Throughout Australia and around the globe there are a variety of IoT networks available for connectivity. Like most things, each come with their own pros and cons.
The goal of this article is to make your understanding of these options a little bit clearer, hopefully aiding you in making more informed and confident decisions about what is best for your operation.
You may find that some connectivity options may be available to you already, however, it's crucial to understand the difference between each connectivity option, and their use-cases. This is because a particular network might be most practical for one scenario, but another network could be best for a different AgTech application.
The Importance of Choosing the Right Network
A good analogy to utilise when trying to understand this topic, is the relationship between a mobile phone and some common connectivity options we should all be familiar with. These are Wi-Fi, Cellular reception (such as 3G, 4G, and 5G), and Bluetooth. Think about what you do with each of these connectivity options on your phone. For example, with Bluetooth you might connect to a pair of headphones, with cellular you might make a call or send a text, whereas with Wi-Fi you may stream a movie on Netflix.
Each of these are connectivity options, although each have certain functions for what they can be used for, and are capable of.
Think back to the WiFi example. At home you may be connected to your wifi modem and can easily connect and stream a movie on Netflix. What happens when you start to walk down your driveway? Your signal strength starts to drop, eventually you’ll lose connection, and more than likely your cellular reception will take over. The cellular reception can certainly do the job of streaming, although it might not be as fast, and as a result may in fact drain your phone’s battery life.
So, the key thing we've learnt here is that although, yes, they both can potentially do the same thing, one is more effective and more efficient in this scenario than the other.
IoT Network Connectivity in the Agricultural Setting
When we talk about network connectivity it's important to know a few key concepts. One of those is IoT. you've probably come across this a few times now, and for those who aren’t familiar, in short, IoT stands for the ‘Internet of Things’.
As the name suggests, it essentially means things that are connected to the internet, although more specifically, it’s a network of different physical devices that can be used for the collection and transmission of data using the internet.
In the agricultural setting, the ‘things’ element of IoT tends to relate to sensors. A sensor can be a variety of things, whether it’s a soil moisture probe or a weather station, it’s more or less a general term for a sensing device. You’ll hear terms like 'smart sensor', and even in INCYT's products we talk about our Trackers having location sensing and conditioning monitoring, because even though they’re often used to track assets on the move, they can also be used in fixed installs to sense inputs like temperature and humidity.
The takeaway here is that there are lots of different types of sensors you can be using on your property, and as you can imagine, each sensor has a different use case - and similar to the phone analogy mentioned earlier, a different optimal network option.
Some sensors you may need regular reporting on such as a flow rate monitor, where are others may or may not need up-to-date reporting, but instead maybe daily updates (or when just activated), such as a gate sensor.
This is where the correct network decision is important because if you are to employ the wrong network for the wrong use case you could potentially be missing out on maximising your return, paying more than you need to for reporting, and actually affecting the efficiency of your operation.
On that note, a key notion to address in relation to IoT networks is:
Faster doesn't always mean better.
Understanding Network Connectivity Options
Two of the most common cellular networks are LTE-M (also known as CAT-M1) & NB-IoT. Both of these technologies are being rolled out nationally by telecommunication companies such as Telstra, and, If you have existing cellular coverage on your property then there’s a reasonable chance you will be able to access these networks already.
The reason we use this form of network is for their low-power consumption and their extended range beyond 3 and 4g networks. Being a low-power option allows us to send small amounts of data over a wide area using pre existing cellular infrastructure.
When comparing LTE-M and NB-IoT there are a few things to consider. Firstly are their use cases. For example, LTE-M is great for medium-throughput applications that require low-power and low-latency such as asset tracking, which is inevitably why we chose incorporate LTE-M in our tracking products such as Polaris and Andromeda. NB-IoT on the other hand is well suited for low throughput applications and has greater penetration. Once again, it’s just different horses for courses.
On another note, cellular, like most network options also has limitations. For example, regional areas may struggle to connect due to poor pre-existing cellular infrastructure in the area.
If this is something you’re concerned about, at INCYT, we can actually help predetermine if there is in fact coverage on your property, and assist in deploying an XR base station where required.
LoRa & LoRaWAN
Lora and LoRaWAN are terms you may or may not have already heard. Essentially, LoRa is the long-range radio signal that carries the data, and LoRaWAN is the communication protocol that controls and defines how that data is communicated across the network.
Similar to cellular connectivity, traditionally, in order to access open LoRaWAN networks you would need to be in range of a gateway. What this would mean is that if you didn’t have one near enough to you, then you wouldn't be able to utilise the network.
