LoRaWAN is a type of wireless communication protocol that enables Internet of Things (IoT) devices to send data to and receive data from management platforms. It stands for Long Range Wide Area Network, and it’s a form of Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN).
LoRaWAN has become more popular for connecting devices over recent years due to its low power consumption, and longer distance coverage than some other wireless protocols.
It has star network topology with two types of nodes: the end device – typically an embedded sensor or controller – that sends data to the gateway; and the gateway which communicates with multiple end devices over long distances.
This blog post will explore what LoRaWAN is, how the protocol can be used for IoT applications and the benefits and constraints of the technology.
But before we investigate the many use cases of LoRaWAN, we must first see what separates LoRaWAN from LoRa.
The Difference between LoRa and LoRaWAN
There’s often some confusion between LoRa and LoRaWAN, as people often use the terms interchangeably. However, they are two distinct technologies.
LoRa is a radio modulation technique that operates in a licence-free radio frequency spectrum.
It is a proprietary physical layer (PHY) modulation technology that uses chirp spread spectrum technology to enable long-range communication over low-power networks.
Simply put, this technique is a way of manipulating radio waves to encode information.
In contrast, LoRaWAN is a media access control (MAC) layer protocol which enables end devices to communicate using the LoRa modulation technology over a wide area network.
It is an open, secure and interoperable protocol that has been designed to optimise battery lifetime for low-power devices.
This protocol is built on top of the LoRa radio modulation technique and uses unlicensed ISM (Industrial, Scientific, Medical) radio bands for its network deployments.
Can I use LoRaWAN and LoRa for the Internet of Things?
Both LoRa and LoRaWAN are suited for some IoT use cases, with the two technologies being designed to enable low power-consumption wireless communication between sensors and their access gateways over relatively long distances.
The LoRa network provides a radio modulation technique that allows IoT devices to communicate reliably at long ranges and with low power consumption. It is a secure and cost-effective way to send data from one device to another part of the network.
As we have already established, LoRaWAN is built on top of the LoRa communication protocol, which adds further features for low power consumption, scalability and security.
It provides an open protocol that allows IoT devices to communicate to an edge gateway. It contains encryption methods which make it both secure and efficient for many low bandwidth IoT applications.
The combination of these two technologies makes LoRaWAN particularly well-suited to a range of use cases, which we will touch on later in this post.
Benefits of LoRaWAN
There are many benefits to deploying LoRaWAN in an IoT application, helping to make it one of the most popular protocols for low power-consumption communication.
Some of the key benefits of LoRaWAN are:
- Long range: While LoRaWAN lacks bandwidth, it makes up for it with its range. A LoRaWAN gateway can receive and transmit signals over a distance of 10+ kilometres in rural areas (dependent upon topography), or up to 3 kilometres in built-up urban areas.
- Ultra-low power: Low Power Wide Area Networks are designed for devices that require long battery life. LoRaWAN is one of the most efficient LPWAN protocols, ensuring well designed and appropriate use case devices can run on a manufactured/fitted battery for several years.
- End-to-end security: LoRaWAN has been designed to be end-to-end secure. It uses AES-128 encryption for messages sent between the edge gateway and the LoRaWAN device. While this may be sufficient for non-critical data, more important personal or financial information is moving towards AES-256 encryption in preparation for a post-quantum world.
- Cost effective: One of the major benefits of LoRaWAN technology is its low ratio of gateways to sensors. Meaning sensors can be deployed over a locality with minimal edge gateway hardware requirements. The Gateways, however, need to be distributed and planned to be in range of sensors and be able to provide the WAN backhaul network access capability.
- Capacity and Spreading: LoRaWAN gateways can communicate with many sensors, but the exact ratio depends upon the packet sizes and the frequency of communications. For this reason, communications from sensors need to be spread and constricted. This means that LoRaWAN tends not to be used for time-critical or safety applications.
