End-to-end digital logistics are about to become a reality: LoRaWAN™ enables new geolocation solutions at unprecedented prices
LoRaWAN is the new global standard developed by the LoRa Alliance™ for low power, wide area (LPWAN) communications. LPWANs are designed to support use cases in which battery life can be measured in years -often 10 years or more-, ensuring a very low total cost of ownership (TCO) for mass Internet of Things applications such as connected buildings, metering, smart cities and agriculture. LoRaWAN is supported by major global network operators including Orange, Comcast, NTT, Softbank, Proximus, KPN, Swisscom etc.
Geolocation and object tracking is one of the major use cases for the Internet of Things, perhaps THE biggest use case. The elasticity of demand for tracking versus cost is enormous: if one could decrease the cost of a tracker to $1, virtually all objects would use the service.
LoRaWAN is not quite there yet, but it’s getting close!
LoRaWAN offers several tiers of geolocation services: network based and GPS based. Both offer major improvements over previous techniques.
Network based geolocation is the lowest cost option. It works with any device that has a LoRa transceiver, reducing the bill of materials, inclusive of battery, to below 5USD. It is also the most battery-efficient technology, enabling tracking over several years with standard LTC 2Ah batteries. The location technology is based on time-difference (TDoA) triangulation and reaching ~30m accuracy in rural environments and ~150m accuracy in urban environments (thanks to the effects of reflections on the time of arrival of the signal).
This service requires operators to deploy networks that offer “receive macro-diversity” meaning that multiple base stations are able to pick the signal from tracker devices. Most of the LoRaWAN networks listed above achieve this, and In most cities, operators offer a macro diversity of 5 stations, and often even more. This technology is the best for agricultural applications, park or forest surveillance, and digitalization of major engineering projects: due to the 15km + range of LoRaWAN base stations, covering vast areas such as nature reserves is very inexpensive. The applications include irrigation control, fire protection, endangered species protection, asset tracking in open pit mines and large construction projects, etc.
GPS based geolocation is not new, but LoRaWAN makes it much more cost effective and versatile. GPS based tracker applications have been limited by short battery lifetime (or prohibitively high battery costs), and high communication fees. No longer. Using LoRaWAN as the communication technology as opposed to GPRS, or even the newer 3GPP options such as NB-IoT, cuts the energy budget by over an order of magnitude.
But the advantages of using LoRaWAN do not stop there. GPS typically takes a long time to get a single position fix, which uses a lot of battery power. Traditional A-GPS technologies reduce the fix-time to a couple seconds, but require either a lot of CPU or a lot of communication traffic. Neither alternative is energy efficient and compatible with multi-year tracking use cases. In the most advanced LoRaWAN tracking implementations, a new form of AGPS is used which ensures both low fix time AND low CPU and communication traffic. This technology also makes it possible to significantly reduce the complexity of the tracker GPS subsystem.
Overall, these two key innovations — using LoRaWAN as the communication network and leveraging optimized AGPS – cut the TCO budget of GPS tracking by an order of magnitude. We are entering a new era of mass volume applications for tracking.
The future of tracking will use multi-mode trackers. The best commercial trackers are able to use both network based and optimized GPS based geolocation, but not only that. When indoors, the tracking system will use WiFi SSID sniffing and combine the information with network based TDoA triangulation to offer full service continuity indoors. The most advanced trackers are also able to use internal sensors (accelerometers, magnetometers…) to implement dead reckoning and sensor fusion enhancements which improve accuracy. Last but not least, Bluetooth Low Energy (BTLE) beacon signals may be used to find the device when within a range of tens of meters. Switching between these multiple location modes dynamically is made possible by the bidirectional nature of LoRaWAN networks, and logic on board the trackers.
Such advanced multimode trackers are about to enable the end to end digitalization of the logistics industry. Goods will no longer be traced only at defined checkpoints, but constantly. The new TCO level enabled by LoRaWAN means that digital pallets are about to become a reality. They will be tracked outdoors by combination of GPS and network triangulation, indoors by WiFi and beaconing. The bidirectional LoRaWAN communication link will enable dynamic optimization of the power/accuracy trade-off: from super power efficient network based triangulation (geofencing, sanity check on routes), to GPS based (on demand fix), WiFi based (indoor) and Bluetooth (finding an asset).
These new digital pallets will not only reduce loss, but also offer a whole new class of high-quality transport. For marginal cost increase, the tracker can also constantly monitor temperature, shock, etc., offering support for environment standards, sanitation, and optimized insurance policies.
IoT is often touted as a transforming technology for all industries. Sometimes, it is difficult to decide if it is hype or reality, but for the logistics industry (and all asset rich businesses), there is no doubt that LoRaWAN in location is a game changer. Introducing an order of magnitude cost reduction in a price sensitive industry does not happen that often in technology! For tracking, it is happening for real and right now…
Guest blog: Olivier Hersent, CTO, Actility
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