If you’ve been following the trend towards an Internet of Things (IoT)-based future where billions of connected devices will positively impact every level of society from individual consumers and companies to entire industries and smart cities, you might also be aware of the need for new technologies and IoT connectivity solutions to enable that massive growth.
Among the fastest emerging IoT connectivity solutions are low power wide area networks (LPWANs) based on kilometer-plus range, low power consumption RF technology. Various LPWAN deployment projections by leading industry analysts tell the story of the future. We can expect anywhere between 1.1 billion LPWAN connections worldwide by 2023 (according to IoT Analytics) and approximately 3.44 billion LPWAN connections worldwide by 2021 (according to Statista).
At the same time, the IoT market continues to drive demand for Bluetooth LE, with around 5.2 billion Bluetooth chips (of which 97 percent will include LE technology) set to be shipped in 2022, up from 3.6 billion in 2017, according to the Bluetooth SIG’s Bluetooth Market Update 2018.
Numerous markets — including smart cities, smart agriculture, building management, electric metering, and asset tracking—are all looking to emerging connectivity solutions that combine the short- and long-range ultra-low power capabilities of Bluetooth LE and LPWAN technologies. As a result, the global market for hybrid Bluetooth LE/LPWAN modules, as well as end-products in the form of cellular gateways, is set to explode.
For example, one module developed by Japan-based company Braveridge is a ready-made solution enabling an engineer to build-in Bluetooth LE and proprietary LPWAN technology into a product for long-range wireless connectivity between Bluetooth LE devices and the Cloud. The module’s integrated Nordic nRF52832 Bluetooth LE System-on-Chip (SoC) can communicate with other nearby Bluetooth LE devices and then transfer its aggregated data to the LPWAN chip in the module, which can then forward the data to the Cloud even if the nearest base station is kilometers away.
Hybrid gateways rise
Meanwhile, Bluetooth LE/cellular IoT solutions involving hybrid gateways are also on the rise, combining mature Bluetooth LE SoCs with a new class of low-power cellular IoT modem such as Nordic’s nRF91 Series.
“What we’re finding is that cellular connectivity was a major missing link in wireless IoT,” says Geir Langeland, Nordic Semiconductor's Director of Sales & Marketing. “While Bluetooth, Thread, and Zigbee, for example, are all extremely relevant to IoT applications, they all lack a way to connect to Cloud services without some form of gateway device or router.
“This all adds to design complexity and cost, and limits the IoT application range of these technologies on their own. Add in cellular connectivity, however, and the game completely changes as Cloud connectivity from almost anywhere on the planet is now completely viable: both from a technological and cost perspective,” Langeland adds.
What are the key advantages for IoT applications? Long-range wireless connectivity, of course, but even more importantly greater access to the power of “edge processing”, where a cellular IoT modem aggregates swathes of complex sensor data then rapidly transmits truly valuable information as opposed to periodic raw data.
Ruuvi Innovations, a Finnish open-source electronics specialist, recently released a gateway product called the Ruuvi Node which combines a Nordic Semiconductor nRF9160 System-in-Package (SiP) cellular IoT module and an ultra-low power Nordic nRF52840 multiprotocol Bluetooth SoC. The Ruuvi Node is said to be the world’s first open-source, multi-purpose, industrial-grade environmental sensing and asset tracking solution with cellular connectivity, energy harvesting via an embedded solar panel, GPS positioning, and NFC.
In addition to functioning as a standalone IoT asset tracker and sensor node, the device will also be able to act as a cellular gateway for any of Ruuvi’s existing "RuuviTag" Bluetooth sensor beacons located nearby. According to the company, RuuviTags are employed in existing IoT solutions by over 1,500 companies, including the Industry 4.0 software specialist Bosch Connected Industry, where they are used as part of its logistics 4.0 solution "Nexeed Track and Trace".
The RuuviTag platform can be used for smaller consumer applications like a backyard beehive monitor, but it’s on a much grander scale, such as an industrial mesh network asset tracking system, where this kind of Bluetooth LE/cellular IoT solution is destined to make a major difference.