Low power means long range coverage for industrial sensors
Andrew Brown, the executive director of Enterprise and IoT Research at Strategy Analytics, recently interviewed Matt Bacon, the marketing and communications director at Actility, to discuss the company’s activities in IoT; its network, partners and customers and its efforts in industrial markets. Actility is a founding member of the LoRa Alliance and offers low power wide area (LPWA) infrastructure with its ThingPark IoT communications platform. The platform provides LoRaWAN longrange coverage for low-power sensors used in multiple vertical industry applications
Andrew Brown: What are the key IoT applications that Actility customers are implementing in industrial environments?
Matt Bacon: To begin with, it makes sense to explain what we do at Actility and how we help our customers in IoT. Our core product is the ThingPark communications platform, which was initially focused on LoRaWAN, but will shortly also support licensed 3GPP technologies; first LTE Cat M and then narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) for customers. With the platform, we manage data end-to-end, from the sensor via the gateway to customer applications in the cloud. We are able to handle various additional functions such as protocol translation, if required, also ensuring devices are correctly provisioned and sending their data packets end-to-end. We are not an analytics or visualisation company; we offer key ingredients in a complete IoT solution created by a range of partners. Our initial customers were network operators who chose us to build nationwide LoRaWAN networks in order for them to resell connectivity to their customers. They used ThingPark to manage the LoRaWAN component of their network.
There are multiple applications that our customers, like KPN or Orange are enabling through connectivity for their industrial customers. For example, one industrial customer manages thousands of rat traps throughout The Netherlands. Connect them with LoRa and the traps only need to be checked and emptied when they have actually caught a rat, so there are far fewer truck rolls required, which dramatically improves the overall total cost of ownership (TCO) of the project.
Our partnership with Inmarsat has enabled the first globally available LoRaWAN IoT platform and we are supporting the company in building smart city applications in Kigali in Rwanda. In the same country, we are also working with Inmarsat and Carnegie Mellon University on a mountain tea plantation and processing facility. There, IoT will deliver agricultural monitoring such as soil moisture levels, but also precise temperature and humidity monitoring in the processing facility, which need to be monitored and controlled to ensure the best possible tea.
We also handle more traditional plant monitoring projects, such as the work we are doing with IBM Watson and Cougar Automation, a UK systems integrator, for RS Components. RS has a large warehouse with thousands of metres of conveyor belts. It ships up to 44,000 parcels a day, which are moved by conveyor belts. As a parcel drops from one belt to another, it can marginally knock the belts out of alignment. As this is repeated with thousands of parcels, the belt moves to the point where there is a risk that it may jam and break. It is essential the belt alignment is monitored and reset before it breaks, as downtime is incredibly costly. In these large warehouses, it’s also possible to monitor the stratification of air temperature; as warm air rises, the workers at ground level end up being cold, while the warm air gathers under the roof.
Using sensors connected via our network, RS will be able to monitor the temperature at several heights in the warehouse, and control fans that push the hot air downwards and homogenise the temperature in the warehouse, not only providing a more comfortable working environment, but also saving significant energy costs.
It’s incredible how diverse the range of industrial applications really are, as well as how they vary in complexity.
AB: What is Actility doing to help industrial customers enable their IoT solutions?
MB: There are a number of ways we are supporting industrial customers in IoT. For example, we have a full end-to-end business in energy and utilities. We run a demand-response system for energy grids in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and soon Germany. Grid owners need to secure their grids to ensure that they can handle spikes in demand or power surges, so we provide a platform that sits in the middle of the grid between the owners and industrial companies who are consumers or generators of energy. If you have a refrigeration warehouse, for example, it consumes an enormous amount of energy, but it also has considerable thermal inertia, so it is possible to turn off the power for a few minutes at a time without any impact on the business. Through our platform we are able to control energy resources and improve management of both energy demand and additional supply – this is called flexibility. Some of our customers have energy reserves, for example at Orange in France, exchanges have backup batteries for redundancy, to keep the network functioning in a mains power outage. But that emergency capacity can now also be monetised by Orange: we have controllers that can make a request for additional power from those charged but dormant batteries, so that for a short period power can be fed into the grid, rather than taken from it. We can make this energy flexibility available to the grid. As a service, it is much more than a technology business, involving planning, forecasting and bidding in the emerging flexibility market.
