There’s been quite a bit of debate about what is the “best” wireless option for the IoT, coming down usually in favor of there being no single best option. Applications are so widely varied that different solutions are needed to ideally fit different requirements. However, IoT economics require we settle on a limited set of options, of which Bluetooth-5 (BT5) and two 802.15.4 options, ZigBee and Thread, seem to be the front-runners. But suppose we didn’t have to compromise, or at least not as much as we think? I talked to Teppo Hemiä, CEO of Wirepas, at ARM TechCon, to understand how the Wirepas solution (Pino – Finnish for Stack) can help.
Teppo makes the argument that cellular support, while long-range, is uneconomical for the IoT at least as a primary path to edge nodes and still lacks coverage in some locations critical for IoT (such as basements). BT is economical but lacks scalability and range. He also argues that to be effective LPWAN requires building infrastructure which would ultimately rival that for cellular, making it uneconomic as a universal solution. Teppo asserts that a better solution should leverage a combination of cellular and decentralized mesh networks, which is what they aim to provide with Pino.
Pino is software only, running he said on top of any radio, certainly on top of the physical layer of BT5 and 802.15.4. Wirepas replaces part of the wireless stack without need to add hardware or OS support. Most importantly, there is no need to build new infrastructure; any Pino-enabled device added to the network can route and extend a network supporting thousands of devices per gateway, with gateways connecting ultimately to cellular or WiFi networks or through Ethernet.
Communication can be multi-hop across homogenous devices with control based on local decision making. Operation parameters can be tuned to optimize bandwidth, latency, range and power consumption. For each device there can be multiple routing options and multiple eventual gateways for backhaul.
I had a couple of questions and I’m sure readers will have more. First up was power consumption. If ultra-low power devices also have to act as routers, won’t that drain batteries faster? Teppo said that standby consumption of a router can be less than 20uA, much lower than ZigBee, allowing for a 5-year battery life or 10 years with larger batteries. My second question (occurred to me after the meeting) was around adaptability/customization. Yes, because the product is purely software you can adapt to any IoT niche requirements in principle, but do you ultimately lose all your margin in high-cost customization? That is answered by their business strategy – going after large-scale installations where customization costs can be amortized over licensing fees at high-volume.
Wirepas have chalked up an impressive win in the Oslo region (Norway) where they are deployed in 700k Aidon electricity meters. Also Nokeval has released a series of environmental sensors using the same wireless networking technology. Both examples are consistent with their business strategy – large-scale installations in applications like metering, sensors, lighting and beacons. Another application Teppo mentioned is as a replacement for RFID. He claims this solution can be cheaper than RFID, and obviously you would no longer need readers (or people to bring readers near the devices) because devices are already connected. He said (but didn’t elaborate) that this application is already in deployment.
The company is quite young – founded in 2010 though raising their first round of funding only last year and only recently opening their first office in the Bay Area (Palo Alto). Of course their concept is not entirely new. Work in wireless mesh network architectures is very active with several areas still in research. In fact, a lot of this work came out of and continues at the university in Tampere (Finland) where these guys are based. It is encouraging to see a commercial solution emerge and already deployed at a city scale. This can only help push further progress. You can learn more about Wirepas HERE.