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IoT meet LoRa

14 December 2017

First I must apologise for the lack of a column yesterday.

I was busy making a submission and attending a special meeting of the local council which was held to review and pass a raft of new bylaws. It was a long day :-)

But to today's column...

The Internet of Things (IoT) is still predicted to be "big". By networking just about every intelligent device in the world, the plan is to vastly improve the utility and range of services that can be accessed using something as ubiquitous as your smartphone.

Check status of your washing, be alerted when your chicken is cooked, start your car and get the aircon working 3 minutes before you actually get back to it while parked in town during mid-summer; these are all things that the IoT can do (apparently).

However, to date there's been a bit of an issue with the last-mile of IoT.

IoT is fine if you've got a ready source of WiFi or your device can be hardwired into an existing IP network -- but what if you don't or can't?

What say you're a farmer with sensors on your water troughs that will alert you if/when the levels get too low? There's no WiFi 3 Kms from the house and cellular data is too power-hungry and expensive.

What if you've got something very, very small, light and movable that you want to hook up to the IoT? WiFi will (again) likely be too energy-hungry and bulky.

Well enter LoRa (Long Range) radio.

LoRa takes advantage of the fact that modern spread-spectrum radio systems can operate with incredibly low signal levels. In fact, they can operate below the noise-floor -- ie: you can pull data out of a signal that can't be heard above the background hiss which is noise containing the echo of the big bang.

How can this be done?

Well spread spectrum signals distribute their energy over a very wide spectrum such that the amount of energy in any specific part of that spectrum can be virtually indistinguishable from the noise. When this is done, the performance of the radio link thus created is inversely proportional to the rate at which you send data over it.

To put that more plainly -- the slower you send your data, the further you can send it for a given amount of power. Here is a good backgrounder on this.

The LoRa system exploits this behaviour to provide extremely low-power connections which operate over surprisingly long distances -- albeit at less than broadband speeds.

Of course if you're just firing off a few bites of data to control a simple device or read the status of a sensor then the rate at which you can transfer that data is not really an important issue. The fact that you can run it from a coin-cell battery for more than a year however, is the big deal.

There's a growing amount of info on the Net for those who want to play with LoRa.

Here is a setup that delivers 22Km of range using just 25mW of power and it's based on the good old Raspberry Pi and an "off the shelf" radio module.

There is even a section on Instructables about LoRa.

And this week, Spark announced the roll-out of its own network support for IoT using a LoRa network.

Are we excited?

I don't know... a lot will hinge on price.

Given that LoRa makes it dirt-easy to create your own ad-hoc network which only needs a signgle point of entry to "the internet", Spark's offering will have to be cheap and ubiquitous.

Meanwhile, if you're looking for something fun to play around with, take a gander at LoRa, who knows, it could be "the next really small big thing".

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