), which is being developed by the LoRa Alliance. Launched in 2015, the industrial association has already brought together some 500 international hardware manufacturers, software companies and users from all economic areas to further develop LoRaWAN. TÜV Rheinland has been a member of the fast-growing LoRa Alliance from the beginning. “As in committees for other wireless technologies, we help the LoRa Alliance with the standardization process and certify products before they enter the market,” says Markus Termühlen. In this context, TÜV Rheinland operates specialized laboratories for wireless technology and IoT products in Europe, the USA and soon in Japan and South Korea. As a result, the testing service provider is always close to manufacturers and users worldwide with its expertise when it comes to wireless standards. By the way, even in the drought-stricken high-tech state of California – TÜV Rheinland opened the first testing laboratory for wireless technology there in 1986, in the middle of Silicon Valley.

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Markus Termühlen
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Picture Credits: Perig