Particle Releases Mesh-Based IoT Solution for Developers

By Claire Swedberg

The system includes low-cost wireless sensor transmitters and gateways, as well as the company's Device Cloud software, so developers can create an ecosystem of sensors to wirelessly detect conditions for everything from factories to parking lots.

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Internet of Thing (IoT) technology company Particle has released what it calls Particle Mesh, a network that enables low-cost wireless devices with sensors to create a mesh network of connected devices collecting data. That information can then be forwarded to a server via a Wi-Fi, cellular or Ethernet connection. Pre-orders have begun shipping this month to developers that are building mesh-based solutions, the company reports.

For several years, Particle has provided an IoT solution known as Device Cloud that serves as a data network to collect, analyze and share information regarding a company’s devices and their status. The solution is offered at a monthly fee, while there is a one-time hardware cost. Particle reports that it has already shipped more than 500,000 of these devices to approximately 160,000 engineers, and that it has worked with Fortune 500 companies to provide wireless sensor management of equipment, electronics and assets.

Left to right: Argon, Xenon, Boron

The company has now taken a further step by offering a mesh network of low-cost sensors to provide more data from a physical location about the conditions of assets or other items within a space. Particle Mesh could accelerate the IoT market, says Will Hart, the firm’s general manager, by providing context for the IoT data being collected. “A product creator might attach sensors or actuators to the Mesh products and program them to behave in a particular way,” he explains. “Adding more products with different roles to the same mesh network can help the system make better decisions than any individual product could make on its own.”

The company already offers three devices that connect sensors to a server. These units capture sensor data, transmit it directly to Device Cloud, and thereby provide information about such factors as the temperature within a cooler or generator, in order to understand how those devices are operating. With Particle Mesh, however, a great deal more data could be collected at a single site, the company reports, using low-cost transmitters with sensors communicating with the Particle gateway devices.

The three devices that Particle offers are called the Argon, the Boron and the Xenon. The Argon acts as a gateway and uses Wi-Fi to connect data to the server. It employs Nordic Semiconductor‘s nRF52840 IC. The Boron uses an LTE cellular transmission to forward sensor data to a server. And the Xenon, the least costly model, can serve as a repeater or a gateway using Thread, a 2.4 GHz protocol compliant with the ISO 802.15.4 standard.

According to Hart, the mesh solution was developed on the request of Particle’s customers that wanted to add greater context and intelligence to the data being collected. For instance, a water company could employ Device Cloud to collect data regarding water usage via a sensor attached to a water meter, which would communicate directly with the cloud-based server.

However, Hart adds, if a company wanted to deploy wireless moisture detectors throughout a larger area in order to understand when and where any potential leaks were occurring, the mesh could be the solution. In that case, a user could deploy battery-powered transmitters that would share data with other devices using the Thread ecosystem, employing the IEEE’s 802.15.4 standard. The use of the low-rate WPAN standard provides a very long battery life, the company reports, with a relatively low data rate.

Will Hart

Such devices could transmit their own unique ID numbers and sensor data to the gateway, thus providing a view into many locations within a water system or area, so as to gain a more granular understanding of where water leaks might occur. But there are numerous other applications for such a mesh, the company notes. “Once we create a mesh network,” Hart states, “the system then opens new use cases.”

For instance, a parking lot operator could use the low-cost mesh-network system to identify what is happening at a particular lot on a space-by-space basis. A sensor could be installed at each parking space to detect whether or not a car was parked there. The device, in such a scenario, could be built into a robust, flat, circular encasing, and could use a motion, ultrasonic or other occupancy sensor to identify a vehicle’s presence. The data collected could be transmitted to the gateway device within the area via Thread (using the 802.15.4 RF protocol), and the gateway would then forward that information to the cloud.

“Users can collect data about the time when spaces are empty,” Hart says, and could thus adjust pricing at specific times, for instance, in order to encourage drivers to use those spaces throughout the day and week. The mesh could be used for such applications as monitoring fans or other mechanical equipment, so as to prevent failures or predict maintenance requirements. Such a system could utilize temperature, pressure or other sensors to identify when a machine may not be operating properly. “It is also great for local interactions,” Hart states, in places where an internet connection might not be available.

For instance, the transmitters could be installed in mines and could forward sensor data to the receiver, which could have an Ethernet connection to a laptop that would collect data and, if necessary, issue an alert indicating mine conditions were not healthy. “You could send the message directly to an alarming device,” Hart says, “or use local connectivity with a cellular connection” employed by the receiver.

“In the next six months,” Hart states, “we expect to see many more use cases coming back to us” as developers experiment with the technology. At that point, Particle may opt to develop specific solutions that companies could utilize for such applications as monitoring parking or equipment maintenance. In a typical installation, the company estimates that each gateway could support 10 to 20 sensor transmitters apiece.

Thus far, Hart says, approximately 35,000 of the devices have been preordered, as well as development kits. Developers can use the kit to set up a system in which a single Argon, Boron or Xenon serves as a receiver, with a choice of sensors attached to the mesh devices that transmit to that receiver. They could then develop apps and software-based solutions themselves, or purchase assistance from Particle to develop a system for them. Typically, a company would pay a one-time fee for the sensor hardware, as well as a monthly fee for access to the data.