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Credit: Dean Koh

Credit: Dean Koh

Developing cost-effective, energy efficient IoT solutions for outdoor as well as indoor applications

Recently OpenGov spoke to Mr Lup Yuen Lee, Chief Technology Officer at UnaBiz[f1] , the exclusive network operator of Sigfox’s low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) in Singapore and Taiwan. UnaBiz is the first IoT-dedicated network operator in Asia to roll out a nationwide[PB2]  IoT network. 

Recently, UnaBiz enabled full indoor coverage of the Sigfox IoT network at all 4 terminals of Changi Airport. Smart solutions providers and system integrators have developed Sigfox-enabled solutions such as temperature sensors and other applications for the Smart Airport.

The  Singapore-based company partnered Taipei City Government last year to build an IoT Innovation Lab. It is working with Airbus to  advance research in digitalization of aircraft maintenance operations through the adoption of IoT solutions. In collaboration with bike-sharing company, oBike, UnaBiz is rolling out geolocation services for one million bikes on Sigfox Global LPWAN.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Mr Lee talked about different types of IoT applications and their network and power requirements and shared his views on the complexities of IoT development.

Deep vs Wide IoT

Mr Lee explained that there are two classes of IoT, ‘deep’ IoT and ‘wide’ IoT. Amazon Echo and Alexa are examples of deep IoT. Deep IoT devices require high bandwidth and power supply.

With the Amazon devices, the voice command goes to the cloud for processing and generating an output command. This has high computation power requirements and hence, these devices don’t work well on a low-bandwidth network or low battery power. As a result, they tend to stay fixed in offices or homes.

UnaBiz looks at wide IoT, which refers to devices that are very light, battery-powered and operate on pervasive networks. They can work anytime, anywhere in Singapore and do not rely on WiFi or the cellular network.

“We don’t think everyone will be able to afford an Amazon Echo. It is a very powerful device but it is not cheap, because there’s so much complexity inside it. In short, we’re just trying to be a very simple kind of IoT network, where you press a button and it triggers the backend. The device does not need to pair with Bluetooth or WiFi. It is simple and fuss-free, even for the elderly,” Mr Lee added.

Subscription also tends to be easier, and there is no need to worry about SIM cards because all the devices have a built-in ID. The ID indicates that the device belongs to a certain company, and all messages can be directed there, without any routing elsewhere. The packets are a mere 12 bytes, so bandwidth requirement is limited and users are not expected to pay an exorbitant price to use the network.

Cost-effective and energy-efficient IoT solutions

When Sigfox was created in Europe, it was for primarily for outdoor applications, for low-power sensor kind of networks that need to send data intermittently. UnaBiz has been working on such applications that help collect data on outdoor environment, such as the weather and haze conditions. UnaBiz has been exploring indoor applications as well, such as tackling rodent infestations in F&B or retail shopping malls.

The trouble with rat traps is that if a rat gets caught, it has to be gotten rid of immediately. Otherwise the rodent will decompose, and the other rats will disperse. So how can building owners know if there is a rat stuck in the trap and alert someone to clean it up. Doing regular manual checks is simply a waste of manpower.

“The problem with this kind of use case is that the rats run around in very strange places, deep inside the building. You cannot guarantee that there’s WiFi network in air con vents, ducts etc.,” said Mr Lee.

Therefore, the solution needs to be able to penetrate into distant locations, without being constrained to just public areas or by WiFi coverage. Sigfox was found to be a good solution because of its pervasiveness. One base station can provide coverage for the whole building.

Mr Lee said, “We’re actually trying a few types of tracking solutions. You can install a GPS module, however as we all know, running GPS on any device uses up a lot of power.”

“The second idea being explored is WiFi geolocation –  like an Android or iPhone which can use WiFi hotspots for locations - but if you think about it, they might not work in the wild in areas such as a reservoir because there is no network there, or in secluded areas such as big drains or canals for flood monitoring, on the rooftops of buildings with solar panels to monitor power storage and usage (UnaBiz is currently working with Sunseap on power metering), or at the basements of industrial buildings for monitoring water leakage.”

The third alternative would be to use the Sigfox network for geolocation.

Mr Lee said, “You can either use a high-power one which will drain your battery faster or you can choose something like Sigfox geolocation which requires no power, as long as it transmits one message a day.”

