With deployment of IoT is spreading across various domains and applications, the requirements of the underlying communication mechanism varies. There is no one-size-fill-all solution as the needs are different in case of throughput, range, power consumption etc. There are many wireless communication technologies, such as Short-range wireless, Cellular, LPWAN etc.

LPWAN stands for Low Power Wide Area Network, designed for sending small data packages over long distances. While short range technologies like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Zigbee are cheap, it is limited by distance, cellular technologies like 3G, 4G and 5G have more transmission rate and range but are more costly and high power consuming. LPWAN has overcome the cons of existing wireless technology by compromising on the data rate and featuring the long-range data transmission, low power consumption and being economical. Some of the technologies that comes under LPWAN includes Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), Sigfox, LoRa and others.

Heterogeneous Wireless communication Technologies

Of these LPWAN, LoRa has a significant market share and finds application across use cases.

Following are key features of LoRa Technology,

  • It has very wide coverage range about 5 km in urban areas and 15 km in suburban areas
  • Battery lifetime up to 15 years
  • One LoRa gateway takes care of thousands of nodes.
  • Easy to deploy and low cost.
  • Enhanced the secure data transmission by embedded end-to-end AES128 encryption

In this blog, we will cover the underlying technology behind LoRa and its network topology.

LoRa Technology

LoRa is a long range, low power, inexpensive technology for Internet of Things (IoT) developed by a company called Cycleo, France in 2009, later acquired by Semtech in 2012. The LoRa radio and modulation part is patented and its source is closed. Semtech has licensed its LoRa intellectual property to other chip manufacturers. The LoRa Alliance, an open, non-profit association has been formed to promote the adoption of this technology and has grown to more than 500 members since its inception in March 2015.

The most important aspect of the LoRa is that it uses license-free sub-gigahertz radio frequency ISM bands in the deployed region such as 868 MHz in Europe and 915MHz in North America. Thus, there is no need for a separate licensing for using LoRa in any country.

Usually in digital communication, there are three types of basic modulation techniques such as

Amplitude Shift Keying, Frequency Shift Keying and Phase Shift Keying, in which either amplitude or frequency or phase of the carrier varies according to the digital signal changes. The short coming with these approaches is that since the bandwidth is quiet limited the signal is quiet prone to interference and could be easily jammed. To over come this, spread spectrum techniques are being used where by the signal is modulated such that it is spread across the entire bandwidth. There are many spread spectrum techniques such as DSSS, FHSS, THSS, CSS etc.

Chirp Spread Spectrum

LoRa is a proprietary spread spectrum modulation scheme that is based on Chirp Spread Spectrum modulation (CSS). Chirp Spread Spectrum is a spread spectrum technique that uses wideband linear frequency modulated chirp pulses to encode information.A chirp is a sinusoidal signal whose frequency increases(up chirp) or decreases(down chirp) over time across the entire bandwidth. This signal is used as the carrier and is modulated according to the data to be transmitted.

LoRa uses three bandwidths: 125kHz, 250kHz and 500kHz. The chirp uses the entire bandwidth and the spreading factors are – in short – the duration of the chirp. LoRa operates with spread factors from 7 to 12. This delivers orthogonal transmissions at different data rates. Moreover it provides processing gain and hence transmitter output power can be reduced with same RF link budget and hence will increase battery life.

LoRa WAN

While LoRa is the underlying physical part, LoRaWAN is the network on which that LoRa operates. It is a media access control (MAC) in the data link layer that is maintained by the LoRa Alliance. LoRaWAN defines a set of rules and software that ensures data arrives with an acknowledgement and does not have duplicate packets. It is a network architecture that is deployed in a star topology and so the communication between the end node and gateway is bidirectional.

LoRaWAN defines role of end points and gateway. End points or End nodes are the remote nodes typically housing the sensors/actuators. Gateways or Concentrators forms the heart of the star topology, to which the end points communicate to.

Lora WAN Network Architecture

When an end node transmits data to the gateway, it is called an uplink. When the gateway transmits data to the end node, it is called a downlink. The gateways forward this packet to the network server. The network server collects the messages from all gateways and filters out the duplicate data and determines the gateway that has the best reception. The network server forwards the packet to the correct application server where the end user can process the sensor data. Optionally the application server can send a response back to the end node. When a response is sent, the network server receives the response and determines which gateway to use to broadcast the response back to the end node.

The LoRaWAN protocol defines the Adaptive Data Rate (ADR) scheme to control the uplink transmission parameters of LoRa devices. Whether the ADR functionality will be used is requested by the end nodes by setting the ADR flag in the uplink message. If the ADR flag is set, the network server can control the end node’s transmission parameters. ADR should only be used in stable Radio Frequency (RF) situations where end nodes do not move. Mobile end nodes which are stationary for longer times can enable ADR during those times.

This blog introduced the basics behind LoRa technology including the underlying communication techniques and network topology. In the next blog, we will cover the communication model in more detail including the classes, bands and also the typical configuration available in a gateway.

