Democratising the IoT
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Sensor-to-satellite communications could be the key to providing affordable, universal access for the IoT, says Alastair Williamson of Wyld Networks. In 1990, John Romkey connected a toaster to the internet for the first time and a year later, students at the University of Cambridge used a web camera to […]

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Sensor-to-satellite communications could be the key to providing affordable, universal access for the IoT, says Alastair Williamson of Wyld Networks.

In 1990, John Romkey connected a toaster to the internet for the first time and a year later, students at the University of Cambridge used a web camera to report on coffee. But it was not until 1999 that the term Internet of Things was coined by Kevin Ashton, executive director of Auto-ID Labs at MIT.

Democratising the IoT

While some of the early predictions have not been realised, the IoT has emerged as one of the most important technologies of this century, delivering increased efficiency and streamlined processes as well as providing rich, insightful and actionable data.

The IoT will continue to grow at a rate higher than 30% over the next few years, according to research company Gartner, while researchers at IDC predict that by 2025, the total number of IoT devices is expected to increase to 80 billion.

Recent advances in technology are fuelling this growth. These include low- cost, low-power sensor technology, new wireless protocols suited to low-power, long- and short-range use cases, mandated security standards and technologies, cloud computing for scaling up, and data analytics and AI to aggregate, curate and analyse data.

Connectivity

Each of these technologies is helping to drive the market and make the IoT more accessible. True democratisation of the IoT, however, will never be achieved while mobile cellular networks cover only 15% of the earth’s surface and low-cost access covers only about 1%. In a recent State of IoT Adoption by Eseye report, 41% of respondents reported that cellular connectivity across different geographical areas was the biggest challenge they faced – and this was a study of the UK and US, where levels of connectivity are high.

How can the IoT help people in some of the remotest parts of the world? One use case is farmers. The United Nations predicts that the world’s population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050, requiring global agricultural production to rise by 69% from 2010 levels to meet demand.

A large part of success in agriculture depends on being able to accurately measure and translate environmental conditions into intelligent insights and acting upon them. This presents enormous possibilities for agricultural IoT. According to management consultant McKinsey, IoT in agriculture could add $500bn to gross domestic product by 2030, a critical productivity improvement of 7% to 9% for the industry if connectivity issues can be resolved. A study conducted by OnFarm found that the use of IoT on the average farm increased yields by 17.5%, reduced energy costs from $13 to $7 per acre and cut water use for irrigation by 8%.

Like many applications, IoT in agriculture usually requires low cost, low power, long range and low data rates. These have driven the development of new connectivity technologies such as low power wide area network (LPWAN) and non-cellular standards such as LoRa and Sigfox, along with cellular standards such as narrowband IoT and long-term evolution for machines.

LPWAN, and especially LoRaWAN radio technology, is low power and can operate at distance, with much longer wavelengths. This means data can travel 10-15km without reaching much resistance. Despite all these benefits, LoRaWAN is limited by scale; on remote farms, 10-15km is nothing.

That is why sensor-to-satellite connectivity will be a game changer. Using LoRa, it is possible to send data directly to a low-earth orbit satellite without the need to maintain a terrestrial LoRa network. Effectively, the terrestrial gateway is replaced by a gateway in space, freeing up sensors to be placed literally anywhere on the globe, however remote.

Satellite IoT

Satellite is set to transform the IoT in areas such as agriculture, energy, construction, government and security. Billions of IoT sensors could be deployed to monitor climate change around the world to collect data and make proactive decisions that will counter negative environmental impacts.

As the cost of the IoT modules required to connect to satellites is reduced, this revolution in satellite IoT technology will overcome the two key barriers to universal access – global coverage and affordability – and as such can truly be termed as technology to democratise the IoT.

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