Comparing LoRaWAN and LoRa-Powered Sensors to Other Wireless Technologies

LoRa, which is short for “long range,” is a wireless communication protocol that operates over large distances while consuming only a small amount of power. While LoRa possesses a lower bandwidth than other wireless technologies, it is more dynamic and less expensive.

Resultingly, LoRa has emerged as the default wireless technology of the Internet of Things (IoT).1 LoRa is accessible to all.

Because LoRa works in unlicensed spectrum, essentially everyone who has a LoRa device can transmit or receive data over LoRa network. LoRa is rapidly growing worldwide – today, it’s one of the major IoT technologies available on the market and it’s here to stay for sure.”

Krysztof Zurad, Product Manager, Terabee

How Does LoRa Compare to Other Wireless Technologies?

The capabilities of LoRa can be best understood by comparing it to other wireless protocols – particularly by way of contrast against Wi-Fi and cellular technologies.

Wi-Fi offers high bandwidth wireless communication, which is ideal for video and voice transmission as well as a variety of consumer IoT uses. However, Wi-Fi is limited to very short ranges, limiting its use in industrial IoT applications.

While cellular data transmission (i.e., 4G and 5G) has no range restrictions, providing high bandwidth communications over large distances, they have extremely high power requirements.

This caveat means that cellular technologies are typically limited to mission-critical outdoor applications.

Comparing LoRaWAN and LoRa-Powered Sensors to Other Wireless Technologies

Image Credit: The Things Network

The graph above exhibits how LoRa fills such a niche: it offers low bandwidth communication over short and long ranges.

This, in combination with its low power requirements, makes it well-suited to IoT applications where, generally, battery-powered devices must be able to relay small amounts of data over large distances.

LoRa vs. LoRaWAN

LoRa is Semtech’s proprietary radiofrequency technology. LoRa is known as the “physical layer”: the technology is responsible for modulating a given signal and transmitting it.

LoRaWAN (which means long-range wide area network) is a MAC (media access control) layer that utilizes LoRa.

It is a software layer that regulates the LoRa hardware and determines the network protocols and device classes. This means it effectively dictates the transference of messages across the network.

LoRaWAN networks operate on various frequency bands depending on the region. In order to make sure the functionality and legality of LoRa devices are in compliance in different countries, it is crucial to check the regional parameters as defined by the LoRa Alliance.2

Comparing LoRaWAN and LoRa-Powered Sensors to Other Wireless Technologies

Image Credit: Semtech LoRa Developer Portal

LoRaWAN Architecture

“A typical LoRaWAN system has four layers,” explains Zurad. “An end node, then the gateways, a network server in the middle, and then the application server.”

Comparing LoRaWAN and LoRa-Powered Sensors to Other Wireless Technologies

Image Credit: The Things Industries

End nodes are, in effect, sensors and actuators – for instance, a battery-powered sensor for stock level monitoring. End nodes use gateways to communicate, which receive end node data, convert it and distribute it to the network server via an internet connection.

“The network server is the most important part of the entire network,” says Zurad. “It’s the brain of the operation. It takes care of data duplication, it routes messages, and it handles data authentication and security.”

Finally, the application server transmits value to the user. It stores and analyzes data and delivers it in a manner that is engaging and valuable.

A crucial component of LoRaWAN is that it is a bidirectional network: it facilitates communication from both the end nodes to the application server (uplink) and in the opposite direction (downlink).

Public and Private LoRaWAN Networks

In 171 countries, there are presently 156 LoRaWAN network operators. LoRaWAN can operate on either private or public networks.

Generally speaking, a public network server has everything required to begin working with LoRa. Public networks are comprised of all the gateways needed to connect and take care of maintenance.

“With a public network, essentially all you need to do is buy a LoRa sensor and you can connect to the network – you don’t need any other infrastructure,” says Zurad. “This gives the advantage of a low entry barrier: you don’t need to spend much money to get started.”

One possible con of public networks is their dependency on a third-party network. However, this usually is not a significant issue for smaller implementations.

However, private networks offer complete control and additional security.

With a private network, you’re not dependent on a third party. You are in control of the entire network. If something goes wrong, you have the power to fix it. And another hidden advantage is that you don’t need to send data to the cloud.

Krysztof Zurad, Product Manager, Terabee

However, private networks have extra costs as they require a relatively high initial investment, and the network owner must bear any maintenance costs in mind.

LoRaWAN Device Classes

There are three primary device classes in LoRaWAN:

Comparing LoRaWAN and LoRa-Powered Sensors to Other Wireless Technologies

Image Source: Witekio

Class A

These battery-powered devices typically run in near-constant “sleep” mode, only “waking up” to send data now and then.

Data transmission is followed by a “reception window,” which is when the device will “listen” for incoming downlinks. The device goes back to sleep if no downlink is detected.

Class A devices are well-suited for periodic monitoring applications such as stock level monitoring, where they can run for several years on just a single battery charge.

Class B

These devices are also battery-powered but have extra “reception windows” in between their scheduled data transmissions. This limits battery life somewhat in exchange for enhanced responsiveness.

Class C

These devices are connected to mains power. Without battery restrictions, these devices have the capacity to collect data and remain receptive at all times. Class C devices typically include actuators.

LoRaWAN Range

A number of factors impact the range that a LoRaWAN gateway can achieve.

Comparing LoRaWAN and LoRa-Powered Sensors to Other Wireless Technologies

Image Source: https://ttnmapper.org/

For instance, a gateway in a densely populated city, such as the center of Paris, has a typical range of 2-3 km, with a maximum range of 7 km.

