LPLAN as amenaBLE to M2M as LPWAN

This week we attended the Wavefront IoT Roadshow where much of this year’s hype was around LPWAN technologies which allow simple, inexpensive radio devices to communicate short messages with cellular base stations kilometers away. An excellent example of the potential of this technology is the SMOCKEO smoke detector which automatically and securely communicates status and alerts to the Internet via the SigFox LPWA network — without any network configuration required. Curious about their optimism surrounding ubiquitous LPWAN adoption, we asked the final panel of experts when they’d expect such devices to be able to connect seamlessly anywhere in the world, if ever? Crickets…

Indeed, there are several competing standards for LPWAN including SigFox, LoRa and LTE-M, and the panel shared little optimism that any single one would cover all geographies. So for all the hype around long-range IoT, it is, at least currently, still very much relegated to niche applications of early adopters in select regions. And this makes us scratch our head as to why the complementary concept of Low Power Local Area Networks (LPLAN) doesn’t even come up in a Google search! Allow us to explain.

LoRa and SigFox versus Bluetooth Low Energy

Today there are billions of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices across the planet:

  • like in LPWAN, these can spontaneously transmit short messages to any receivers that might be in range
  • they use the 2.4GHz unlicensed global ISM band
  • sure, they’re limited to a range on the order of tens of meters, but
  • there are billions of nearby Internet-connected candidate BLE “base stations”, any recent mobile phone, laptop or set-top box is an example

In other words, there are, today, several orders of magnitude more devices technically capable of living up to the LPWAN hype, only with significantly reduced range.

Not convinced on the potential of BLE LPLAN? Consider Tile and TrackR which for at least two years now have in effect operated such (albeit siloed) networks which connect any of their devices to the Internet via their mobile app. In other words, an unpaired Tile will periodically send packets that any BLE device in range can receive and decode. It does so in the hope that the Tile app of any user will be in range, and if so, that packet will be forwarded to Tile’s cloud service.

In fact, reelyActive BLE infrastructure routinely picks up Tile transmissions and forwards them to the Internet. Chances are you’ll see a Tile here among plenty of other similar devices. Your SmartTV and mobile phone could act as BLE gateways just the same. Alas, the aforementioned tracking services are typically branded with limited scope as “crowd GPS”, when in fact, they could spearhead a much broader “crowd LPLAN” or “distributed M2M” (Machine-to-Machine communication) initiative.

Three years ago we published a scientific article entitled Towards a simple, versatile, distributed low-power wireless M2M infrastructure which unveiled our vision of this concept. We’ve tweeted Tile about this. Ditto for FitBit and Flic. We shared our vision with the Bluetooth SIG’s committee on IoT. We created an open library for low-power wireless advertising packets and then published our work in another scientific article entitled Low-Power Wireless Advertising Software Library for Distributed M2M and Contextual IoT. One would be hard pressed to argue that we’ve kept this to ourselves!

The question then again is why with all the LPWAN and IoT hype, if a complementary and underexploited option based on BLE exists, should the latter be subject to such deference? We press on regardless, and look forward to forwarding the packets of the first BLE device provider to request them from us!

RFID Journal Live 2016

Our team have just returned from RFID Journal Live, the largest RFID conference in the world. We had previously attended in 2013, an experience we discussed in this blog post where we concluded that:

we continue to pursue our vision of simple, accessible active RFID, and we strongly encourage other vendors to follow suit in the spirit of collaboration.

The spirit of collaboration

We were pleasantly surprised to discover the extent to which many vendors are embracing collaboration with their current products and business models. For instance, Ubisense unveiled their AngleID sensor which precisely locates their ultra-wideband (UWB) tags, and can be purchased outright without licensing fees and integrated with another vendor’s application software. Similarly, Quuppa presented us their sensor which, like ours, is compatible with Bluetooth Low Energy devices and provides an API for integration with third-party application software. ELA has a similar model for 433MHz Active RFID. Why does this matter? Imagine one of our prospective clients has a need for our technology, but also requires high-precision RTLS in a few places: we could integrate their complementary hardware with our own middleware to provide a complete solution. Everybody wins.

Where’s the WiFi?

Notably absent on the exhibition floor this year were vendors of WiFi RTLS. In 2013, we argued that they favoured competition over collaboration and it was disappointing, but unsurprising, not to find this year a vendor with a solution and business model similar to those presented above.

Simple and accessible anyone?

In 2012, RFID Journal Editor Mark Roberti wrote about Making RFID Easier, suggesting he didn’t know of a simple, cost-effective solution for tracking a few pieces of art in a gallery. In March of this year, a similar post again pleaded “Offer a simple, cost-efficient solution that delivers value, and you’ll have a customer for life.” For this reason, we timed the launch of our Pareto platform, which is precisely that, to coincide with the conference. From our experience on the exhibition floor, we’d argue that we are indeed unique in successfully responding to this plea.

It doesn’t get better than this!

Perhaps our favourite talk of the conference was Kevin Berisso of the University of Memphis’ Auto-ID lab‘s Bluetooth Low Energy: Simple Low-Cost RTLS Replacement or Complex Problem? Essentially, Dr. Berisso sought to create a simple, cost-effective RTLS using commodity Bluetooth Low Energy devices. Slide after slide illustrated the dead ends his team faced. It could have been an advertisement for our solution, and, as such, it completely validated everything we had developed since our previous visit to the conference three years ago. In fact, solving Dr. Berisso’s pain with our platform will be straightforward. Our challenge, rather, is ensuring that many more people like him can quickly and easily find our solution.

BLE RTLS is a complex problem

Accessible RFID is not only about cost-effectiveness, but critically about actually finding its way into the hands of those who need it most, whether they know they need it or not! With healthy collaboration now established, let that be the challenge for RFID Journal Live 2017!