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14 February 2020

The Things Conference – energy harvesting and soil sensing emerge

In a converted factory across the water from Amsterdam’s central railway station, The Things Conference gathered under cloudy skies. The stage was set for the announcement of LoRa in 2.4 GHz, and The Things Industries’ new Packet Broker offering, covered last week, but there were plenty of LoRaWAN adopters there to show off their wares and network. Given the uncertainty about MWC, this might turn out to be one of the larger LPWAN events on the calendar.

Kicking off the first day was a keynote from The Things Network’s founders, Wienke Giezeman and Johan Stokking, CEO and CTO respectively, and an opening video that poked fun at the rest of the wireless industry, before zipping over highlights for LoRaWAN – which seemed to be containers, cows, cars, and cold chain. The pair joked that their side project, the show, had now gotten a bit out of hand, before thanking the 80 speakers and 1,500 attendees that had made the trip.

They then outlined the current state of The Things Network itself, which now counts 18,000 gateways, serving 500,000 devices, that send 9bn messages annually. This is up from 6,000 gateways last year, apparently, and in the coming year, the plan is to integrate the 8,000 private network gateways into the public network too. With 99.982% uptime, the pair joked that if they had a business model based on messages, the audience would be broke and they wouldn’t be on stage, and added that based on commits to the project, The Things Stack is the fifth largest open source project in the Netherlands.

The Things Industries’ offerings are built on this stack, and represent the profit-seeking side of The Things Network project. With enterprise add-ons, the goal is to commercialize what has been achieved via The Things Network itself, without becoming a detriment to that collaborative community. A global LoRaWAN join server is one such venture, which will allow a company to pay a one-time fee to register their devices that can then go on to join any LoRaWAN network once they are deployed, as is the aforementioned Packet Broker (which uses the LoRa Basics Station Protocol), which The Things Industries hopes will become a global backbone for LoRaWAN

For some reason, Microsoft got up on stage with a HoloLens, drawing bemusement from the audience members, and after the LoRa 2.4 GHz announcement, the keynote pretty much wound up. This made way for an update from the LoRa Alliance (which again, should really be called the LoRaWAN Alliance, but there we are), which now has over 130 network operators in 140 countries, with 245 certified LoRaWAN devices and over 3,000 member companies.

Everynet was cited by the alliance, the company that powers American Tower’s Brazilian network – sending 1.7bn messages in the past year. As for the next year, the alliance is finalizing a new strategic roadmap, with the goal of simplifying the customer message, and also preparing for its LoRaWAN World Expo in Paris in June.

As for other announcements, Semtech had the keynote on the second day, to outline the state of the market. There seemed to be a ban on forward-looking projections and forecasts at the show, and so Semtech was reduced to charting historic performance. To this end, it thinks there are 135mn LoRa end points globally, up from 80mn last year, and that we are moving towards the mass deployment era, where deals are for millions of units rather than tens of thousands.

It was at this point that we took a break from the presentations, and headed out to prowl the booths – these are the highlights. Alliot is a UK LoRa distributor that is primarily focused on smart buildings but has also provided Heathrow Airport with a tracking system for its herd of 30 cows that are used to control vegetation around the airport. Technical Director Paul Hayes noted that near its Huddersfield headquarters, LTE Cat-NB coverage is completely broken by a nearby hill. On one side it works, on the other, it does not. This somewhat cemented Alliot’s enthusiasm for the LoRa approach.

Up next were two energy harvesting firms, e-peas and Plant-e, which are both filling a very prominent gap in the LoRa ecosystem. e-peas was showing off its supercapacitor technology that can harvest energy from ambient radio waves as well as a photovoltaic solar cell – enough to power a digital label that uses an e-ink screen that can be updated via LoRaWAN, as well as power environmental sensors.

Plant-e’s partnership with Lacuna Space was on show, which could generate enough power from soil to communicate with Lacuna’s nanosatellites. Lacuna’s Product Manager Dario Buma outlined a new developer kit, explaining that most customers implement custom designs that would be prohibitive from Lacuna becoming a hardware vendor. He added that for its nanosatellites, the launch vehicle providers have very strict payload requirements, which mean that if your satellite is not ready in time, you have to provide a properly weighted and balanced alternative and still pay the launch fee. To this end, Buma quipped, there are some very expensive bricks in orbit today.