- Licence-free spectrum: LoRaWAN operates on unlicensed ISM radio bands, which are free to use in most countries. This means that users don’t need to purchase spectrum licences or apply for special permits. It does, however, mean, that the user will need to build private infrastructure or procure services from a LoRa WAN provider.
- Geolocation: LoRaWAN networks can be used to locate devices with low to moderate levels of accuracy. Location is provided via signal strength and direction, meaning that accuracy can be within 200m in the best cases. This tends to be less accurate than GPS, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth beacons.
- Used in the public and private sectors: LoRaWAN is being used by both the public and private sectors. Typical fits tend to be low data, non-critical applications such as waste bin monitoring or standalone environmental sensors.
- limited Roaming Capabilities: LoRaWAN is beginning to gain some roaming capabilities due to agreements between some private operators. This allows devices to move between different LoRaWAN networks without needing to update their settings. LoRaWAN availability tends to be patchy, however, and not global. One of the downsides of being unlicensed, is that it does not benefit from the ubiquitous nature of licensed mobile bands from Mobile Network Operators.
- Indoor penetration: LoRaWAN networks offer penetration in built-up urban areas, making them well-suited for indoor applications, albeit total range is restricted/attenuated.
LoRaWAN applications and use cases
Given the nature of the technology and the rate at which IoT is evolving, there are some use cases for LoRaWAN that apply across several industries and sectors.
Focusing on the three main LoRaWAN applications in 2023, we can see themes for how low bandwidth, bespoke applications can sometimes benefit from these private, low power networks.
1) Smart cities
LoRaWAN is a developing technology in the development of smart cities, which can offer a secure and efficient way to monitor and manage some elements of city infrastructure.
The role of LoRaWAN and IoT in smart cities is particularly important in enabling low maintenance, low bandwidth devices to operate. Smart city projects using LoRaWAN include supporting street lighting control, environmental monitoring, and smart waste management systems.
Its range capabilities also make it particularly suitable for intelligent transportation systems (ITS) where proximity sensors can be used to monitor traffic or pedestrian flow. Obviously, heavier requirements will need mobile, Wi-Fi or fixed line communications. LoRaWAN, however, enables some sensors to be used that would be too power and maintenance heavy with other technologies. Licensed NB-IoT and LTE-M, however, are also proving a licensed alternative to LoRaWAN which similarly have longer range and support low power communication modes. Ultimately, smart cities rely on 4G and increasingly 5G technologies for the majority of more sophisticated applications.
A mix of mobile, Wi-Fi, Router and LPWAN technologies give local authorities access to real-time data. LoRaWAN can also help in playing a role for some harder to reach devices that enable some of the world’s top smart cities to become more efficient and better at managing resources.
Another sector utilising the LoRaWAN protocol is the agriculture industry.
IoT technology and sensors are used to monitor crops, soil conditions and environmental factors. LoRaWAN is used as the communication protocol to enable long-range and low-power connectivity in some regions and areas that have access. Allowing farmers to monitor crops more accurately and efficiently, helping them better manage their resources.
LoRaWAN can be used to collect data from a range of sources including weather stations, irrigation systems and soil sensors, helping farmers to quickly identify areas of the field that require attention. This information can then be used to optimise crop yields and reduce water usage. The downside being that a private network infrastructure in the form of network access points is needed.
3) Water conservation
LoRaWAN has become a key technology in helping to conserve water, thanks to its long-range and low-power capabilities.
With an estimated two thirds of the world’s population facing water stress or shortage, LoRaWAN is used to monitor water usage and report abnormalities that could indicate leaks or wastage.
This IoT environmental monitoring process is done using sensors that monitor levels of water in reservoirs, rivers and underground aquifers, allowing for a more efficient racking and management of water use. LoRaWAN’s low-power consumption and penetration make it ideal for difficult to reach and maintain locations such as pipework.
This is particularly important in areas where water scarcity is an issue. LoRaWAN technology helps ensure resources are managed sustainably by providing relevant authorities with the usage and flow data they need to make informed decisions.
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