LoRaWAN Brings IoT Connectivity to Rural U.S.

Internet of Things startup IoT America is selling an IoT network to extend wireless coverage for rural users such as farmers who want access to data about sensors, enabling the monitoring of assets, conditions, and tank or grain elevator levels in real time.
Published: August 5, 2019

Managed service provider IoT America is delivering the Internet of Things (IoT) to the rural United States, with long-range wide-area network (LoRaWAN) technology to capture sensor data from fields and remote locations. The company is conducting pilots and is planning deployments with potential partners and end users, including those in the farming industry for IoT connectivity, to accomplish such tasks as tracking the levels of water tanks or grain bins, locating assets such as tractors or equipment or, most recently, monitoring the conditions of soil to prevent over- or under-watering.

The company was launched by Pete Denagy, IoT America’s president, and Dan Croft, the company’s CEO. Both have IoT backgrounds in technology and managed services. The firm maintains two home offices, one located in Frisco, Texas, and the other in Chicago, Ill.

Peter Lai

The founders came to realize, while examining the IoT landscape in the United States, that there was a gap in access to IoT networks for those in rural areas, according to Peter Lai, IoT America’s director of solutions. “They knew the global population was rising,” he says, “and they saw a need to help those in rural America produce higher yields and enhance efficiency” to help feed the growing population. That meant using technology to ensure their operations could be as productive as possible, and to protect their assets and preserve natural resources.

Although many technology companies offer tools, Lai says, IoT America is the first to provide devices, software and wireless networks in the rural United States. “It’s a noisy landscape,” he explains, “with people coming in left and right to sell solutions.” What’s lacking, Lai says, is a way for end users to deploy and access data from IoT systems seamlessly.

IoT America, launched in 2017, strives to make IoT adoption as seamless as possible, Lai says, in places where connectivity is often lacking. “We want to take away the complexity,” he states. The company typically consults with customers or partners to determine what IoT technology, as well as what access to the collected IoT data, is necessary for them, and then builds a customized solution to meet those customers’ challenges. IoT America provides the networking capability required for a specific site or application, using LoRaWAN-based sensors and gateways.

IoT America partners with rural carrier providers and is a member of the LoRa Alliance. The company installs a LoRa gateway in a given area to capture sensor data, which then forwards that information via a cellular connection to a cloud-based server. The firm is agnostic regarding the backhaul of data to a server, Lai says. Its customers fall into two categories: authorized partners selling sensor-based solutions in the rural U.S., and the users themselves, such as farmers. The early piloting has involved using IoT America’s network to capture data regarding conditions around a variety of farms.

In some cases, for instance, asset tracking is being used, with sensors attached to equipment such as tractors, harvesting or planting equipment, and tools. Those battery-powered sensors each have their own unique ID number. IoT America or its partner can provide the sensors. Each sensor transmits its unique ID via LoRa to an IoT America gateway. When the gateway receives the data, it can identify each sensor’s approximate location, link it to the unique ID and forward that data to IoT America’s cloud-based software via a cellular connection.

Farmers can view that data on an online dashboard, using an Android- or iOS-based device, even while in the field. In that way, if a farm worker has left a piece of equipment behind at a specific location, others can quickly find that item, even if the employee is not there to tell them where it is.

Sensors can provide other details as well, Lai reports. If grain bins or water tanks are being managed remotely, the sensors could include a moisture or pressure sensor and thereby identify the level of the tank’s or bin’s content, then send that data—along with the sensor’s unique ID—to help the user identify which tank or bin he or she is viewing. If the contents fall below a pre-determined safety level, an alert can be issued directly to the farm supervisor or another authorized party.

For soil management, the system can identify the level of moisture in soil in real time. Such data can also be used for analytics purposes. For instance, an almond farmer in California can compare water levels against yields, determine the best level of watering and potentially prevent over-watering. “We pride ourselves on coming in with a consultative approach,” Lai states. “The question we ask is, ‘What is the problem they want to address?'” That consultative approach includes conducting a site survey to ensure the proper gateway placement and full network coverage across a field or farm.

Farms using the technology could range in size from a few hundred acres to thousands of acres, Lai says. Among those testing the technology, some have a single application, such as asset tracking, while others are utilizing the IoT network for multiple purposes. To date, the company has been providing its solutions through its partners, such as U.S. Cellular. IoT America extends its partners’ reach to the sensors via the LoRaWAN network.

“When you look at rural America, infrastructure is key,” Lai says. “The value for the partner is getting them in front of a whole new market that’s been under-served.” For solution partners that need to build networks for their system, IoT America intends to enable them to build a network for their customers that can be used with their existing solutions. The company is currently in the process of screening future partners for the network. That screening process involves validating the sensor and a company’s software solution, as well as testing the user experience.

This month, IoT America launched its IoT Soil Monitoring Managed Services, designed to support large or small rural businesses. The company predicts that its customers can use the system to reduce water consumption by up to 30 percent, since they will now have a greater understanding of the moisture content of their fields and can thereby prevent over-watering. The solution is also designed to reduce manual labor costs centered around physical soil condition and irrigation checks.