Wireless Sensor Networks Will Spread to Factories and Farms, Report Says

Jan. 28, 2017
The report, from technology research firm OnWorld, says that a majority of industrial automation engineers are using some form of mesh networking sensors, while interest in low-power wide area networks is also growing.
(Image courtesy of Nick V., Creative Commons).

Wireless sensors installed in farms, construction sites, and factories are growing widespread as businesses try using data to increase efficiency. And the hardware and software used to connect these sensors is turning into big business.

The market for wireless sensor technologies and the cloud services derived from them is estimated to reach $35 billion by 2021, according to a recent report from OnWorld, a market research firm that tracks the industrial Internet of Things.

Not all wireless sensor networks are equal, though. On the one hand, there are proprietary networks that operate over long distances and take sips of power from devices. On the other hand are mesh networking technologies that skip signals between chips or nodes over a short distances.

The report said that mesh networking technologies would dominate the market over the next five years. These include special versions of familiar standards like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, as well as lesser known technologies based on a standard drafted by the International Society of Automation called ISA100.11a.

In a survey of 180 industrial automation engineers, OnWorld found that two-thirds of respondents have deployed at least some wireless mesh nodes. There are a few companies that have reported much success selling mesh networks. Linear Technology, for instance, says that over 50,000 networks based on its technology have been installed for monitoring drug factories and parking garages.

But the report also said that alternative technologies, also known as low-power, wide-area networks, would grow much faster over the next five years than mesh networking. So far, they have had a slow start: Only two out of five OnWorld survey respondents said they were researching or developing these LPWAN technologies. 

LoRa and Sigfox are among the most popular LPWAN networks used to mine valuable data from industrial systems and infrastructure. Other technologies derived from cellular standards, such as LTE-M1 and Narrowband-IoT, are also in development. But for years, these technology have been hindered by a lack of standardization, though some organizations are trying to broker a movement to broader standards.

Sigfox, a technology created by a French start-up of the same name, is one of the most well-known in the LPWAN kaleidoscope. The company has raised around $310 million to build a global low-power network for the Internet of Things. In December, the company said its Sigfox network now covered over a hundred U.S. cities.

In the long run, LPWAN technologies might have an advantage over mesh networking. Certain networks can power sensors for up to 10 years on a single battery change and can range up to 20 miles, allowing companies to track sensors installed on fleets of trucks or around active volcanoes to remotely monitor gas emissions and seismic activity.

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