Another one of our new key capabilities is location and tracking out of the box. In a LoRaWAN, the signal from any device is picked up by a number of gateways. As long as the network knows what time a signal is picked up by each gateway, it is possible to triangulate that to a location with an accuracy of 40-50 metres, perhaps slightly less in dense urban environments. There are multiple use cases for this around geofencing; from cable drums to enterprise fleets, to track those assets to a specific depot or location, for example. Earlier this year we acquired a company called Abeeway which specialises in GPS trackers connected over LoRaWAN. LoRaWAN is used as the communications network for simplicity – it has no SIM or subscription required – but GPS is used for higher levels of accuracy. Abeeway also has some patented IP around a technology we call low power GPS, which is a LoRaWAN equivalent of AGPS (Assisted GPS).
The network provides key information to the device that is preparing to make a fix, which means that the GPS can be active for a shorter period of time and acquire fewer satellite signals. The position calculations are then processed in the cloud. All of this massively reduces the battery impact, while still providing GPS levels of accuracy – in many cases under ten metres. If a standard GPS offering has a one year battery life and pure LoRaWAN has a ten year battery life, this solution could give up to nine years. Obviously that is variable depending on what you want to track and how often it activates the GPS, but those are the typical orders of magnitude.
There are other opportunities in location, such as integrating Wi-Fi sniffing with the Abeeway solution, which can offer even higher levels of accuracy, such as specific pallet locations or where, in a storage rack, an item is located. It also offers global scale, for example the movement of parts through an entire supply chain, from manufacture through the transportation network to the specific part in a warehouse, which could be ideal for companies with global supply chains such as Boeing, Airbus and Jaguar Land Rover.
Through our distributor and reseller partners, we offer an optimised, easy to deploy enterprise end-to-end IoT communication solution that is equivalent to our carrier-grade platform in terms of its resilience, reliability and scalability. We can run thousands of sensors and thousands of gateways, with simplicity designed into the offering. This product will enable our partners to deliver complete IoT solutions for enterprise end users.
We also provide ThinkPark Market, which is our eCommerce platform, enabling solution providers to buy sensors and devices that have been interoperability tested with a ThinkPark-based network, so you can be sure they’ll work out of the box. ThinkPark Market connects buyers creating IoT solutions with sellers offering devices from anywhere around the globe, enabling partners to use over 30 currencies in different countries supported by our partnership with US payment provider Stripe.
AB: How well is LoRaWAN suited to IoT in Industrial environments and how do you support customers using alternative networks?
MB: There are a number of ways that LoRaWAN is an optimal IoT connectivity technology – not just in industrial but in multiple environments. Unlicensed spectrum and long range reduce start-up costs; low power and long battery life keeps the cost of ongoing maintenance down. Overall the TCO of any for any project is minimised. An LPWA network requires far fewer gateways to achieve complete coverage with good indoor capability and reliable location compared with number required for a cellular network. It can also be deployed in remote locations where there is no cellular coverage at all.
A small city can be covered with a few tens of gateways, or you can densify for deep indoor coverage which will reach into basements to connect smart meters, for example. You can also use picocells to fill in coverage and combine external LoRaWAN gateways with indoor picocells into a single network. In a smart building, the flexibility of the radio network allows devices and sensors to be installed wherever they are needed, rather than being constrained by access and installing cabling.
Since the technology uses unlicensed spectrum, there are no regulatory barriers or hidden costs to stop a company getting up and running with IoT. In smart city applications, for example, the network may be put in place to support or upgrade a single vertical application, such as smart street lighting, but once the network is available, it is relatively straightforward to build applications for other companies or functions connecting to the network, or create an IoT platform for your city as a service to its citizens or businesses.
As I’ve said before, we originally got into this business to help carriers extend their IoT networks with LoRaWAN. But as time has gone on, we now see other kinds of communication providers – TV companies like Digita or Ceske Radiokomunikace, or cable operators like Comcast, for example – becoming IoT network providers. Now we also have customers like NNNCo in Australia that are greenfield start-ups, coming into the business purely as IoT network operators.
AB: No company can do IoT alone. Could you tell us who Actility partners with to enable industrial solutions?
MB: We work with providers of all scales on the connectivity side, such as Orange, KPN, Proximus and Inmarsat. With Inmarsat we have a globally available platform. We also work with industrial solution providers such as IBM and Cisco to support their solutions, as well as many local system integrators and partners on a project by project basis.
What we have learned is that no IoT project can be delivered alone. You need domain experts, integrators, connectivity experts – it’s not just plug and play, you also need radio planning – and ecosystem experts. Every project is a learning process and it’s challenging to get everything you need offthe-shelf. Our goal is to make it simpler and more transparent to deploy IoT solutions by partnering with Actility.