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How to build a functional network for rugged IoT

Rugged IoT networks are cropping up everywhere. Understanding the necessary edge computing and network requirements is crucial for deploying a successful rugged IoT network.

Rugged IoT networks are growing in scope and size, thanks in part to the amount of rugged IoT hardware that is now available to support deployments. Rugged IoT networks exist in smart cities, industrial facilities, farmlands, remote oil and gas sites, and even offshore platforms. Successful deployments hinge on proper network setup.

Rugged IoT or rugged industrial IoT (IIoT) networks provide service under inhospitable conditions in both indoor and outdoor environments. Such installations often use edge computing -- servers and other computation resources that are close to the network edge to process data quickly -- and deploy specialized low-power WANs (LPWANs) to deliver data from areas such as remote mountains and offshore oil platforms.

Rugged IoT deployments frequently use low-power hardware, such as IoT gateways and servers, that can survive extreme weather conditions. They need on-site data backup that can store local data, especially in the event of severe climate fluctuation or natural disaster. Connectivity for rugged IoT applications is often supplied by dedicated cellular, such as Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) or LTE Machine Type Communication (LTE-M), or LPWAN specifications, like Long-Range WAN (LoRaWAN) or Sigfox.

The main considerations for a rugged IoT network

Selecting the components for a rugged IoT or IIoT network depends on what the installation needs to do.

Teams often use edge computers at the fringe of a rugged IoT network. Unlike normal PCs, rugged computers use a fanless design, enabling manufacturers to create a completely closed system that can better withstand shock, vibration and extreme temperature. Edge computers should be rugged, be compact, offer a variety of connectivity options, and have enough memory and processor power to get the job done.

Small, fanless servers are also common for rugged IoT edge deployments. A fanless edge server deployed on the same network as the rest of the IoT equipment can reduce processing and data transmission time. When enclosed in metal, fanless servers can endure the same conditions as the rest of the equipment.

Remote rugged IoT systems often require wireless connectivity. With the growth of private enterprise 4G LTE and 5G networks, companies can set up their own wireless small cells and core network software to serve distant outposts. These small cells need ruggedized enclosures to survive in harsh conditions. The same holds true if a company deploys Wi-Fi hotspots in an isolated locale.

Equipment needed for a rugged IoT deployment can cost thousands -- or even millions -- of dollars, depending on the scale of the installation. For instance, Tampnet worked with Ericsson in 2022 to deploy offshore networks that use wearable devices for employees and are connected via a private 4G LTE network to enable real-time data collection from networks deployed at sea.

Installing rugged IoT network elements can be challenging. Servers and cell sites may need to be managed remotely over thousands of miles, with little human intervention possible.

Teams deploying rugged IoT networks can study the limitations of low-memory embedded and IoT devices. Knowledge of the latest LPWAN technologies, such as LoRa and Sigfox, are also useful.

Network options for rugged networks

Some rugged IoT networks use wired connections, like Ethernet, but Wi-Fi can also connect devices in hazardous industrial areas. For example, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz Wi-Fi hotspots can provide coverage to a range of 135 to 150 feet indoors and 285 to 300 feet outdoors.

An installation that requires a more extended range for a rugged IoT deployment needs to use LPWAN hotspots, cellular small cells or base stations.

LoRaWAN networks realistically offer a range of around 10 kilometers (km) outdoors. This all depends on the network positioning, the physical obstacles blocking the signal and the performance of the equipment.

LPWAN rival Sigfox offers a similar coverage range. The French firm that first developed the Sigfox technology was bought out of bankruptcy by Singaporean company UnaBiz in April 2022.

Cellular IoT standards

Cellular IoT standards include LTE-M and NB-IoT. LTE-M can connect to moving objects at a range of up to 10 km in rural areas at a maximum uplink speed of 1 Mbps. LTE-M covers much of the world, and international carriers are striking global roaming agreements.

NB-IoT can support coverage up to 10 km in rural regions. The standard can connect to stationary devices located indoors or deep underground at download speeds of up to 200 Kbps. The standard is currently only deployed in around a third of the world. Operators like Deutsche Telekom have started to sign international roaming agreements.

Cellular and LPWAN gateways, small cells and hotspots are now readily available for rugged IoT use. Rugged LPWAN gateways can cost anywhere from a couple hundred to thousands of dollars.

Dan Jones is a tech journalist with 20 years of experience. His specialties include 5G, IoT, 4G small cells and enterprise Wi-Fi. He previously worked for Light Reading and ComputerWire.

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