The long range (LoRa) technology is setting in motion a transformation for wireless sensors long waiting for radios that expand the range and lower the power bar. Along with LoRa baseband and transceiver chips, we see a whole new ecosystem emerging with RF modules, microcontrollers, protocol stacks, certified reference designs, evaluation boards, and more.
For starters, WiFi became a popular platform for wirelessly connecting sensors to the Internet of Things (IoT) applications such as smart home and smart lighting. However, range and reliability became the key impediments, especially in use cases built around mission-critical control and monitoring of objects connected via the wireless sensors.
That’s where LoRa networks step in with the ability to offer long-range wireless connectivity while using lower power to serve both consumer and Industrial IoT (IIoT) applications. It assembles both public and private networks based on the LoRaWAN™ protocol and allows sensors to collect data from up to 30 mi.
The LoRa technology was developed by Cycleo, the startup acquired by Semtech later in 2012. It eventually led to the creation of the LoRa Alliance that began to drive the wireless industry’s new gambit by steering the LoRaWAN specification.
Semtech, still a leading supplier of RF chips for LoRa networks, has integrated its radio circuitry into a wide array of sensors to remotely monitor the use, status, and functionality via real-time data transport. That includes gas, humidity, temperature, and water-leakage sensors.
Take, for example, the gas sensor that intelligently monitors tank levels, allowing distributors to analyze the buying and consumption patterns, and, thus, have better control over their orders. The smart gas bottle sensor from the Spanish firm Butano24 employs an ultrasound solution to measure the gas level, and uses LoRa wireless links to convey the tank level, monitoring information over 15 to 30 mi.
Likewise, the LoRa-enabled sensors can be installed in areas of the home with a high risk of water leakage—for example in bathrooms, kitchens, and basements—for detection and damage prevention. The battery-powered wireless sensors can also provide humidity-level reports and real-time leakage alerts to home and building owners.
On the industrial front, we are witnessing that smart belt technologies are embedding the LoRa-enabled sensors to measure stress and prevent potential ripping. Transco Industries, a leading supplier of conveyor belt systems, has incorporated LoRa sensors that transmit a signal to belt control in case there is a belt rip and immediately shut down the belt to halt the hazardous and expensive rip from worsening.
In the early going, the common perception about LoRa has been of a Semtech’s project. But that’s changing after the availability of RF solutions from chipmakers other than Semtech. Microchip, for instance, has released the SAM R34/35 modules for assembling remote sensor platforms in IoT applications. The system-in-package (SiP) solutions combine the ultra-low-power 32-bit SAM L21 Arm Cortex-M0+ with a LoRa transceiver, and consume as little as 790 nA in sleep mode.
Next, STMicroelectronics is pairing its STM32 microcontrollers with Semtech’s LoRa radios. The company’s STM32L072 and STM32L082 chips feature 192 kB flash, 6 kB EEPROM, and 20 kB RAM to support LoRa protocol stacks and security offerings like encryption.
A new breed of chips and modules is making it easier for IoT developers to embrace LoRa designs for a variety of low-power use cases. That includes LoRa-connected energy meters to monitor water, gas, and electricity usage data as well as LoRa-enabled luminaire controllers paving the way for smart lighting solutions.
LoRa has joined the battle of radio waves and new players are expected to join LoRa’s journey to democratize wireless sensors for a wide range of IoT applications.