Forward-looking: IoT devices have penetrated our homes with startling success, yet now they face a new challenge: making it in the big scary outdoors, where threats like power and motion have kept companies back. No more, says Sony, who announced their first chip supported by their Eltres LPWA (low-power wide area) network last week.
IoT has taken off with the help of existing Wi-Fi and LTE networks, yet those both come with significant compromises. Wi-Fi has a short range and suffers from signal interference if too many devices are connected, while LTE is expensive and requires a SIM. Both have a high-power drain. If we truly want everything connected to the internet, then we require affordable long-range networks that work in moving vehicles and can handle high interference, à la low-power long range. Enter Eltres.
Eltres is Sony’s spin on the concept, and it will launch in full in Japan later this year. Eltres employs small microchips and antennas to relay a signal-like sensor data to a base station, which can be over 60 miles (100 km) away. If the data was destined for a server the base station may have an internet connection, but it doesn’t have to. Sony gives the example of a drone tasked with monitoring an offshore farm, which could use the Eltres network to transmit location and sensor data.
Sony’s first gen chip, the CXM1501GR (I’d like a word with whoever is in charge of naming), paired with a 20 mW antenna can transmit a 128-bit signal at up to 6.35 kbps while moving at over 60 mph. It can automatically switch between 23 channels on the 923.6 MHz to 928 MHz bands and when more of the band is available it uses chirp modulation (frequency jumping) to utilize more bandwidth.
To circumvent interference problems it repeats each signal four times, with synchronization bits interspersed so that the receiver can account for variations caused by a change in direction of motion. The chip is only 16mm x 16mm and will run off a single coin/button battery (like a watch) for possibly months. It’s available to developers on request and should appear in devices soon.
Sony believes it will create a new market of IoT devices. A ski resort might give out Eltres trackers so that friends can find each other on ski slopes, or detect if a guest has gotten lost or is caught in an avalanche. Ships could be equipped to track racers, or detect flooding and aid maritime rescue. In an urban environment, Eltres could track deliveries, rental cars and bicycles, or it could monitor for timetable disruptions on train and bus networks.
These things aren’t exactly impossible with current networks. Sony’s plan though is to make them so cheap and easy that they become ubiquitous, which is what IoT is all about.