Technology trends for a smarter, sustainable planet (Semtech on 2022)
There is an increasing requirement for sensing and monitoring technologies to support a more sustainable world. With resources in increasingly short supply, monitoring the use of those resources becomes even more important, whether they’re water, electricity, minerals or crops, to enable the most efficient use. Low-power wide-area networks (LPWAN) are a key monitoring technology for a sustainable world.
These networks operate in the sub-GHz Industrial, Scientific and Medical (ISM) frequency bands at 868MHz in Europe and 915MHz in North America, and provide significantly longer range than Bluetooth or Wi-Fi wireless systems with dramatically lower end-to-end energy usage. LPWAN technologies, as per the acronym, are specifically designed for low-power and long-range use with battery-backed and battery-free energy harvesting sensors.
These sensors can deliver information into large-scale ‘big data’ systems that provide analysis and insights. Machine learning algorithms using highly accurate real-time data, allowing companies to take a more flexible and agile approach to managing resources and predicting requirements.
In agriculture, for example, LPWAN sensors can monitor factors such as moisture and temperature across all kinds of applications. The data from these sensors is invaluable for an emerging generation of AI analysis systems to boost the productivity of farms and predict and prevent disasters from famine or flooding. The low power nature of the LPWAN protocols allows for energy harvesting from solar cells to power the sensors without the need to replace batteries, and wind power for the gateways that collect the data.
The long range of many kilometres allows data to be collected from across a large site, whether a farm or a mine. This can dramatically reduce the cost of rolling out such networks, with the self-powered sensors placed at exactly the right point for collecting the right data. Mesh networking protocols allow data to be relayed even further to the gateway that collects the data and forward it to the analytic system.
A new generation of direct satellite connection is enabling global rollout of smart sustainable systems using the LoRaWAN standard. New modulation technology allows satellites in low earth orbit to pick up signals directly from sensors on the ground, which is a significant boost to sensors across huge farms and in mines in remote areas.
LPWAN technology is increasingly being used in large-scale IoT applications such as monitoring for forest fires, wildlife monitoring, water conservation and connecting rural communities to monitoring pollution and water distribution networks to minimise waste.
The summer of 2021 saw 187,114 forest fires around the world. LPWAN technology is increasingly being used to monitor forests for potential wildfires. Sensors that measure meteorological conditions such as humidity, temperature, carbon dioxide and the concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOC) in remote locations use the LPWAN network to feed this data back with the GPS location.
Data is fed into an intelligent dashboard that features an integrated artificial intelligence (AI) layer for forest fire prediction, online risk calculation, smart live maps of terrain, real-time heat maps and alarms. By monitoring the activity and modelling the data captured, companies are able to forecast possible scenarios and plan appropriately. This helps to make a more efficient use of resources while protecting vital forests.
Reducing energy consumption is a key requirement of sustainability, and LPWAN technology is a key enabler for increasing the efficiency of lighting and power grid management. Sensors can be placed across the electricity grid, from lamp posts to sub-stations to monitor the network without having to replace equipment. Using predictive maintenance machine learning algorithms to monitor the data can identify potential problems with equipment, allowing replacement before the equipment fails and making sure that the network operates as efficiently as possible.
A key advantage is that LPWAN sensor networks can be rolled out quickly and efficiently as an overlay on existing infrastructure, rather than waiting for equipment to be replaced. This allows for more effective monitoring of resources without a huge capital spend.
With such a wide range of potential applications for a sustainable world, a broad ecosystem of technology suppliers is essential along with the skills and expertise to implement end to end networks. The needs of farm operators can be very different from mining, water or electrical distribution networks. The machine learning algorithms are also different, monitoring different kinds of patterns to provide actionable data, whether for farmers, water network operators or electricity companies.
Monitoring and optimising the efficient use of resources requires a significant ecosystem of suppliers and robust standards for interoperability. LoRaWAN is now an internationally agreed standard as Y.4480 from the ITU Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T) and is used by the LoRa Alliance that has over 500 companies. These companies range from sensor and gateway companies to LoRaWAN network operators and systems integrators that can pull all of the elements together.
The efficiency of the LoRa means the minimum amount of energy is used to deliver data into the data centre. The data is securely encrypted from the sensor all the way through to the data centre without having to convert the format to Internet Protocol (IP) packets, reducing the energy footprint. With billions of data points sent, this makes a significant difference to the overall sustainability of the system.
These data centres are now almost always powered by renewable energy from solar or wind farms. Microsoft for example is committed to ensuring not only that its Azure cloud service is carbon-neutral, but also to removing the carbon impact of its operations over recent decades. Other data centre operators are making use of solar, wind and geothermal energy to ensure that the analysis of the data is itself sustainable.
LPWAN technologies are a vital element in ensuring a sustainable planet. Monitoring the use of key resources, from water to electricity, enhancing farming and protecting forests all requires reliable data. This can be delivered over the LPWAN networks into AI-based analytics systems running on sustainable cloud infrastructure. The actionable insights from this data help to inform the decisions that will be critical for ensuring the continued well-being of the population of the planet.