Semtech wants to demystify RF with free, open-source, LoRaWAN-focused educational tools for IoT development.

Semtech has announced two new series of free educational tools to help designers learn about LoRaWAN and how to implement it in design, especially for IoT devices.

AAC had a chance to speak with Steve Hegenderfer, Senior Director of Developer Ecosystem at Semtech, who characterized the programs as "geared towards developers and [designed] to help them understand LoRaWAN technology and get to market more quickly."

Developed in partnership with the LoRa Alliance (the prominent LoRaWAN-focused association created to develop and support the protocol), Semtech's new programs are both free and open-source.

 

Image from the LoRaWAN Alliance

 

Before we get into the releases, however, let's take a quick look at why anyone would want to learn about LoRaWAN in the first place.

 

What Is LoRaWAN?

LoRaWAN stands for Long-Range Wide Area Network. It is a MAC (media access layer) protocol that addresses the upper layers of the standard LoRa network. LoRa, itself, uses CSS (chirp spread spectrum) modulation and addresses the lower layers, operating in sub-gigahertz RF bands that are unlicensed.

What attracts developers to LoRaWAN is often the fact that it is low-power but very long-range. According to Semtech, this makes LoRaWAN "a de facto choice" for LP-WAN (low-power wide area network) connectivity.

 

A graphic depicting the comparison of bandwidth to range for network types. Image from Semtech.

 

Anytime an IoT device is designed, the question of security quite naturally follows. But Hegenderfer says that LoRaWAN is unique in that it's "built from the ground-up to be secure."

 

LoRaWAN Applications: Long-Range, Low-Bandwidth, Low-Power, Low-Maintenance 

One of the important things to understand about the IoT is that, while it has great potential across industries to connect to massive devices and systems (think of the IIoT, the industrial Internet of Things), its present reality is much lower-bandwidth.

"When you think about the Internet of Things, the majority of those 'things' are not these high bandwidth applications," Hegenderfer tells us. "They're not autonomous cars. They're not remote surgery applications, which require massive amounts of bandwidth. Most of them out there are smart building applications or smart agriculture applications or smart metering applications or smart manufacturing applications where there's not a lot of data."

Beyond the fact that most of these applications aren't necessarily data-hungry, Hegenderfer also points out that they don't require always-on, constant-contact functionality: "...that data doesn't change every second or millisecond. [Connectivity is] either an event-based thing where something happens to the machine and it needs to trigger an event or it happens on a daily basis or even a weekly basis or a monthly basis. So, in these types of applications, that's where LoRaWAN really shines. It's a sub-gigahertz protocol, so it can go through metal, brick, wood, etc. And it will travel for miles." 

 

"[LoRaWAN] is a sub-gigahertz protocol, so it can go through metal, brick, wood, etc. And it will travel for miles."

 

He continues on to say that LoRaWAN is especially suited to remote monitoring applications that don't require constant communication:

"Most of these applications are when you have sensors that are out in the field that communicate infrequently—maybe every hour, maybe every day, maybe every couple of days triggered by an event," he says. "We don't want to spend a lot of money maintaining those things and they can't be plugged in. That's the perfect type of an application for LoRaWAN."

So how about power needs?

"Because [these devices are] not constantly on—it's not a chatty protocol at all—the battery life is absolutely amazing."

From his past experience, Hegenderfer says that he had been impressed with Bluetooth's low-power abilities. "But it does not hold a candle to the types of applications—from a battery power perspective—which you can get out of these LoRaWAN radios."

 

LoRaWAN Academy: All About Education 

As the name implies, this program was initially designed back in 2017 for university students. Recently, however, the program is aimed to serve several different personas such as classroom instructors, FAEs, and engineers who independently want to expand their skill set.

 

 

The focus, he says, is to provide a solid introduction to LoRaWAN to beginners: "You can be brand new to the technology. You could be coming from Bluetooth or ZigBee or Wi-Fi. You could be a systems integrator on a project and now you've got LP-WAN technology you have to deal with. Whatever it is, Academy's there to help you. I call it LoRaWAN 101."

 

"Whatever your [application], Academy's there to help you. I call it LoRaWAN 101."

 

According to Hegenderfer, the shift to offering the Academy to everyone did require some changes. "We had things that were more geared towards academia... side modules where the university professors would go to the students—things like that, we did have to sacrifice to make it more accessible to the broader audience. So that was the tradeoff we made." He goes on to explain that 85-90% of the content of the program is still the same.

 

Education vs. Training

An interesting point is that Hegenderfer makes a distinction between education and training.

"Training is more practical, more hands-on. You're doing something, you're building something." Originally, says Hegenderfer, the team behind the Academy was hoping to develop in-person training sessions. For now, however, the focus is on scalability, which means that seminars on-location are not part of the plan.

All the same, while Academy is clearly designed to be educational in nature, Hegenderfer also says there are practical skills in the curriculum: "The majority of LoRaWAN Academy is what I call education but there are quite a few training modules in there, as well, where we say "Hey, go out and buy this Arduino board and we're going to build something." 

He also says that there may be more training modules added to the Academy in the coming year (if he has anything to do with it).

 

LoRaWAN Basics: Emphasis on Acceleration

According to the Semtech press release on the second program, the building block modules in LoRaWAN Basics "represent best practices for the implementation of LoRaWAN-based technologies." Hegenderfer explains that defining "best practices" in this context means pulling from the experiences of customers and clients in deploying LoRaWAN with enterprise customers. It also means working directly with the LoRa Alliance technical committee to develop standards.

"In order to provide better communication between devices and gateways, it's important to have a set of rules to work by," he says. "I would say that we're in lock-step with what's going on with the Alliance and what the other constituent partners are doing and what they're thinking."

The result of this partnership is a collection of open-source, free software building blocks. The focus of these building blocks is to allow quick implementation of LoRa in IoT applications. 

 

LoRa Basics MAC

Basics MAC is a "portable implementation" of the LoRa Alliance LoRaWAN spec. 

 

 

This means that Basics MAC provides firmware for developers to quickly use LoRaWAN-based radios in their applications. It provides a protocol stack and a suite of functionalities such as a simulation environment (for debugging, testing, etc.) and resources for power management and timer handling.

 

LoRa Basics Station

Basics Station is a packet forwarder 

 

A system overview of Basics Station

 

Released on GitHub in January, Basics Station is a gateway packet forwarder that is designed to work in various applications (say, Linux-based gateways) with an eye towards built-in security.

Like Basics MAC, you can find Basics Station through the Tools portion of the LoRa Developers Portal.

 

A Commitment to Keeping Up with LoRaWAN

Hegenderfer emphasizes that Semtech has made a commitment to regularly updating these resources. "As the LoRaWAN specification changes, as new technologies enter the LP-WAN space, as developers change the way that they build things, including the tools they use, we'll update the Academy to reflect those things."

Open source resources are crucial for the democratization of technical skills, especially in the engineering field. The IoT boom of the last several years has resulted in a great need for wireless solutions, making Semtech's offering of the LoRaWAN Academy and its related tools an example of how industry players can educate both practicing and future engineers on how to develop emerging technologies more effectively.

 


 

Thank you to Steve for his time and insights!

 

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