At IoT Evolution Expo in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., one question that emerged repeatedly was how best to build IoT infrastructures that can then be leveraged for new uses, uses that we haven’t necessarily yet devised. Speakers mentioned commercial lighting systems, traffic control signal systems and of course cellular data networks, with particular focus on the emerging wider-area, lower-data-rate standards.
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Smart lighting, for instance, means wirelessly connected lamps. At a panel in a track on connected buildings, two representatives of the commercial lighting business argued that lighting in a commercial lighting installation is the least of it. The bulbs that replace traditional, higher-energy bulbs use bulbs with computing and radio components built into them and thus get networking components into shop floors and the like without explicitly creating a traditional IT network.
A lightbulb went off
Kaynam Hedayat, vice president of product management at Digital Lumens, said companies “can increase energy savings up to 95%.” As compelling as that might be (and, one should note, some eyebrows in the room went up at that figure), both Hedayat and Don Barnetson, chief product officer of Lunera Lighting, Inc., argued that selling lighting for a living is a loser’s game. That’s primarily because new lamps based on LEDs rather than hot filaments, last 10 to 20 years, so each sale is effectively a one-time affair, rather than an ongoing series of replacements.
“The lighting is the way we Trojan horse a wireless infrastructure onto the shop floor,” Barnetson said, to agreement from Hedayat.
This leaves the question of how the infrastructure works and what you’re able to offer in the way of services across that infrastructure once it’s there. Options Barnetson and Hedayat discussed included interior location services using Bluetooth beacons built into the lamps, collecting sensor data from devices other than lighting and providing highly granular control over HVAC systems.
Wireless IoT comparisons
One clear takeaway from IoT Evolution Expo as a whole is that there isn’t particular agreement over which wireless infrastructure makes the most sense.
Digital Lumens uses a customized (and therefore not standard compliant) Zigbee mesh network. Lunera uses Wi-Fi. Each has its benefits and downsides, but one striking downside for the mesh approach is the degree of bandwidth used merely to administer the mesh itself. Many of the sessions at IoT Evolution Expo took it as a given that cellular connections were the answer for most IoT applications. But cellular has considerably higher costs for the hardware along with ongoing network data costs.
The range of options for cellular connections is evolving, however. In a keynote presentation at the event, KORE CEO Alex Brisbourne said that the emerging LTE “categories” at lower data rates will make cellular connections for lower-cost devices economically feasible. “We’re starting to talk about ubiquity and very, very low cost,” Brisbourne said. “More importantly, you’re starting to build networks with relatively low latency. So LTE is a way of taking us up the chain to the richer applications, the ones that are being hosted in clouds, where we really want to have richness of content.”
As Brisbourne sees it, the highest volume of IoT transactions will be coming from consumer devices that only very occasionally check in with the network. “These devices may only need a signal out to them once a week or even once a month. Those kinds of requirements need devices that are extremely low cost, that can get on and off the network easily, running on very low power.” For this, Brisbourne favors NB-IoT.
But while there was interest in low-power, low-bandwidth connectivity options in some sessions, in others it was clear that enormous data streams would be generated by each machine on a shop floor, or by hundreds of sensors in a building, or from individual connected autos. Pavel Cherkashin, managing partner at GVA Capital, argued in a plenary panel on the financial dimensions of IoT investment that “most of the world doesn’t have the throughput at the level that we need it. Core communication technologies are going to have to be reimagined.”