Elsys is a Swedish firm that makes LoRa sensors, selling them to distributors in the smart building sector, which says that a 10-year sensor life is quite manageable on 15-minute message intervals using AA batteries. However, CTO Johan Haake warned that the network quality is the much more important factor to consider, and that it can make a 10x difference to battery life.

Connected streetlight specialist Lucy Zodion was hawking its LoRaWAN offerings, and Managing Director John Fox explained that very few connected streetlights are currently part of smart city application platforms, and that those that are are only ‘smart city’ at the data layer, and not once you drill down into the appliance, device, or network layer. This is something that we have encountered many times, in our research for our upcoming connected streetlighting forecast.

Cetecom’s Rolf Borchert explained that wireless testing a certification, for regulatory compliance, can cost around $10,000 in Europe, and that it can easily stretch higher due to the requirements to test modules and different SKUs – something to bear in mind when you are pricing up TCO figures.

Nanosat operator Hiber had its new gateway product on show, which is notable for the fact that it does not use Hiber’s own network to communicate. Instead it is running on the Inmarsat network, but it is aimed at deployments that need the gateway’s capability of 5,000 device connections – far too much traffic for the nanosatellite link to support.

Omnium Sensing, part of the Reece Innovation group, was showing off its agricultural sensing offering, which is essentially a large crate that acts as the shipping packaging for a solar cell and the LoRa gateway that it powers. Once deployed, the crate is filled with ballast, to prevent the unit blowing away, and at $2,500 or so, it seems to be quite an affordable way to quickly deploy coverage where you don’t have ready power supplies.

Murata Product Manager for Wireless Modules Samir Hennaoui was on stage briefly during the keynote, and at the booth, said that Murata had sold some 1.5mn of its ABZ LoRa modules, which cost around $6.50 currently. Hennaoui said that most of those were being used in prototyping and early stage development, and that he thinks this market is going to rapidly accelerate in due course. The newer 1SJ module can cost under $4.50, which should turn the screw on L-LPWAN competition, by Hennaoui was not enthusiastic about LoRa in 2.4 GHz.

WIFX’s booth was where we made the UDP packet forwarder discovery, mentioned in last week’s edition, while the company was showing off its new Lorix One micro gateway – an impressive big of kit. We also discovered a weird quirk in LoRa gateway development, in that the Lorix One would need GNSS to support Class B LoRa devices, due to their requirement to synchronize time – to schedule wake and sleep cycles. To this end, the Lorix One has chosen to focus on A and C for now.

Next up was Ursalink, where Cheney Lee talked us through how the Chinese hardware vendor had swiftly grown from five staffers in 2016 to over 50 today. Mostly focused on LoRa, it does have some cellular offerings, and it is primarily targeting industrial customers, with a good amount of agricultural too. The typical price for a LoRa-powered soil sensor ranges from $400 to $500.

Another soil sensing provider lurked just around the corner. Sensoterra, the clue is in the name, is a Dutch startup that is about four years into its journey. Its small soil sensor costs around €300, but at quantities of over 10, that price falls to nearer €150. These provide a 3 year batter life, and include the cost of the data and connectivity in the price. There is a much larger sensor that can take readings at 6 different levels, but that one will cost €500. Sensoterra also recommends deploying between 5 to 10 sensors per hectare ( 0.01 km2, 2.4 acres, or 107,639 square-feet) of field too.

Tektelic reckons it is the largest LoRa gateway vendor, and Maria Mitiasova, Director Sales and Business Development EMEA, explained that the Canadian firm sells a lot of 64-channel gateways in the US, with the 16-channel units being much more popular in Europe. The company found that more customers wanted an end-to-end solution to their business problems, and so expanded into providing sensors too – even now venturing into Bluetooth Beacons, in a project with a hospital in the US.

Lastly, but not leastly, we spoke to Minol Zenner, a German metering specialist that believes it runs the largest LoRaWAN network in Germany – consisting of 6,000 gateways and 800,000 connections. It has some industrial interests, but is mostly focused on metering, and remains very focused on providing hardware to customers.