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How to Build an Asset Tracking System with Long Range and Low Power

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Semtech offers guidance for building an asset tracking system that works for pallets as well as animals and avocados.

Asset tracking that utilizes GPS works well, but it can be extremely expensive. The power consumption is excessive, with batteries requiring replacement every one-to-three months. An alternative is low-power, long-range systems that rely on satellite signals.

Collectively, the satellite navigation infrastructure is referred to as the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). In the case of battery-operated asset tracking, low power communications is essential. This is where LoRa devices come in. LoRa devices are a complement to GNSS because the coverage area for GNSS services is widespread.

Watching Over the Avocados

Semtech works with GNSS technology in building asset tracking systems. Users can set up systems of their own using a Semtech kit, or they can monitor items through Semtech’s cloud-based asset tracking. As an example of what can be tracked through LoRa-based systems, Semtech noted that farmers are using asset tracking to monitor the condition of crops.

ICT International, an IoT solution provider for environmental applications, and Definium Technologies, a developer and manufacturer of IoT gateways and devices, leveraged an advanced array of products based on Semtech’s LoRa devices and the LoRaWAN protocol to improve crop yield in Australian avocado plantations with a data-centric approach to farming.

Avocado crops are highly susceptible to stress at key times throughout their growing cycle. Utilizing plant physiology sensors based on LoRa devices enabled simple and accurate monitoring of moisture flow inside the plants and allowed farmers to respond quickly to stressors to improve yield. As a result, farmers were able to reduce expenses related to product waste.

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We caught up with Pedro Pachuca, director of wireless products at Semtech Corporation, to explain the details of a GNSS asset tracking system.

Design News: Tell us about GNSS asset tracking.

Pedro Pachuca: GNSS is a wireless technology for low power and long-range tracking. We have significant IoT deployments, and one of the most common is asset tracking. The fundamental benefit is the long range and the low power. We launched the technology years ago, and asset tracking was one of the first technologies users started to deploy.

The users were happy with communication technology, but they were upset with the other technologies in their asset management systems. For devices to get the physical position of an object, GPS works well. People were using the GPS even for indoor tracking, using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. But the major problem with the technology is power consumption. Traditional GPS technology requires high power. In the old days when cars had GPS, you couldn’t keep the GPS on all of the time because the battery only lasted a couple of hours. Its computing power is intensive. That’s the reason GPS has to be plugged in all the time.

People who using conventional GPS technology for asset tracking found it would last for one month, three months at the most. You don’t want to replace batteries every three months. It’s expensive to send someone out to change the batteries. Also, GPS chips are expensive. If you’re trying to track a pallet and you have to pay $200 for the tracking system, there’s no ROI.

Design News: How do you overcome those barriers?

Pedro Pachuca: We were seeking an alternative to GPS. We put together a group and they came up with a technology called the LoRa Cloud. It’s a different architecture. We took the concept of the GPS to get the signal and rather than calculating the location, we put the signals in the message to the cloud and the cloud has a sorter that calculates the location.

With the LoRA, it’s signal tracking. The battery lasts three years. The device has the signal. The calculation is in the cloud. To overcome the cost, our devices only capture the signal. There’s no expensive CPU to calculate location. Users can create devices for $30 instead of $200. The device is optimized just to work with the basic signals.

We can see signals from the satellites even in China. These devices look at signals from 150 satellites. We can get the position for any assets around the world. All of the computer capability is implemented in the cloud. We also have a Wi-Fi scanner, so we can read in the location in a cloud algorithm. With the scanner, we can do an indoor and outdoor tracking system that can monitor the asset in the warehouse and outside.

Design News: What type of assets are you tracking?

Pedro Pachuca: Asset management has multiple vertical markets. You can track containers, pallets, or assets in agriculture, such as animals. Livestock owners want to know the animal is not lost, and they also want to track the animals’ behavior. They need that data for breeding. We also see tracking in medical. During COVID, our customers are putting tracking into respirators and pumps, so they knew where their medical equipment was. For smart homes, we see applications for pet tracking.

Design News: Is security an issue?

Pedro Pachuca: You don’t want people to see the location of your asset. We implemented a crypto engine. We integrated this into a monolithic product. When we receive the signals from the satellite, we sent them into the cloud in encryption. The cloud then reads it. You have the chips that are sending the signal, and the application server receives it in the cloud. The cloud provides the location. Once the location is in the server, it can be sent to a phone or a tablet or the user’s cloud.

Design News: What type of skills are required for implementation?

Pedro Pachuca: The typical technical person is a systems engineer. That person is the architect. We have a hardware design guy with a software guy to create the signal. Then we do system integration. The users integrate the cloud into their systems. The cloud provides the location. Some users choose to not use a cloud server. They develop their own systems. But developing a cloud is not trivial. If they do it themselves, they have to be sophisticated.

Rob Spiegel has covered manufacturing for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include automation, supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cybersecurity. For 10 years, he was the owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper

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