The Voice of IoT. November. 2021

Blood, Sweat & Bytes - One man’s journey in IoT.

A lifetime ago, in 2012, a brilliant electronics developer, showed me a file he found in his PNFL (Perhaps Nice for Later) drawer. It was written in 2001 and described a small device that parents could use to find their children in case of emergency. A small, battery powered key-ring sized gadget with inbuilt transmitter for long range radio communications that enabled indoor use as well. The trick behind the concept was using triangulation for localisation, as an alternative for energy eating and outdoor only, GPS.
Leo Van der Putten. Commercial Director. Impact Smart Products. Niederlande
Leo van der Putten
He introduced this idea to KPN in The Netherlands, but they weren’t particularly interested. As KPN had just invested in a new mobile network supporting internet on smart devices. Big bandwidth was in demand and the idea of a low-speed, long range network was not very attractive…

Armed with two 3D printed examples and a power-point presentation, I reached out to the then Chairman of Royal Dutch KPN to re-introduce this brilliant idea for another try. Guess what? He liked the idea and recommended I get in touch with the Director of Business Development!
The idea was to invest €1 million in developing a long-range, low-power radio chip. As it turned out a company called Semtech had already developed such a chip! Which were mainly being used for private M2M applications in warehouses and campuses.

IoT turning point

Skip to one year later, KPN announces its decision to roll out the first nationwide LoRa network by a Telco in the world. They were also one of the founding members of the LoRa Alliance, an initiative launched by Semtech.
The LoRa Alliance proved to be a key factor in the success of LoRa. A major milestone for LoRaWAN was at the 2017 MWC conference in Barcelona where they had a pavilion. This edition of MWC featured an IoT-Hall packed with new LoRa-enabled devices, most of which were still ‘buck-naked’ PCBs with wires sticking out, exposed batteries and off-the-shelf housings (if any).

To stand out from the crowd, I remembered to bring a ‘smart, LoRa-enabled rat-trap’ and Rudolph, the Suicide-Toy-Rat on a stick. This proved an effective (and very humorous) way to illustrate the “Power of IoT” to the crowd of over 100.000 visitors passing down the aisles.

Early Challenges

At this stage IoT implementation faced many challenges. Do devices work reliably, do network providers offer functional connectivity and are the cloud platforms and user tools functional? We were all still learning “on the fly” and getting familiar with the typical behaviour of LoRaWAN.

A common challenge was battery power consumption. Many devices rapidly consumed batteries. Two reasons were dominant. Small button-batteries do not like power spikes as typically found in transmission units switching on and off. Secondly, the protocol dictated that transmission power increases when no answer was given by a gateway. Severely impacting batteries.
Yo!, you there?” No answer.
A little louder. “YO!, YOU THERE?” Still no answer.
Then shout. “YO!!, YOU THERE!?
You get the picture
With great innovation comes great benefit, but also risk. Network providers made bold decisions as early adopters. In the long run, these paid off but in the short run, there were some hiccups along the way. One of the first nationwide rollouts anywhere in the world almost came to an early end when an oversight in gateway design by an undisclosed vendor, caused increased error rates and ultimately fatal failure of the gateway within weeks. This took us all some time to figure out.

But let’s not dwell on the past. Finally, many national networks were achieved and even more regional and city networks had appeared over these three years. Fast-forward to today and now Class-B (downlink messages) LoRaWAN support is almost completed.

Dude, where’s my billions of devices?

So, where are these tens of billions of devices that Gartner and Cisco promised us? Sure, one can count the Tesla’s, smart energy meters, Alexas and home heating thermostats to kick up the numbers, but in all honesty, these are just good old SIM-card mobile data implementations and not the IoT/LoRa/LPWAN applications we all envisioned.

In technical innovation markets, engineers have a general tendency to develop a solution and then ask sales to find problems for it to solve. This unfortunately, is the wrong way around. Solutions like these generally deliver “just another database” that nobody really needs and often don’t even get close to tapping into the major budgets for which businesses have deep pockets. Today, solid business cases drive requirements and there are far less geek driven hobby projects. Thankfully, there are many examples of successful IoT implementations that have reached attractive volumes. Although they may not all be public, or may be difficult to find, nevertheless they are there, and the evidence of more and more success stories is becoming more frequent as enterprise customers, integrators, operators and others become comfortable in sharing details publicly.

IoT Lessons Learned & Key Success Factors

So, what have we learned along the way? 4 key points come to mind..
1. Don’t eat the entire elephant at once

Focus on specific solutions. Better to fully understand a few specific needs the market requires, than to develop multiple different devices for all kinds of general, non-specific applications. Implement in small steps and focus on “easy” wins first. Add additional functionality in increments; small ripples are better than one large tsunami.
2. Do the math

A business case is only a business case when sufficient ROI is secured. For C-Level executives the question is very simple. How do I make more revenue, mitigate more risk or increase efficiency with a return realised, ideally, in under 1 financial year? Like a good boy scout – Be Prepared. Do your homework and wherever possible use numbers your customer gives you, confirm them to be correct, use them to present “customised answers” rather than generic market ones. You’ll get further, faster.
3. Solve the TODAY problem, not the TOMORROW one.

All of us get distracted by bright shiny objects and often miss the obvious under our noses. All businesses have issues for which if even part of them were solved, would represent a delta of saving that most CFOs would be happy to see. Instinctively, people tend to focus on long lists of problems and waste a lot of time waiting for the magic “silver bullet” that will resolve them all. Reality is that ¼ of a problem solved today is a 25% saving realised on a business bottom line today. Waiting for the “right” solution rather than the “right one for today” may get your business in deeper trouble tomorrow.
4. Create predictive value from sensor data

IoT is not about creating ‘just another database’; successful implementations create value by transforming sensor data into actionable user-information. Especially the ones that include predictive value, these will prove to be extra successful. It makes no sense to leave your garden sprinkler on when rain will come in 30 minutes.

There is no doubt that the IoT journey has been an exciting and eventful one with many ups and some downs. I am grateful for the opportunity to be a small player in the greater story of IoT, especially in the story of LoRaWAN, the LoRa Alliance and the ecosystem of companies and friends who may remember the LoRaWAN evangelist called Leo with the rat on a stick and a smart mouse trap!


Biography


A serial technology pioneer, since 1985 Leo has helped many companies of all sizes with their technological and commercial ambitions. After diverse roles in IT and commercial management, Leo started a successful digital signage company which was sold to Royal Dutch KPN in 2008. He co-founded Clickey in 2012, one of the first Dutch IoT hardware start-ups and was one of the earliest evangelists of LoRaWAN technology. Something which he continues to do today. Leo is a Dutch citizen and a Business Management graduate from INHolland Polytechnic and possesses an MBA from Kingston University, UK. When not supporting customers IoT projects, Leo can be found pursuing his other passion, flyrod fishing for pike and carp in Hollands’s waterways.

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