Lives have become very dynamic. We are a part of society that is orderly and organized in the way it functions. This applies to all aspects of life, we are trying to classify things so they are easier to manage. At a societal level, we rely on organization and orderliness to keep us going. We like predictability, order, routine, as this lets us prepare and gives us confidence and peace of mind.
To have the best control of our surroundings, it makes sense to classify them, to understand what we specifically need to influence each one. Broadly speaking, we can first define the environments present in a modern town:
- Urban environment - think of this as any place where you are part of the concrete jungle, the city. You are in an environment that is mostly man-made, and the everyday objects you use are created by our society: dwellings, tools, gadgets, etc. This is our normal setting. The urban environment is not unnatural for us because this is where we comfortably live in and most of our lives revolve around this space.
- Natural environment - this is what I like to call “the free space”. Free pertains more to space itself than its inhabitants. Humans are all about control, however, when we are in nature we allow ourselves to experience the world as it is. Whether we admit it or not, this is how we were built and we need this organic primal space to have a healthy mind and body. Although we seek utmost control, we do like bite-sized chunks of uncertainty to create excitement, but still within limits set by us.
That being said, the two categories are not entirely separate. The lines continue to blur, in a good way. We introduce nature in our urban environment, in our homes, offices, among others, and introduce technology into the natural environment we have managed to preserve, like parks, preservations, and etc. We will be discussing how to do the latter in this article.
So how can we introduce technology and in turn, a little more control, to the natural environment, without entirely converting it into something different? Simple, do not change its fundamental way of operation. The best thing to do is to observe and manage how we exist in these spaces and use two key concepts, monitoring, and automation, to our advantage.
Finding the balance between control and randomness to make things interesting is what one aims for when designing the smart park of the future. So, how can we use IoT in a natural environment, such as a park or a hiking trail? How can we stay connected yet still enjoy the positive effects nature has on our wellbeing?
The keys to the smart future of the natural environment lie with monitoring and automation and how they lead us to make better decisions and become more prepared. Let's discuss each of them, in turn:
Monitoring is the base on which automation is built. It is highly essential and it is where IoT implementations and projects start. This concept built the foundations of what we know now as smart homes and offices. Monitoring entails tracking the parameters one would like to keep an eye on. Measurable units such as temperature, air humidity, and the like help smart systems take note of the current environment and what the ideal environment would be for the user or space. The technology for measuring might not differ much, however, the connectivity best suited to relay the data is very different and will depend on the purpose. This means that ideally, how a smart home relays data will be different from a smart park will do it.
A park is large compared to a house or a flat. It is after all intended to be used by a large number of people at the same time. From small playgrounds to big forested national parks, these areas may be too big that it becomes a concern for how to extract real-time data. Cabling is out of the question because it necessitates digging and traditional tech, like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, among others, may not have the range or power to do the job. This is true for parks around town, but especially true for national parks that can span over entire woods or mountains. As the area is so big, it automatically becomes problematic to extract the data from your sensors in real-time.
Enter LoRaWAN, a disruptive new technology that has made huge waves in the world of IoT. With its great range and incredible power efficiency, it has been growing nonstop for the past five years, establishing itself as the dominant solution in its field of application. True, there are competitors like NB-IoT and LTE CAT M, but LoRaWAN's explosive adoption in the past year, coupled with its solid performance has resulted in it increasing its market share.
There are several key benefits of the technology that are worth a look.
LoRaWAN has incredible range. A small city can be covered with as little as three to five gateways. This is a major advantage as it allows for quick and cost-efficient deployment of the underlying network that carries the end-device traffic.
Another important feature to mention is the low power consumption. As it is in the nature of IoT that devices are asleep mostly and only wake up to acquire and transmit data, this is something LoRaWAN excels at. LoRaWAN works with a battery life of 2+ years, which older technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth did not even consider possible. The device's efficiency vis a vis a large-sized battery is what gives it long-term power.
Next comes scalability. This is a must as an IoT network consists of a vast number of devices, a number that dwarfs what a traditional cellular network looks like. Because of this, the technology needs to quickly adapt to the rising number of end nodes. Here, again LoRaWAN outshines the competition with support for tens of thousands of nodes per gateway.
