The surging IoT is flooding across industries from telecom carriers to chip makers. The environment is new and dynamic and companies must be prepared to adapt strategies quickly.
Link Labs is an example of an emerging IoT specialist company that has been making a sharp shift in its basic growth strategy. We recently spoke with Glenn Schatz, Vice President of Business Development for the company about their plans.
The company was formed in 2014 by engineers from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, who had worked on various RF projects for the U.S. DOD and other agencies, as well as some telecom companies. This included projects with low power devices.
The company turned early on to working with LoRa, one of the leading technology approaches to providing LPWANs (low power wide area networks.) Schatz explains that they had the lead in developing their proprietary product, Symphony Link, before the development of LoRaWAN by the LoRa Alliance. (LoRa is the physical network layer, while Symphony Link and LoRaWAN are basically protocols for networks to operate over LoRa network links.)
Link Labs has highlighted numerous features of Symphony Link that exceed those of LoRaWAN. Some examples are: a. Has far greater capacity and can operate over a wider range of spectrum frequencies; b. Firmware can be updated remotely; c. It has a much lower bit error rate (BER); d. Acknowledgments – it acknowledges every message in uplink and downlink, whereas LoRaWAN doesn’t.
The company has also pointed to the fact that Symphony Link has been used in IoT systems by customers in various industries, “including smart cities, agriculture, building controls, automotive, healthcare, government, defense, retail, and utilities.”
However, Schatz explained to us that because of the resources of the LoRa Alliance which backed the competitor protocol, Link Labs decided to pull back from head to head competition with LoRaWAN. The Alliance includes a number of leading carriers as well as equipment providers, such as Cisco and IBM, as well as dozens of other companies worldwide.
While the company maintains Symphony Link in its product portfolio, Schatz says it has turned its efforts broadly to “application development.” A key area for them is providing solutions for asset tracking, monitoring, and management. These solutions are supported by specific product families, which are value adding layers in the final result of improving an enterprise’s asset utilization status.
Its AirFinder is a real-time location system (RTLS) for asset tracking. The company claims the solution is about 1/10th the cost of other solutions in applications such as industrial plant monitoring.
The system consists of: 1) low cost Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) tags that are affixed to each of the devices being tracked; 2) BLE reference point beacons located throughout a facility which can track the location of the tags; 3) a gateway, to which the individual tags can submit readings and information; and 4) connection to a network – LPWAN, WiFi, Ethernet or cellular – which transmits the data to a company cloud or servers.
Schatz told us that AirFinder has gained early interest for use in both hospitals and construction sites. The company has not announced the specific pilots, but he stated that they expect to be able to announce a hospital installation soon.
In addition to onsite tracking, Link Labs extends its tracking capability to items in transit, such as within trucks, as well as outdoor tracking of assets. The trucking solution uses a BLE access point either affixed to the truck or included with the items being shipped. It uses the cellular network for transmission.
For outdoor use, Link Labs has designed a “compact, rechargeable, advanced GPS receiver and three-axis accelerometer,” which is designed to maximize battery life. The system uses cellular LTE Cat M1 transmission.
In late 2016, the company and Verizon announced that Link Labs had designed a “Sensor Suite” (about a “dozen highly integrated sensor and controller devices”) powered by Cat M1, for use on the Verizon’s LTE network for IoT systems.
Cat M1 is a cellular industry low power transmission technology, which we have previously discussed. (1.4 MHz channel size and throughput of about 375 kbps uplink and 300 kbps downlink – See: “LPWAN’s Life & Death Struggle: Ingenu’s Answer”, MCE 9/12/16).
In addition, Link Labs offers a platform product called Conductor, which appears aimed at complex enterprise IoT systems. The platform integrates both Symphony Link and LTE Cat M1 devices and offers management and other features.
The IoT is a developing swirling competitive area, with a number of LPWAN independent solutions (LoRa, Weightless/Nwave, Ingenu, and others) and cellular carriers stepping up their efforts.
Link Labs has modified their strategy from heavy dependence on LoRa, to working both on the independent side and with carriers. Schatz states that the asset tracking area will likely be their major focus for some time and offers substantial growth.
Spurred by the advent of these LPWAN transmission solutions, the multi-billion dollar asset tracking market appears to be primed for extremely strong growth. A number of market research studies have ballparked the growth potential for the area to be a tripling in revenues and device shipments between 2016-2022.
With their skills and emphasis on low sensor cost, long life batteries, with low current draw microcontrollers as a key, Link Labs should enjoy a substantial growth opportunity.
Mobile Cloud Era
November 6, 2017