When beginning your Industry 4.0 IIoT solution for your business, a daunting , vexing gauntlet of choices awaits.
Securent Solutions’ mission is to empower IIoT customers to make the correct technology choices with both short and long-term outcomes in mind.
The “life blood” of an IIoT solution is its wireless communications network – an underperforming or unreliable wireless communication network will doom an IIoT project to fail from the start. There are many factors and dimensions to a radio technology choice to consider, including:
1. Financial Considerations – Cost per “Thing” , Cost of supporting infrastructure, Build vs. Buy, and CapEx vs. OpEx
2. Longevity and Obsolescence of the technology and its components – What if the technology goes ‘bust’ and is no longer supported?
3. Radio Spectrum Issues – Regulatory constraints, resilience / adaptability to interference and jamming
4. Range and Data Throughput Capacity – Will a technology choice perform to the manufacturer’s claims in your particular environment?
5. Battery Power usage and efficiency – How long will your Thing radios last running on batteries? Are they replaceable?
6. Security and Espionage Concerns – Will observers be able to deduce competitive information from these radio signals?
7. Worldwide Coverage Concerns – Can your technology choice extend to operating anywhere in the world, for example to integrate with your supply chain partners, distribution networks, freight services, dealers and end-customers?
The litany of available IIoT radio technologies can be organized into categories, including:
1. WiFi – 2.8 GHz, 5.8 GHz frequency bands
2. Bluetooth Family – Classic 4.0, Low Energy, and latest Bluetooth 5 with Mesh
3. Sub-1GHz and 2.4 GHz ISM (Industrial, Scientific, Medical) Bands
4. Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) – SigFox, LoRa, Ingenu
5. Cellular – 2G, 3G, 4G, and new IIoT focused, low-power LTE-M and NB-IoT
6. Satellite – Iridium Short-Burst Data, Inmarsat, MDA, Orbital ATK, SES
Making the first cut
This extensive list can be cut down immediately by eliminating those technologies having significantly limiting issues for IIoT applications one plans to implement in the immediate time frame, on grounds of high power requirements, working in already-crowded bands and susceptible to (and / or causing ) interference with existing systems, proprietary / closed / non-standard designs, about to be retired / deprecated, and high-cost per message.
The technologies not making the first cut are:
1. WiFi – Its extreme popularity makes it the go-to solution for consumer applications, however WiFi is not suitable to low-power, battery operated long term applications. Initial and on-going investments in equipment, labor, and maintenance are required to install/operate WiFi Access Points to ensure coverage, and one needs only to search the Internet with the keywords “Wi-Fi WPA Security Cracked” to see Wi-Fi security is questionable at best at this stage.
It should be noted, however that Securent is constantly evaluating cutting-edge pre-release, emerging IIoT radio technologies, and some implementations of new ultra-low-power WiFi may hold promise in the future.
2. Bluetooth versions prior to Bluetooth 5.0 – Bluetooth “Classic” has been wildly successful as a short-range radio technology for wireless keyboards, mice, headsets, and short-range consumer device communications. Bluetooth 4.X Low Energy caused quite a stir with its short-burst “Beacon” technology introducing the era of location-based services. However, Bluetooth 4.x devices have a practical range of 30 meters or less. Bluetooth “Classic” power requirements are too high for long-term, unattended battery operation in devices, and while Bluetooth 4.x Low Energy does live up to its low power claims, the data throughput is severely limited to very short messages, and the 30 meter practical range, even outdoors, remains.
Bluetooth 5 technologies hold promise in significantly extended range and throughput, particularly with the addition of ad-hoc device meshing capability. Securent is evaluating Bluetooth 5 pre-release technologies today, and will share the results in a future blog post.
3. ISM Band technologies, including sub-1GHz and 2.4 GHz are a non-starter, and the reason is apparent from its moniker – the Industrial , Scientific, and Medical unlicensed bands are already jam-packed (pun intended) with overcrowded, competing services, and this situation is expected to worsen. Examples of existing services running in ISM bands include : Cordless Phones, Bluetooth devices, Near-Field Communications Devices (NFC), UHF Gen2 RFID systems, radio control modules for Drones and UAV’s, wireless doorbells, keyless entry systems, some types of fluorescent lights and other lamps, baby monitors, wireless microphones, and wireless security / surveillance systems.
