IoT interoperability – Living the dream

With the arrival of cost-effective Satellite IoT (SatIoT), Systems Integrators are rushing to meet the huge pent-up demand for global solutions that allow asset tracking across the 85% of the planet not covered by cellular networks. They are building fully connected IoT solutions, where mobile assets can be tracked as they move, connecting to an array of networks, from Cellular to LoRaWAN, Sigfox, and Satellite.

Some are making the promise of the one-size-fits-all approach, relying on future 3GPP standards. Is this a safe bet for systems integrators? While it is technically feasible to use existing terrestrial protocols to communicate with satellites, it is far from optimal in terms of performance. IoT is hugely sensitive to cost and power consumption and such degradations could rapidly derail the IoT business model. Minor differences in performance, like battery life and or device lifetime, can radically change the viability of the business case. Building intelligent devices capable of seamlessly switching between several technologies, each of them being highly optimised for specific conditions is the soundest approach.

Fabien Jordan, CEO, Astrocast, explains why Systems Integrators need to explore Astrocast’s proprietary data protocol that has been designed specifically to optimise every aspect of the SatIoT component.

Compelling opportunity

2022 is the year IoT goes truly global, with low cost SatIoT solutions providing the chance to track assets in even the most remote locations across the world for the first time. With the ability to cost effectively connect the 85% of the world not covered by cellular networks, the dream of seamlessly collecting data from assets as they move between networks from cellular to satellite is incredibly exciting.

Supply chains can be transformed by continuous tracking of shipping containers. Agriculture revolutionised through remote monitoring of both animals and environmental factors such as moisture, helping to reduce reliance on antibiotics and optimise the use of scarce resources such as water. Environmental understanding and strategies fast-tracked using data from monitoring oceans to understand change.

In the drive to meet the huge pent up demand for a seamless global IoT solution, however, it is vital to retain focus on the core components of IoT success. These deployments involve tens, even hundreds of thousands of devices, generally in inaccessible locations. Device lifetime and form factor is key to the business case that means thinking carefully about everything from battery life and size to updates, frequency of transmission and antenna design.

Standards debate

This is a new market and the challenge for Systems Integrators is to achieve integration without compromising performance or undermining the business case. And this is where the debate now lies: should the industry rely on cellular IoT standards only in the hope that they might one day be satellite-compatible and hence minimise device complexity? Or, should they bet on the operational performance benefits of combining the available and highly-efficient proprietary SatIoT data protocols with cellular and LPWAN technologies, making mass scale deployment financially viable for the first time?

In theory, it makes great sense to adhere to industry standards in any technology deployment. It provides application longevity and improves agility. However, there is little value in taking this approach if performance is fundamentally compromised, especially with such a financially sensitive business case.

Right now, there is no standard for SatIoT deployment. The proposed 5G NB-IoT standards are years away from full ratification. On top of that, NB-IoT is real-time only. It doesn’t support store-and-forward operations, which is absolutely critical to have when operating through a network of LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) satellites. From the satellite perspective, there is also huge complexity created by the need to manage the many different frequencies used on the ground by NB-IoT devices. This problem is rarely mentioned but is probably the biggest challenge to overcome as the satellites will be much more complex and costly, making the business case harder if not impossible to close.

Similarly, some Systems Integrators are exploring the use of the established LoRaWAN standard over satellite. This could be achieved over licensed or unlicensed spectrum. But in both cases there are some serious road blocks to overcome to enable important features such as bi-directional communications or store-and-forward capabilities.

Additionally, both 5G NB-IoT and LoRa over satellite have much more data overhead than an optimised proprietary protocol like Astrocast, resulting in much more energy consumed per byte sent. While these standards would theoretically simplify the deployment model, the use of non-optimised data protocols for the SatIoT component has a devastating impact on IoT device performance an impact that destroys the IoT business case.

Optimised deployment

Proprietary data protocols have been a core component of the SatIoT development model for good reason. Optimised deployments are lower cost, more reliable and higher performing, especially in key areas such as power consumption, which can make or break an IoT deployment. Excessive power consumption significantly reduces battery life, leading to expensive battery / device replacement, which is impossible for goods in transit and extremely challenging in remote locations. A device using a generic network standard for SatIoT will use up to 10 times as much power when compared to a device using SatIoT with optimised data protocol and chipsets.

Furthermore, it is not possible to simply add a SatIoT connection to an existing device, even if using the same network standard such as LoRaWAN. This is not plug and play, devices will need a new antenna or a new radio frequency (RF) front-end to connect to the satellite. In which case, it makes far more sense to use optimised data protocols and devices with a chipset optimised for SatIoT. Devices need to be small enough to be used on livestock including small, flat antennas that don’t get caught in vegetation and robust enough to withstand years outside without needing to be replaced.

Two-way communication is also key, providing remote device upgrades to further extend their life in the field. It also enables innovative IoT applications such as the creation of virtual fences for livestock, eradicating the need for expensive and resource intensive work to install and maintain fencing across remote areas.

Conclusion

The use of proprietary data protocols is not a barrier to deployment but an enabler. Systems Integrators can create solutions that use multiple networks to track items across the world. One recent deployment for shipping containers moves seamlessly between multiple different connectivity solutions, including Bluetooth, cellular, LoRaWAN and satellite, as required. Organisations can opt to change the primary network at any time ensuring the device connects to SatIoT rather than cellular in certain high cost regions, for example, to achieve far more certainty in the operational cost base.

Fabien Jordan

The key is to ensure the deployment model supports rather than undermines the IoT business case. How often does the device need to communicate with the satellite? What is the power consumption? How long is the battery life? Is the antenna design fit for purpose? Does the solution support bidirectional communication? These are the critical issues that will affect the cost, viability and business benefits of the SatIoT deployment and the optimal performance can only be achieved through the use of dedicated, optimised data protocols.

For now, full integration is the long term dream and at some point over the next decade, standards will emerge. To maximise the power, potential and cost benefits of SatIoT today, the use of dedicated proprietary protocols will remain the best way to developing a robust, achievable business case and accelerating the deployment of IoT.

The author is Fabien Jordan, CEO, Astrocast.

Comment on this article below or via Twitter: @IoTNow_OR @jcIoTnow

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