On the contrary, a gateway situated in the countryside near Lake Geneva where there are fewer obstacles could expect to achieve an average range of 10-15 km, with a maximum possible range of approximately 60 km.

Attempts to set the record for longest-range LoRa communication have so far achieved a range of several hundreds of kilometers by sending a weather balloon equipped with LoRa capabilities to the edge of the atmosphere.

When and Why is LoRa the Right Choice for You?

LoRa is a wireless communications protocol optimized for efficient power consumption over extended ranges. This makes LoRa the perfect choice for distributed sensing or Internet of Things (IoT) applications.

For example, imagine a farmer who wishes to monitor soil moisture levels.

In rural locations, access to cellular networks can be extremely limited, and farms usually cover an area much larger than that which Wi-Fi can effectively serve. This makes LoRa the obvious choice for connecting the moisture sensors over a network.

Furthermore, when contemplating “smart city” applications such as monitoring parking spaces in a city using a large number of battery-powered parking sensors, LoRa makes sense.

This is due to the fact that LoRa is ideal for low-power operation. The networked sensors can be in operation for years before their batteries need to be changed.

The greatest restriction of LoRa is bandwidth – however, distributed sensing applications usually only need to send extremely small amounts of data at any given time period.

For instance, a parking sensor only needs to transmit information once every couple of minutes rather than multiple times a second. Utilizing LoRa instead of cellular keeps sensor costs to an absolute minimum in these applications.

Use Case: Digitizing Animal Feed Silos

Level monitoring is one of Terabee’s core focus areas. Working alongside LoRaWAN deployment experts at Brunata, Terabee helped create a LoRa-powered level-monitoring solution for their rural-based client.

The client in question, a pig farmer in Switzerland, sought a more effective way to monitor livestock feed silos. It is central to daily operations on a large farm to know exactly when to order more livestock feed.

Generally, silo stock levels are manually monitored – this is both laborious and unsafe, as it requires climbing tall silos.3

Thinking you have more feed left than you actually do is a common pitfall on livestock farms, and last minute feed deliveries can be extremely expensive.

Roberts Rabcevskis, Growth Leader, Terabee

The client needed to make the farm’s operation safe and efficient by finding an alternate means of automating the processes of monitoring silo levels and ordering livestock feed.

Fundamentally, the solution demanded a way to measure the remaining fill levels in the silos and periodically broadcast this data over a long distance. Brunata chose Terabee’s self-powered LoRaWAN level sensors to carry out this role.4

Installing and setting up this system was simple

“As a first step, Brunata registered a Terabee Level Monitoring XL sensor with their selected network server and application,” explains Rabcevskis. “Next, the Brunata team went out into the farm and tested the network coverage, using something called the LoRa field tester, just to make sure that radio frequency signal between the closest gateway and the place they were installing the sensors was sufficient to transfer data.”

Comparing LoRaWAN and LoRa-Powered Sensors to Other Wireless Technologies

Image Credit: Terabee

Once these checks were complete, two sensors were positioned on top of the 6-meter-high silos on removable hatches.

“After just a few minutes, the first data on feed levels was available on the farmer’s smartphone, and accessible via a web application,” he added.

“The result is that the farmers no longer need to go out in the field and manually check feed levels. This saves both time and money, and enables the staff to focus on other important parts of the business operations,” says Rabcevskis.

With LoRa-powered sensors in place, manual checks no longer need to be conducted.

Additionally, automatic logging of fill levels facilitates the evaluation of historical consumption patterns. In turn, this allows the farm to enhance its forecasting and plan deliveries better.

“All of this is based on accurate collected data,” explains Rabcevskis. “With real data at hand, businesses are able to further optimize their operations.”

Which LoRa network type is best for new users?

If new to LoRa and you want to get started straight away, use the Things Network. It’s a public server, and there could even be a gateway near you.

If not, then you may need to purchase a gateway yourself – but this network server facilitates rapid testing of applications. Once certain it works for you, then you can consider a private network server to deploy yourself, or look for some other paid network servers such as Orange in France or Swisscom in Switzerland.

Use LoRaWAN locally with your own network server

It is possible to run your own private network server. ChirpStack is one example. It can be installed on any small PC, and it is open source, which makes it possible to run an entire LoRa network for free.

Running a private server like this means there’s no need to transmit data outside, but regular maintenance and adding gateways will need to be conducted in-house.

Security is a top priority

LoRaWAN has been developed from the ground up, keeping security a top priority. This means that each and every transmission is encrypted between the sensor, the network server and the application server.

Every sensor has a set of individual keys (called DevEUIs) known only to that device. These keys must be registered on the network server side, and if the keys are a match, then the device is able to communicate with the network server through an encrypted session without any security risk.

Long-lasting batteries on the Terabee Level Monitoring XL

This is application-dependent – but as an example, with an update rate of one measurement an hour, it is possible to have 4-6 years of battery life contingent on temperature and climate.

References

  1. LoRa PHY | Semtech. https://www.semtech.com/lora/what-is-lora.
  2. RP2-1.0.3 LoRaWAN® Regional Parameters. LoRa Alliance® https://lora-alliance.org/resource_hub/rp2-1-0-3-lorawan-regional-parameters/.
  3. Safely storing and handling bulk solids | Processing Magazine. https://www.processingmagazine.com/material-handling-dry-wet/powder-bulk-solids/article/15587830/safely-storing-and-handling-bulk-solids.
  4. Terabee LoRa Level Monitoring XL | battery-powered and LoRaWAN. Terabee https://www.terabee.com/shop/level-monitoring/terabee-lora-level-monitoring/.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Terabee.

For more information on this source, please visit Terabee.

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