Wirelessly connected city

Let Your Application Guide Your Protocol Choice

April 22, 2022
Communication variables should be considered in selecting a standard.

What’s in a name? A lot when you consider communication protocols such as LoRaWAN, Bluetooth, NB-IoT and more. Each has benefits and drawbacks for the Industrial Internet of Things. The best protocol for an application depends on parameters like the industrial process, geography and employer’s business goal.

Some protocols have limited specificity, and they’re not intended to access the internet. For instance, a manager might be deploying, say, sensors to gather data within a confined geography. But if a manager wanted to gather that same sensor data remotely, and Wi-Fi wasn’t an option, then a protocol could be NB-IoT, or Narrowband Internet of Things.  NB-IoT is a low-power wide area network telecommunication standard created by a group of organizations known as 3GPP and operated under that standard or in the guard band of an LTE carrier.

Applications Drive the Selection of Protocols

Selecting a protocol is a function of the application one must work with. With fleet management, for example, a user would look for a wireless technology that is agnostic to geography, since the goal is tracking assets across many directions and distances. In this situation, NB-IoT is a fit. NB-IoT supports simpler devices with narrow bandwidth (i.e., 200 kHz). This assumes there’s cellular coverage in the locations where your device would be at any specific moment.

Another option for fleet management could be LoRaWAN, which is a low-power, wide area network protocol. With LoRaWan as a protocol, a manager could connect battery-operated assets to the internet. LoRaWAN technology offers longer range than, for example, Wi-Fi (i.e., 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz), or Bluetooth. But LoRaWAN isn’t that popular yet. LoRaWAN technology uses repeaters placed on infrastructure that proponents are still installing around the world. NB-IoT, however, takes advantage of infrastructure already in place around the world. Either protocol could be effective for tracking assets like containers on a ship moving from country to country.

Tracking the health of industrial machinery is another consideration. Let’s say a facility owner wants to connect the factory’s smart machines and legacy equipment to the internet, so managers can know in advance when a machine needs maintenance. An easy way to do this would be via a Wi-Fi protocol. That said, in the industrial world, managers resist using wireless network protocols because of the reliability of connections and security concerns. It’s easier to hack a wireless connection than a wired one. Users experience problems with Wi-Fi routers, too. So, it's critical to test connectivity with many routers and determine the compatibility of these routers with the application.

A third application scenario is a robotic apple picker working in an orchard. In this case, Bluetooth, a standard for exchanging data over short distances using UHF radio waves, and Wi-Fi would not be options, especially with acres of orchard to cover. Instead, the owner of the apple picker could opt for LoRaWAN.

It’s important to consider the potential amount of data transfer between the apple picker and a server. LoRaWAN is a good choice for trafficking low levels of data over large areas. But people typically opt for LoRaWAN technology to deliver status reports and small bits of information. If the orchard owner wants a higher level of data flowing to and from the robot in the orchard, then NB-IoT would be the better protocol. And if the machine frequently reaches points where its owner must (or desires to) make decisions, then the orchard operator ought to consider normal cellular connectivity.

Next, imagine a dairy plant with robotic palletizing stations at the end of its production lines. Here a Wi-Fi protocol would work well. For the palletizing robot, a facility manager would need to place a Wi-Fi module to connect the palletizer to a Wi-Fi network. Once the manager had access to Wi-Fi, the communications would stay within the plant’s intranet, on a local server.

This scenario relies on an intranet and limits access to the internet. The dairy plant manager might want to send his owner status reports on the production lines and rates of palletization or even give the owner a way to monitor things remotely from across the county. The manager can do that without opening control of the operation, which protects security.

Applications in a War Zone

An application in the headlines today is shipping supplies to forces fighting in Ukraine. A container filled with supplies destined for Ukraine could employ battery-powered devices with the capacity to cover the duration of the shipping operation. As the shipment progressed across countries, the devices on the containers would need GPS capabilities to serve up location and connect to a cellular network or via NB-IoT.

The shipper would want a device that supports NB-IoT and CAT-M1. CAT-M1 is also a low-power wide area cellular technology for IoT devices. CAT-M1 offers a few advantages over NB-IoT in terms of power and coverage, but NB-IoT is a bit less costly. In a situation like this, the shipper would want to guarantee there is information about the container’s location and status throughout its journey.

In a war zone, however, enemy cyberattacks could try and impersonate a device or even jam the device. When an enemy combatant is jamming the radio spectrum, the protocols don’t matter because the good guys can’t read the signals. In peacetime, a shipper could use RFID tags and rely on workers scanning the container as it moved from point to point. With RFID tags, the shipper only has information when someone scans the container.

To avoid getting lost in a comparison of the pros and cons of technology protocols, first determine what you’re trying to accomplish. Let the application and what you want to derive in the way of information be your guide in picking a protocol for the job.

Adam Justice is CEO of Grid Connect, Inc. and co-host of The Smart Home Show podcast. Cristian Codreanu is vice president of Engineering for Grid Connect, Inc. He holds two patents for smart electrical devices and a Master of Science degree from the Academia Tehnica Militara in Bucharest, Romania.

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