At INCYT we support both of the previously mentioned connectivity options, however, with our private on-farm connectivity option called the XR base station, we allow you to have your own private LoRa network. Essentially, what this means is that you’re not relying on the requirement of having a pre-established gateway. We tend to operate with a 915mghz frequency which we’ve learnt over years, testing achieves the strongest connectivity in the hardest to reach areas.
It’s also important to mention that the LoRaWAN based networks are being supported by emerging providers such as NNNCo and Meshed. If there is already coverage in your area from one of these operators your property may be ready to support the operation of IoT sensors now.
The reason this connectivity option is so popular ultimately comes down to it having lower frequencies than cellular networks do, which essentially transfers to having a greater use period in terms of battery life. On that note, devices that use LoRa and LoRaWAN, because they can last so long, like the blue node, when you think about return on initial cost over that period, they offer an incredibly cost effective approach.
Now, to their limitations. The main one to mention is something known as queuing. What this essentially equates to is data loss.
in some instances, depending on the number of properties and associated devices that are utilising the public LoRaWAN network, you may experience queuing. This might not be an issue in an application where not getting every report on time isn’t a major concern, but for some applications a missed reading can materially impact the decision making process, so again, it comes down to the ‘horses for courses’ analogy.
In relation to queuing, one of the benefits of the XR Base Station network is that you can more or less eradicate this issue, because it's your own network. In saying that, if you don't have your own on-farm base station network, similar to cellular, you will be relying on needing to have access to pre-existing gateways within your area.
All in all, LoRaWAN is a low-power, low-cost, option when it comes to network connectivity for your operation, and it’s definitely one to consider.
In the same way we’ve had both mobile phones and satellite phones for many years, the same can also be said for IoT sensors.
There are a number of IoT satellite providers such as Myriota who provide connectivity options for IoT devices, direct to satellite. These services are typically available anywhere where clear view to sky is available.
One of the new offerings INCYT have available with Myriota is nano satellite connectivity. This allows direct-to-orbit, ultra-low-power connectivity in some of the most remote regions of the world and on your farm.
Essentially, we are connecting to a constellation of nano satellites, roughly the size of a loaf of bread that are in polar-orbit around the globe. The benefits of nano satellites verses others are ultra low cost, smaller packets of data, and access where there is no pre-existing LoRaWAN or cellular connectivity.
An example application of this is our device, Andromeda, which looks for the best connectivity option available in an area and decide which to use, which in a remote area often falls back to satellite.
Now to some key challenges with using Satellite. You’ll find these issues in just about all satellite connected devices. Firstly is latency (the time to send and receive data). This ultimately depends on the amount of satellites in orbit, but can often sit around 4 hours. This is where you need to be asking yourselves as primary producers, how will these potential issues affect my operation? For example, if it’s tank or trough monitoring and you have a leak or an empty trough but don't get the update for 4 hours, could that cause an issue with loss of resource or risk animal dehydration? Another potential challenge is Frequency, with a capability of around 20 messages per day - although in most cases this is more than enough.
Deploying Your Own On-Farm Network
It’s likely you might have experienced a mobile black spot you can’t do much about. This is one area where IoT networks are very different from being dependent on mobile phone coverage provided by a 3rd party telecommunications provider. In the same way you can go to an electronics store and buy a WiFi modem for your home, you can also set-up a long-lange IoT Base Station on your property to bring it online.
Whilst this might sound complicated, it’s possible to unbox an IoT base station and be up and running within 5 minutes. It can be as simple as plugging it in and putting it on a pole.
There’s really no question that deploying your own on-farm network will result in superior performance across all aspects of these factors. You’ll have the right infrastructure to support a fully featured smart farm.
With your own XR Network you will have:
- Strong signal strength and total control to solve coverage gaps
- Access to low latency & high reporting rates
- The bandwidth you need to support the full range of sensor types
- Your own private LoRa network with an LTE-M back haul
- Reliable down-link capability to control & automate aspects of the operation
- Maximum power efficiency to achieve ultra-long battery life
If you’re interested in deploying your own on-farm IoT network you should check out the INCYT XR Base Station.
We have taken some of the best attributes of LoRaWAN, LTE-M and NB-IoT and combined them into one on-farm solution.
We hope you have found this deep dive into on-farm connectivity options useful. If you’d like to learn more about connectivity options for your farm, feel free to reach out to our team here.