About Embien: Embien Technologies is a proven enabler in adoption of IoT. We have been working with different communication technologies such as ZigBee, BLE, SigFox, LoRa, NB-IoT and have designed gateways to inter-operate between them. Our services include end device development, gateways design, cloud application development and analytics.

Smart Metering

Today things are made smart and processes are becoming smart which enhances the life style of humans in many ways. One such example is the “Smart Metering”. All over the world, the mechanical energy meters are replaced by digital energy meters and currently advanced to smart meters which provide accurate results for greater period of time.

Digital energy meter is an electronic device that measures and stores the consumption of electric energy periodically and communicates the stored information to the provider (utility) via wired communication (Optical port, serial communication) as well as wirelessly for monitoring, analysis and billing. The wireless energy meters are referred as Smart Meters and most commonly used in industrial segments for various reasons and low end energy meters (wired communication) are used in domestic, commercial segments which supports digital interface such as RS232, RS485 serial communication.

Advanced Metering Infrastructure

Since the smart meters include wireless communication such as GSM/GPRS, low power radio, etc the readings can be updated in the central database from anywhere in the world and facilitates the customer (User) with plenty of information’s such as daily usage, peak demand, last interval demand, load profile, voltage profile, sag and swell events, phase information, power factor, tamper notifications, etc. This type of system is named as “Advanced Metering Infrastructure“(AMI). Such a huge amount of information is more important in building a smart grid by which the amount of power generation can be predicted based on power demands.

Automatic Meter Reading

Smart meters with AMI system are more advanced and expensive which makes them overrated for domestic segments. Similar to the “Advanced Metering Infrastructure” (AMI), Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) system is available as an automated way to collect basic meter reading from low end energy meters that are widely used in domestic segments where a system is required for collection only. AMR includes a handheld reading entry device where data from Smart Meters is acquired by connecting the device to the digital ports typically RS232 or RS485 serial ports using dedicated serial cables. The technician will have to plug these cables to the meter of concern and the handheld device will acquire the readings automatically. Likewise the technician will acquire data from each and every meter of his zone and the acquired readings are transferred to the central database for billing.

Though AMR has become common way of reading meters, it can be made more advanced. At present there are many wireless technologies available for small data transfer at very low costs. Among the various wireless technologies, BLE is the most popular. With the BLE enabled smart phones together with an Android app will simply replace the handheld AMR system which performs the similar functionality with wireless operation. Also a tiny BLE module with serial interface (RS232) like eStorm-B1 is sufficient to enable wireless connectivity for the energy meters.

Smart Metering using eStorm-B1 BLE Module

In previous blog, we have discussed in detail about eStorm-B1 BLE module application as a UART to BLE Bridge with a brief demo video. In this blog, we will demonstrate a Smart Metering application which can be realized by interfacing eStorm-B1 with energy meter via RS232 interface and by replacing the traditional handheld reading device with Smart AMR Android app running in Android smart phone with BLE connectivity.

The following video shows the demo of Smart Metering application,

In this demo, a digital energy meter is upgraded to a smart meter by adding eStrom-B1, an NXP KW31Z based BLE module via already available RS232 serial interface. In the other end, an Android Smart phone is equipped with a custom designed Android application “SMART AMR” which will communicate with the smart meter via BLE connectivity and acquire the reading when required.

The following are the features of Smart AMR Android application,

  1. Secured login – User name and password protection for authorized person login only
  2. Area selection – User configurable settings for selecting region, circle and section of his/her zone
  3. GPS based location mapping – Automatic mapping of the user’s present location
  4. One touch reading acquisition – Complete list of available registered meters in the particular location with complete details such as consumer name, ID, meter number, phase, load information and one touch acquisition of old, new reading and energy consumption.
  5. Auto update – Automatic update of acquired readings to central database via available 3G/4G connectivity in Smartphone.

This type of setup is very much suitable for AMR systems which can replace the handheld systems with the low cost smart phones and can reduce the burden on technicians by reducing more physical works that are present in the current handheld systems.

About Embien: Embien Technologies is a leading provider of embedded design services for the Semi-conductor, Industrial, Consumer and Health Care segments. Embien has successfully executed many projects like based on IoT such as healthcare Wearables, Gateways, and Data Analytics etc. Embien also offers a set of wearable design collections complete with electronics, firmware and Cloud that can be used to shorten product development costs and time significantly.

As a continuation of our previous discussion about selection criteria of BLE SoC for building BLE based IoT devices, we will discuss in detail about the most important considerations for BLE RF layout design and antenna selection from various types available. The communication range of a wireless device with a current limited power source depends mainly on the RF layout, antenna design, and enclosure. Increased operating distance can be achieved with the type of antenna chosen together with carefully designed RF layout with few matching components to ensure most of the power from the BLE SoC reaches the antenna. The more power an antenna can transmit from the SoC, the larger the distance it can cover.

