A connected planet thanks to Neuchâtel’s LoRa technology

Neuchâtel inside

Watches, luggage, vacuum cleaners, even bikes… since 2010, connected objects have proven revolutionary, becoming increasingly present in our everyday lives. Faced with this surge, the networks responsible for connectivity must adapt. While everyone is talking about the arrival of 5G, another kind of technology has been quietly proving itself in the background: the LoRa (long range) network, developed in Neuchâtel.

Small data packets but large range

More often than not, when we speak of a connected device we think of 3G, WiFi, 4G or another traditional mobile network. Yet most of these technologies are costly and energy-intensive. In response to these limitations, an alternative was created: the LoRa network, spearheaded by the American company Semtech, based in Neuchâtel.

Unlike conventional telecom networks, LoRa is based on radio frequency modulation technology. This approach enables data transmission over longer distances, at greater speed, while requiring less energy, and all in a secure manner. This radio signal, which reduces the risk of interference to a minimum and can pass through walls, is also used for space and military communications. However, it is only possible to send small data packets via this method.

Transmitting up to 1 kilometre in urban areas and up to 20 kilometres in the countryside, LoRa antennas represent an extensive fleet of stations. As such, smart devices located nearby simply need to be fitted with a LoRa chip in order to connect periodically to the network and send or receive data.

Other advantages of LoRa’s M2M (Machine to Machine) technology include the ability to connect to battery-operated objects and geolocate them. Being energy efficient, since it transmits at a level equivalent to a garage-door remote control, it requires 100 times less energy than 3G, and therefore costs just a quarter of the price. 

An unlimited field of application

While the advantages of this new technology are many, one essential question remains: what is LoRa used for? In concrete terms, it allows companies to offer new services. For example, by buying a bicycle connected to LoRa, a customer can know where they are, how long they have been cycling, and all sorts of related information. And all this without having to recharge any kind of battery.

LoRa suivi véhivule
Vehicle tracking based on LoRa

In addition to its economic benefits, the LoRa network has even greater ambitions, according to Semtech: resolving some of the greatest challenges facing our planet, such as energy management, pollution control, infrastructure efficiency, etc. To date, LoRa has gathered over 600 known use cases in towns, farms, smart homes, etc. With more than 50 million devices connected to networks in 51 countries, LoRa technology is in the process of creating a smarter planet.

This expansion is primarily due to the LoRa Alliance. Created in 2015 to promote global standardisation and harmonisation, this community has around 500 members, including giants such as Alibaba and IBM. The organisation has thus enabled Semtech to deploy around 80 million LoRa sensors worldwide.

Neuchâtel takes the first step

Within this alliance, the operator Swisscom was one of the first to extend its LoRa network, and now has the largest one in the world. As a corporate pioneer, it has played a vital role in Switzerland’s contribution to the development of this technology. But it is not the only one. Much earlier, the canton of Neuchâtel helped LoRa take its first steps.

This was back in 1997, when the spin-off XEMICS was set up at the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM) in Neuchâtel. This developer of ultra-efficient radio and analogue frequencies was ultimately bought a few years later by semi-conductor manufacturer Semtech. The official arrival of LoRa would come later, in 2012.

And this arrival would depend once again on the CSEM. This time around, Semtech commissioned the centre’s researchers to develop a geolocation system, which, by calculating the position of objects connected to the LoRa network, brought significant added value to the product. But it was only in 201, that the important phase of experimentation and prototyping began. Led by François Farquet, a founding member of the project, LoRa EcoReg (regional ecosystem), a consortium of four Neuchâtel companies, was founded.

Semtech for the software platform and antennas, Ingecom for the data transmission button, Tetraedre as the field tester, and Uditis for data management… These four together embodied the role of LoRa demonstrators worldwide.

“We developed an industry-ready kit,” explains François Farquet. “Testing allowed us to install antennas throughout the canton and to check that the system was working correctly. This was a worldwide first.” The canton of Neuchâtel offered its support in order to promote the region. Unfortunately, in 2017, the experiment came to an end with mixed results.

Conquering Switzerland

While beneficial to Semtech and the commercial deployment of its technology, the advantages of the LoRa EcoReg project were less obvious for the region.

 The problem lies in the cumbersome and complicated administrative procedures. The antennas were installed in public areas, which slowed our progress.

claims François Farquet.

For his part, the head of the CSEM project, Martin Sénéclauze, draws a more positive conclusion from the experience.

LoRa EcoReg created synergies between partners in the region and each of them profited in their own way from the results, he observes, adding that, by way of example, the CSEM was contacted to deal with an Italian electric car brand.

The company Ingecom is worth mentioning too: it now uses its data transmission button in mines in South Africa, for the purposes of emergency evacuations. Tetraedre, for its part, still uses LoRa technology for its electric meters. Uditis offers its experience and Semtech trades worldwide.

But while LoRa may have borne scant fruit for Neuchâtel, it promises new opportunities for Switzerland with the arrival of 5G. Since the two technologies are complementary, a new market is opening up to the Swiss. Despite everything, there is still a long way to go before LoRa can definitively establish itself as a low-bandwidth network. Sigfox, its direct competitor, has now entered the Swiss market. The French supplier recently joined forces with Lausanne start-up Heliot as a partner operator. Together, they have already begun to roll out their antenna network, which will ultimately include between 350 and 400 sites. However, LoRa can take comfort from its partnership with two Swiss titans, La Poste and Swisscom.


Key dates

1997 : Creation of the CSEM spin-off, Xemics

2005 : Acquisition of Xemics by Semtech

2012 : LoRa Early days of LoRa technology

2015 : LoRa Creation of the LoRa Alliance

2015 : Beginning of the LoRa EcoReg project

2017 : End of the LoRa EcoReg project

2019 : LoRa is active in 51 countries and connected to 50 million devices

Vidéo 

Technologie LoRa :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlWioQbHDmg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=66&v=l1GmBP2zMhU

Alliance LoRa :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6IvwcjcxQc

 

Article written by Julie Müller

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