While some of the above-listed existing users of ISM bands are indeed low-power and short range, one must keep in consideration that the IIoT Things are also low-power and therefore these systems will at best only degrade performance if an ISM band IIoT solution is selected.
Another point to consider is if one selects an ISM band IIoT solution, this new solution may very well cause interference and degrade performance of your existing ISM Band-based services and devices.
4. Cellular Radio Technologies have been hugely successful worldwide for a long time, and have gone through several generations of implementation, such as 2G, 3G, 4G , and 5G.
2G Cellular has been widely deployed, however it is now considered obsolete in the U.S. as major carriers have discontinued service – this is known as the “2G Sunset”. 3G services were a marked improvement over 2G, however power requirements for long-term unattended battery powered devices make it unsuitable. Traditional 4G services have similar power usage issues.
So 2G, 3G, and most 4G -based solutions are a non-starter for IIoT solutions due to high-power requirements and costly data plan subscriptions.
However, emerging IIoT-focused 4G and 5G cellular technologies are proving their promise right now. Technologies such as LTE-M and NB-IoT are just now becoming available in the U.S.
5. Satellite Technologies – The big drawing point here is (for the most part) coverage from any part of the planet, however the data plan costs and power requirements relegate this choice to specific IIoT use-case scenarios, such as overseas shipping, or operations in areas without other infrastructure, or the value of ubiquitous coverage through a single network across continents, to justify the costs.
However, Securent has been and is currently actively investigating and evaluating for inclusion in its solutions satellite-based Thing radios and ‘gateway’ devices, with great success – nevertheless, the costs and fees remain. The Satellite-based IIoT services market is expected to rapidly improve in terms of power requirements, cost, and data throughput in the next 3-5 years, and Securent intends to stay at the forefront in expertise in Satellite-based IIoT communications.
6. Low Power, Wide-Area (LPWA) Technologies – LPWA technologies have been causing quite a stir due to their ultra-low battery power requirements, impressive resistance to interference through novel application of radio modulation techniques, and availability of open source software and hardware to build private networks. Sigfox, Ingenu, and LoRa are the well-known technologies in this category.
Securent has been and is continuing to evaluate LoRa technologies, and has independently verified the range and throughput claims, repeatedly achieving reliable transmission and reception from IIoT Thing to LoRa Base Station of approximately 5 miles in an urban environment.
The glaring challenge for LPWA technologies such as LoRa is the lack of receiver infrastructure so readily available in other solutions such as cellular. While the cost for individual LoRa base stations can be as low as $300 US, the supporting costs such as providing power, leasing tower space, and providing the Internet back-haul connection and data plan quickly add up to relegate the use of LoRa (at least in the US) to a niche or supporting IIoT technologhy.
Securent is closely monitoring and seeking partnerships with US-based LoRa service providers who are making great progress in expanding their continental US coverage, however this coverage is limited to select major urban centers, agricultural areas, and international shipping ports as found in the NYC area , and practically the entire state of California.
Surviving the First Cut
The IIoT radio technologies surviving the first cut are:
1. 4G LTE-M and NB-IoT technology, due to low power requirements, ubiquitous US infrastructure coverage from major carriers such as Verizon and AT&T, and cost-effective data plans.
2. LoRa LPWA Technology remains under consideration, albeit under ‘double secret probation’ due to the lack of US infrastructure in areas other than California and NYC (and a few other areas), which require your own investment in “Base Station” infrastructure.
3. Satellite IIoT technologies such as Iridium Short Burst Data remain, however only for scenarios where the cost is justified, such as overseas shipping, or extremely high value Things.
Stay tuned for our next installment in this series, where Securent evaluates the remaining candidate technologies exhaustively based on the above listed categories for consideration, and declares a winner for 2018!