“For Sigfox, it’s easy, just one base station can penetrate the whole building indoors. There’s no need to shift the base station around and you do not need to put in additional base stations.”

“When we talk about networks, power and costs matter. If the rat trap needs to be hooked up to the mains, then it’s not going to work. You cannot be assured that there will be power source anywhere you go- so it has to be battery-powered. Battery power means that it has to be a very low power kind of network, WiFi will probably drain it because it consumes too much power,” he added.

The reason why Sigfox is so energy efficient is that the way it transmits in the form of a broadcast, sending out very small packets, as mentioned earlier. Every time a message is sent, three packets are sent at three different frequencies (this is called frequency hopping). When running on unlicensed frequencies, some of the packets might get blocked. If one is blocked, the others can still go through, ensuring that the message is transmitted.

“Because it is ‘broadcast’, the communication is very simple There’s no need to negotiate – 3G and WiFi networks need to authenticate with the hotspot. They need to make sure the password is correct. After that they need to keep the session alive, whereas Sigfox can shut down after each broadcast, reducing power consumption,” Mr Lee said.

Therefore, Sigfox is ideally suited to applications that need to be delivered at a very low cost, have less frequent communication requirements, and require exceptional battery performance.

There are numerous smart cities applications that requires such monitoring sensors where deployment need to be pervasive. If we think of waste management, building management, critical infrastructure monitoring, and imagine the need to put a sensor on all the fire hydrants, all  AED (Automated external defibrillator) devices, all the power meters, all of the trees in Singapore, the cost and simplicity of deployment becomes crucial. 

And how does Sigfox achieve wide penetration? Because it is an ultra-narrow band technology. Transmissions on wireless networks are divided into different channels. With Sigfox the communication channels are very narrow. Each message is 100 Hz wide. Because these channels are so small, the possibility of interference is very low.

Other networks like LoRa have the advantage of being able to send bigger packets, but bigger packets also impliy higher risk of interference.

Barriers to take-off in IoT technologies

IoT technologies have been around for a while. And there is a market for interesting applications. Even if it is a small market like Singapore, technologies developed here can be exported worldwide.

Then what is holding back development and deployment?

Mr Lee has been an Adjunct Lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic School of Informatics & IT since April 2015, teaching and mentoring the next generation of ICT professionals in networking and IoT technologies. From his teaching experience, he realised that working on IoT technologies is quite difficult.

“Because it involves a whole range of skills. You have to know about hardware. You have to know about these devices. You have to know what powers these devices, what is the transmission range of these devices.”

“Next you have to go up in the cloud. These things will transmit to some base station, the base station will be connected the cloud. You have to figure out how the data goes into the cloud. Then how do you build a cloud that can handle all these devices. It’s quite easy to handle one device at a time, for prototyping. But to handle hundreds of thousands of devices is quite challenging,” he explained. It is very difficult to find people with that wide a skillset.”

Then there is the question to how to analyse all the data from the devices

“Very few jobs in Singapore that have that kind of data processing requirements. We are one of the first to actually do this kind of large scale analytics. We need tools to be able to massage the data.”

Mr Lee also said that today we see a lot of devices created just for the sake of it. These are examples of technology looking for a problem to solve. Identifying problems is a crucial step.

He provided an example of a very real problem UnaBiz is trying to address. 

At a home for patients suffering from disabilities, some of the residents go out for work. The officials want to make sure that they report to work on time and that they also come back on time. It is about ensuring that they are safe and are not getting lost. The home cannot afford to give the residents expensive phones or trackers. Even if they do, the devices will run out of battery when their clients do not return.

UnaBiz proposed using one of its motion-triggered Sigfox devices. Residents can carry the device around and everytime they move, it sends a message to the cloud. Then, an algorithm is used to do machine learning and figure out where the person is. Being mindful of privacy concerns, the technology is kept accurate to a radius of around 1 km, which is enough to know if the person is safe, without pinpointing their exact location.

This is only one example of tracking solutions for non-motorised assets. Other use case include tracking bicycles, people, pets. The device must be affordable and accessible for the mainstream users to adopt and benefit from.

Ultimately, accelerating IoT development and deployment would require connecting the people with expertise in devices and in cloud computing with the business people, placing them all on one team. This would enable the creation of solutions with real value, solving real-life problems.

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