RF layout

RF layout involves routing the transmission lines from BLE SoC to antenna with few matching components in between. RF transmission lines acts as a medium that carry RF power from a BLE SoC to antenna, hence they need to be routed with many constraints to get maximum RF power delivery to antenna. There are several types of transmission lines, the two most popular types are:

  1. Microstrip Line
  2. Coplanar wave guide (CPWG)

Both of these are PCB traces differing in how they are constructed for maintaining the 50-ohm characteristic impedance. There are online calculators available which help us to calculate the impedance of the transmission based on our parameter input.

Microstrip Line – This type of transmission line has a signal trace on top of a substrate with a ground plane beneath the substrate. A microstrip line is simple to construct, simulate, and fabricate. The characteristic impedance of a Microstrip line depends on the following factors,

  1. Substrate height (H)
  2. Dielectric constant of the substrate (εr)
  3. Width of the trace (W)
  4. Thickness of the RF trace (T)

Transmission Line type

MicroStrip Line

CPWG – This is similar to the microstrip, but it has a copper pouring on either side of the RF trace with a gap between them. It provides better isolation for RF traces and a better EMI performance and makes it easier to support the grounding of matching components on an RF trace. The characteristic impedance of a CPWG depends on the following factors:

  1. Substrate height (H)
  2. Dielectric constant of the substrate (εr)
  3. Width of the trace (W)
  4. The gap between the trace and the adjacent ground fill (G)
  5. Thickness of the RF trace (T)

Transmission Line type

Coplanar Wave Guide

Nowadays the SoC manufacturers provide reference designs from which we get the guidelines for routing the RF transmission lines and the values (typically capacitance and inductance values) of the matching components. The designer in addition to the routing guidelines must also note the recommended PCB stackups for desired performances, since the impedance of the RF lines will change depending on the PCB layers stackups. In most of the cases, the PCB fabricator may not match the exact stackup as recommended and at these conditions there will be a need for slight changes in the RF trace width, gaps or thickness to ensure the correct impedance value.

Antenna Types

Antenna is a critical part of any wireless devices that transmits and receives electromagnetic radiation in free space. Antenna is nothing but a conductor exposed in space. When the length of a conductor is a certain multiple or ratio of the wavelength of the signal (λ) it behaves like an antenna and radiates the electrical energy into free space in the form of electromagnetic radiation of that frequency to free space. BLE device range requirement, costs and form factor are the main factors to be considered for choosing the antenna. For BLE applications (2.4GHz), most common types of PCB antennas are as follows,

  1. Wire antenna
  2. PCB Trace Antenna
  3. Chip antenna
  • Wire antenna: It is a piece of wire rise from PCB plane and protrudes to free space over a ground plane. Wire antenna produces best performance and RF range due to its dimension and better exposure. They can be in different forms such as straight wire, helix, loop, etc. A through-hole pad is sufficient to solder the wire antenna, thus saving the board dimension and hence low PCB cost.

Type of Wire antenna

Wire Antenna – Straight and Helix Type

  • PCB antenna: This is a copper trace drawn on the PCB. These antennas are inexpensive and easy to design, because they are a part of the PCB and provide good performance. Meandered trace, inverted F-trace is the most popular PCB antenna’s used in many designs. Meandered trace antenna is recommended for applications that require a minimum PCB area and Inverted F antenna is better compared to meandered antenna for radiation, but it requires space higher than meandered antenna. Main drawback of PCB antenna is that, it may require two or more revision to get expected range performance. This can be avoided by using the antenna design application notes and stack up recommended by the chip vendors carefully.

Types of PCB Antennas

PCB Antenna Types

  • Chip antenna: For applications where the PCB size is to be extremely small, chip antenna is a good choice. They are commercially off the shelf antennas that occupy very small PCB area and offers reasonable performance. But the disadvantage of chip antenna is the increased BoM and assembly cost since they are external components that need to be purchased and assembled. Also the chip antennas are very sensitive to RF ground clearance and the manufacturers RF ground clearance recommendations must be followed strictly.

Types of BLE Antenna

Chip Antenna

There are some applications which need antenna’s to be placed on or outside the enclosure for better reach. In such conditions, there are options for providing antenna connectors on board and extending the connection to the external antenna or other mating connector through shielded wire.

Types of external antenna connection

Antenna Connectors

  • U.FL connector: There are miniaturized RF connectors for high frequency signals. The male connectors are generally surface mounted and soldered directly to the PCB. The female connectors are crimped at one end of the shielded wire and the other end may be a PCB antenna or a mating connector such as SMA, MMCX, etc.

Type of antenna connector

U.FL Connectors

  • MMCX connector: These are Micro-Miniature Coaxial connector. They have a lock-snap mechanism which allows 360 degree rotation. It is comparatively better than U.FL in terms of insertion and removal lifetime and has over 10 times that of U.FL connectors. They are also available in surface mount package.

Type of MMCX connectors and cables

MMCX Connector

About Embien

Embien Technologies is a leading provider of embedded design services for the Semi-conductor, Industrial, Consumer and Health Care segments. Embien has successfully executed many projects like based on IoT such as healthcare Wearables, Gateways, and Data Analytics etc. Embien also offers a set of wearable design collections complete with electronics, firmware and Cloud that can be used to shorten product development costs and time significantly.