French Railroad Pilot Employs LoRaWAN Technology with GS1 Standards

GS1 in Europe and the LoRa Alliance have announced a liaison to standardize the semantics of tag or sensor identification, making IoT deployments simpler whether involving LoRa only or a hybrid approach with RFID or another technology.
Published: March 31, 2021

GS1 in Europe and the  LoRa Alliance have formed a liaison to enable standardized deployments of LoRaWAN technology leveraging GS1’s standard to simplify Internet of Things (IoT) adoption. The organizations have begun piloting the results of that liaison with French railway company  SNCF, at which a combination of RFID and LoRaWAN technologies is capturing data for railcar (rolling stock) management and track (infrastructure) maintenance.

The liaison means that systems leveraging LoRaWAN technology can use GS1-standard nomenclature for Electronic Product Code (EPC) unique identifiers for products and assets, as well as sensor data. The two standards organizations entered talks about forming a partnership in the summer of 2019, according to Gregor Herzog, GS1 Europe’s chairman. “We started by sharing our value proposition,” he recalls, “and the possible topics where we can explore complementarity.”

Because the railway industry is an emerging sector for GS1-standard devices, as well as for LoRaWAN technology, the groups chose to implement EPC RFID and IoT solutions in a pilot, under the single standard, in order to improve maintenance and vehicle visibility. SNCF agreed to test the results of the liaison agreement, which was signed last December. “We believe other operators around the world will also [have] use cases to deploy GS1 standards in the IoT environment,” Herzog says.

Gregor Herzog

LoRaWAN, which utilizes IoT connectivity that can span 24 to 48 kilometers (15 to 30 miles) outdoors, is being employed to help railroad companies track assets to improve train punctuality, security, maintenance and overall operations, according to Pierre Gelpi, the LoRa Alliance’s LoRaWAN ambassador and  Semtech‘s LoRa business-development director. By teaming up with GS1 in Europe, says Donna Moore, the LoRa Alliance’s CEO and chairwoman, “The focus, going forward, has been around ease of deployment and scalability.”

Moore says the world has changed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the need for connectivity has increased across a wide variety of industries, ranging from retail to smart cities and utilities. The railroad sector is providing the first use case, however. In Europe, according to an E.U. regulation and supported by the EN 17230 European standard, rolling-stock operators must identify vehicles and locomotives with a European Vehicle Number (EVN) embedded in a GS1 identification key. This EVN can be carried by a UHF RFID tag. RFID, however, comes with a limited read range, while LoRa devices can transmit at a longer range.

SNCF employs technology obtained from 20 LoRaWAN solution providers, Gelpi reports, each with its own method of formatting data. “The use of the GS1 semantics simplifies the solution,” he states, by ensuring that all technology meets the same ID semantics requirements. The railway system being piloted, Herzog explains, consists of UHF RFID tags transmitting data to readers installed at checkpoints along the French railway tracks. The readers capture GS1 EPC unique identifiers, then forward that information to a server via LoRaWAN. In parallel, SNCF has deployed IoT sensors at key locations along tracks and around a maintenance site.

Donna Moore

The enriched data format defined in the GS1 standard, Herzog says, could be applied to the railway industry to improve geolocation use cases, as well as provide access to additional sensing data for predictive-maintenance and asset-management purposes. “End users will have access to easy digitization of existing systems,” he states, “as well as reduced integration and operational costs resulting from larger adoption of GS1 standards with LoRaWAN.”

The two organizations have agreed to explore how information can be shared and structured by combining RFID and IoT technologies. “There are numerous benefits of this agreement,” Herzog says, “starting with the common belief in the benefits of interoperability.” GS1 has already been working with numerous industries to make supply chains more efficient, he notes, and data more portable and sharable. “Nowadays, to fully benefit from the fast-growing development of the IoT, better collaboration across sectors and data standardization is essential.”

Numerous railway companies are already using LoRaWAN solutions, Gelpi reports, including in Germany, Switzerland, India, Belgium and Russia. Use cases vary, such as tracking maintenance on rails, monitoring the locations and movements of rolling stock, and other remote monitoring applications, such as determining if a railcar’s doors are open or closed. “The idea of LoRaWAN,” he says, “is to deploy the infrastructure [such as a LoRaWAN gateway] and then enable different use cases.”

Pierre Gelpi

SNCF has already been using LoRaWAN, but it is now the first to employ LoRaWAN leveraging GS1 standards, with a second customer slated to do so later this year in India. The pilot will determine how effectively the standard can be used to help the rail company detect the passage of trains, as well as the presence of vehicles inside and outside a maintenance building and on particular points along the tracks. “This is just the first use-case example,” Gelpi states. “There are many more applications.”

In the meantime, Moore says, the liaison arrangement will benefit other industries beyond railways. LoRaWAN technology continues to grow around the world, she reports, adding, “We have such a broad membership that interests are in all verticals.” The pandemic has been accelerating the demand for such use cases as monitoring social distancing, crowd sizes and real-time human body temperature in high-traffic areas, including restaurants, shopping malls and mass transportation.

Once a single application is launched, Moore explains, users can add additional use cases. “We really are seeing growth, particularly in 2021, in scale,” she states. Despite that, Moore notes, one reason why the IoT in general has not been deployed more widely is the complexity of deployments without a single standard. With the liaison in place, she predicts, “The amount of energy, time, money and resources required to deploy will be less.” As Gelpi explains, “It simplifies and accelerates adoption, for sure.”

The LoRa Alliance has witnessed growth in IoT technology’s use in retail, and the organizations hope to prove the benefits with the SNCF pilot. “In order for users to really see a benefit [to the liaison],” Gelpi says, “they need to see the success stories. It’s very important to validate the benefits to them and the industry—not with theoretical talks, but with a complete project.” Additional pilots are expected to be launched later this year, Herzog reports, stating, “Quality data and interoperability are necessary for the success of the digital transformation.”