(Photo by Flickr user Mike Boening Photography, used under a Creative Commons license)
Technical.ly has partnered with Comcast to produce the machineQ hackathon and reviewed this article before publication.
The problem of IoT and why it hasn’t caught on as some originally hoped has to do with price. Why spend more on a “smart fix” than on the problem itself?
But with LoRa, a low-powered wide area network, that cost might be reaching a sweet spot for a whole slew of new IoT applications. It’s the technological medium that Comcast is using in a new initiative of theirs called machineQ.
“Historically people have been using cellular, satellite, which is ridiculously expensive,” explained Rick Bullotta, the managing partner of Next Big Thing and founder and former CEO of ThingWorx, an IoT startup. “When you can draw that expense down by two orders of magnitude, then you’re really changing things. The big adopters of this will probably be utilities, urban infrastructure, basically anywhere you’ve got lots of sensors and widely-distributed sensing.”
LoRa is a low-bandwidth network that can communicate over very long distances and uses minimal energy to do so. Unlike cellular networks, over which you could send video and other big packets of data, LoRa isn’t good for much more than sending a few blips and bits. But that’s fine, because IoT sensors don’t need to be sending vids, they need to be sending a little blip every half hour that says, “I’m still not broken.”
Like WiFi, LoRa transmits its information at 915MHz on the electromagnetic spectrum, sitting between the lower frequency, but super durable radio waves, and the higher frequency, but more temperamental WiFi microwaves we know and love. Data rates range from 0.3 kbps to 50 kbps, according to the LoRa Alliance, which is about 100 times slower than the device you’re currently reading this on.
“The advantage here is that if you can cover a city in low cost wireless connectivity then you can easily start to make it into a smart city,” explained Leonid “Lenny” Kravetz, a director of research at design firm InterDigital Communications.
“You can start to connect all the infrastructure that’s out there to create smart applications. The classic example is you could put a sensor into a parking spot and create an application to show you where there’s open parking. We have the Big Belly trash cans that are able to wirelessly communicate when they’re full.”
"We believe this will create a much richer ecosystem and ensure that the tech is widely adopted by not only large corporations, but by a diverse group of startups and technologists."
Low-powered wide-area networks fall into two categories: open and closed. Closed networks include proprietary technology for use only by a single corporation. Open networks are a bit more like open-source code, where everyone can incorporate the technology into their own products.
LoRa is an open framework. That openness was a key fact for Comcast, explained Bryan Witkowski, who’s leading IoT Product Strategy for machineQ.
“It was critical that a key underpinning of our IoT strategy not be reliant on a proprietary technology ultimately owned by one entity,” he wrote in an email. “We believe this will create a much richer ecosystem and ensure that the tech is widely adopted by not only large corporations, but by a diverse group of startups and technologists. We are seeing this happen on a quickly accelerating scale: A year ago, we saw maybe one new LoRa device per week, now it’s literally a new one everyday.”
That’s nowhere more clearer than down in South Philly, where startups at makerspace NextFab are thinking up new uses for this type of low-bandwidth IoT device.
Efficiency is the first promise here. The ability to turn off and turn on devices when they’re needed, rather than leaving them on constantly could save a lot of energy, and money, for the city. But it goes quite a bit further than that.
“A handful of companies are making different connected devices here,” said Ken Tomlinson, the chief financial officer at NextFab. “Stratis Labs are making cardio pulmonary devices to do early detection of respiratory distress. CircaLux is doing a smart, connected lighting system for hospitals which changes brightness with distance from caregivers and is circadian friendly so it doesn’t mess up people’s sleep cycles.”
So what applications could LoRa be used for? Traffic lights? Bike safety? We’d love to hear from you. On June 9 and 10, Technical.ly will host the (now sold out) machineQ Smart City Hackathon for technologists and civic hackers interested in developing IoT applications for the network.