Last but not least are two key benefits that go together: ease of deployment and cost-efficiency. This is a must for a network to grow quickly and not be bottlenecked by either maintenance and deployment issues. As with every new tech, time is required for equipment costs to drop as a result of mass adoption. LoRaWAN device prices are now low enough and even feature Wi-Fi and Bluetooth modules to maximize coverage.
LoRaWAN is the leading player in the IoT game of monitoring and automation, especially with large areas of coverage. Using LoRaWAN, we can deploy our network quickly, easily, and efficiently. The range will be great and device battery life will last years.
Let's discuss the following scenario below to see the capabilities of a LoRaWAN network:
We are in a city with five parks that are more or less spread evenly over the area. Furthermore, they are of the same quality, plenty of trees, a large area, and kid-friendly. Such a scenario is the perfect opportunity to showcase the advantages of IoT to positively influence the environment. These conditions need to be monitored, to be maintained in a relatively constant state, if not improved.
There could be small, battery-powered nodes that monitor the soil moisture level and the temperature of the air. These metrics are gathered and the irrigation system automatically reacts and waters the soil if and when necessary. Furthermore, we have water-level monitoring devices that are installed near bodies of water to evaluate conditions and raise alarms in cases of flood or drought. This use case falls in the first category: maintenance of the environment itself. This is how we make sure we influence it sufficiently to make it best fit our needs, keeping it as natural as possible, but still comfortable to exist in.
A different example, falling in another category would be:
All parks in town are automated via a fleet of LoRaWAN nodes that transmit metrics wirelessly over regular intervals, and relay actions to control systems. Still, there are conditions that cannot be influenced so directly. Let's say that we want to pick a park to go to. What will our criteria be?
First of all, we would want to know what the weather is like: is it sunny or is it raining? Should we wear warmer clothing or an umbrella? What about air quality? We do not want to go to a park that has polluted air full of particulates, which is something that is becoming more of a problem and regularly changes depending on time and day. What about the noise? Are there many people?
The aforementioned information can easily be obtained with sensors specifically designed for the task. Measuring these parameters can be accomplished with a wireless LoRaWAN node to gather data and forward it to the cloud. We simply open our park-monitoring app and the conditions are served to us in a user-friendly manner, allowing us to choose the destination that best fits our requirements. Furthermore, these conditions are updated in real-time, so if they change before arriving, we can easily relocate to a more suitable park. This is a classic example of monitoring and automation working hand in hand.
These are urban scenarios and one might see them more of a luxury than a necessity. However, parks are not only in towns. We could be deep in the mountains hiking where conditions can worsen rapidly and unpredictably. The speed of our reaction might save us from harm. An approaching storm for example is something we'd rather avoid, thus we better know about it in advance. Knowing the temperature, wind speed, rainfall, and other important factors will give us the chance to choose our hiking path and whether to continue on or not.
Such solutions already exist and are being worked on and deployed. Some are only in the testing stage, on a small scale, some are already large-scale deployments.
For example, Helium has become the largest public IoT network that is people-powered. They have a great and innovative model that has allowed them to deploy over 12,000 hotspots providing connectivity to IoT devices over a large portion of the US and Europe. They empower individuals to build up the underlying network infrastructure via a cryptocurrency system that takes care of payment for data transfer. This allows them to scale quickly and naturally maintain the network as coverage expands only where needed. Helium is a new, more efficient way to build a network in response to the needs of a new and innovative technological field that is IoT.
Did you know? Why we believe Helium was right from the very beginning
This is only one part of the equation. Users need to be empowered to create their end devices, to gather sensor data, to control devices, and to develop applications to solve particular problems they have come across.
RAKwireless came up with their new solution to help users out, called WisBlock. This is a modular system that allows for easy and cost-efficient development of IoT nodes that can encompass a huge variety of removable sensors and actuators. The IoT use cases are limitless and one needs a device that can be modified and upgraded on the fly so it can cover as wide of a range as possible. This is what WisBlock does best, what is was designed for.
In the end, the scenarios we discussed are not that far from becoming a reality. These and more examples of possible applications will be here by the middle of the decade and companies like RAKwireless and Helium will be the leaders that will make the future of smart parks and a smart environment a reality.