Amazon Brings IoT Home with Sidewalk

By Claire Swedberg

Amazon's latest product is intended to expand wireless transmission for Internet of Things solutions beyond the front door of homes or businesses, leveraging BLE and LoRa technologies.

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Amazon is leveraging Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to enable its Sidewalk service, which extends consumers’ wireless device connectivity beyond their home. The solution allows IoT devices to transmit from a wide home network covering a yard or neighborhood, employing LoRa functionality from Semtech and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology from Silicon Labs. Additionally, Sidewalk will leverage IoT chips from Nordic Semiconductor and Texas Instruments.

The solution is intended to take wireless connectivity beyond a home’s front door, Amazon explains, for applications such as connecting water sensors for gardens or lawn sprinkler systems; locating valuables, such as a bicycle, a pet or car keys; and diagnostics to enable customer support for tools or appliances in areas where Wi-Fi connectivity is unavailable. While the focus is to enable a smart neighborhood, the technology is designed to offer a long range for IoT devices that could be employed by businesses and consumers in their homes.

Photo: Amazon

Sidewalk will depend on “bridges” that provide the connectivity of various devices. These can include Amazon Echos, as well as Ring Floodlights and Spotlight Cams, with built-in BLE and LoRa chips. Currently, many Echo devices support only Bluetooth connections for Sidewalk, but all new Echo and Echo Show 10 products will offer long-range connections, according to an Amazon spokesperson.

Amazon reports that it has determined the best enabler for Sidewalk would be a combination of multiple technologies, including BLE and LoRa. BLE provides data transmission inside a home or building, while LoRa supplies a longer range for connected devices in a neighborhood, in basements or outside a home. Semtech started working with Amazon on LoRa functionality for Sidewalk about a year ago, according to Marc Pegulu, the VP of IoT for Semtech’s Wireless and Sensing Products Group. In fact, Semtech provides the LoRa chips that will be bult into Amazon bridges, as well as IoT-based end devices.

The release of products to be used with the Sidewalk system will be strategized during the coming months, the company reports. “It’s still early stages,” Pegulu says. “There’s a precise schedule to enable the ecosystem.” LoRa technology provides multiple benefits to such a long-range IoT system, he adds, starting with its worldwide ubiquity. Amazon needed a way to quickly provide coverage around the globe at a long range, he explains.

Because of the low-power requirement, devices will be able to operate for extended periods of time without needing to be recharged. The collected data is transmitted in minimal-sized packets (approximately 64 bytes) to keep power consumption low. Additionally, Pegulu says, LoRa enables mobility by allowing users to track a moving LoRa-enabled device. For instance, users could create a geofenced area, such as a yard around a home, and a pet could wear an IoT device. The system could then identify in real time if the animal were to leave the yard.

The technology could also identify other moving items, Pegulu says, such as products on pallets or parcels destined for consumers, in order to document when they arrive at a customer’s site, using a low-cost LoRa-enabled tag. A LoRa tag would require a battery or energy-harvesting functionality, he adds, and could be attached to delivery trucks or pallets. It would then beacon to area bridges at periodic intervals. Wide-spectrum energy harvesting, such as using the charging energy from a Wi-Fi network, could enable sufficient energy to power the LoRa device in the future, Pegulu explains.

A LoRa implementation could connect to hundreds or thousands of devices, provided that additional bridges were added to the network. Traditionally, LoRa has been deployed most often for wide-scale industrial and commercial applications, Pegulu says, but the advent of products such as Sidewalk could indicate a new focus for the technology. “What’s changed is that there are big players like Amazon now looking at bringing LoRa into the smart-home space,” he states. “We’ve been thinking about the consumer market for a while, but we had been waiting for a big player” to show an interest.

Semtech’s Marc Pegulu

This announcement, Pegulu says, goes beyond enabling wide-scale commercial deployments to homes. A single LoRa-based system could provide data about a package or product moving from a factory, through a warehouse, during transit and to an individual’s home, as long as there was a bridge deployed at each site. “We can meet the vision [of] connecting to consumers,” he states. “This is closing the loop.” Indoors, the LoRa coverage can accomplish transmissions at a distance of up to a half-mile depending on the application. If an IoT camera or other bridge device is mounted outdoors—on top of a house, for instance—the range could be multiple miles.

Silicon Labs is partnering with Amazon by providing BLE connectivity with its EFR32 Wireless Gecko Series 2, as well as several future products, to operate with Sidewalk. The company’s BLE offerings will be included in a variety of Sidewalk-enabled devices from many popular IoT device makers, says Jake Alamat, Silicon Labs’ VP and general manager of IoT for home and consumer business. Amazon gateway devices and the sensors, both from Amazon and from third parties, will include Silicon Labs’ products.

Silicon Labs’ Jake Alamat

“Amazon Sidewalk will create a free and secure broad-coverage network, similar to cellular networks, ideal for low-bandwidth, low-cost devices, without requiring complex setup or maintenance,” Alamat states. The announcement means consumers can not only extend the use of their IoT devices to anywhere in the Sidewalk network, but also reduce their dependence on individual broadband connections within the home.

Alamat expects that Sidewalk will help to accelerate the growth of IoT devices and their adoption by consumers, “which will, in turn, further grow the market for BLE and other low-power wireless devices.” According to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), in its “2020 Bluetooth Market Update” report, BLE is expanding at a rate faster than other Bluetooth radio technologies, with a 26 percent compound annual growth rate.

Amazon says it has developed security around the Sidewalk system, with three layers of encryption to secure data traveling on the network. The goal, according to the company, is to prevent customers with Sidewalk bridges from viewing data from other customers’ Sidewalk-enabled devices. Similarly, device owners do not have access to Sidewalk bridge information. Amazon intends to provide a proof of concept with the American Red Cross for tracking blood-collection supplies between distribution centers and donation sites, to potentially improve the efficiency of blood supply management.