Connect anywhere: Introducing the M-Series

Connect anywhere: Introducing the M-Series
Note: This is a blog post by @zach that I'm sharing here since it's extremely relevant to the community

The “Internet of Things” is a weird industry. It’s not an industry at all, to begin with; it’s a basket of technologies that are relevant to pretty much every industry. The basic premise of IoT is that we’ve spent decades building networking and connectivity for PCs and smartphones that keeps getting faster, cheaper, and more ubiquitous, and we can repurpose that networking technology for “things” (i.e. anything other than a smartphone and PC).

In the early days of IoT, the “things” that we were connecting were consumer products — the Nest-alikes, the companies re-imagining every product in your home. Some of those products were great! Others were terrible. The smart home is pretty well-baked at this point; most Americans have at least one voice assistant in their home, and formerly niche products like smart locks, security cameras, and connected light bulbs are now mainstream.

In the years that followed, industrial products followed suit. Most of Particle’s customers these days are connecting things like methane sensors or agricultural equipment — less sexy, less visible, but more valuable. Our customers manage the stormwater systems of major cities around the world, control and monitor medical equipment, and ensure efficient production and consumption of energy with less impact on the climate. Our customers are saving the world, and it’s exciting to be supporting their achievements.

The more “industrial” our customers become, the further afield we find we need to provide connectivity. This was easy:

Home Wifi image

This was a bit harder:

Urban Canyon LTE

This is where we’re pushing the limits:

Desert Pole Sensor

Every customer of ours is looking for a wireless technology that “works everywhere.” We’ve been looking for it too. And I’m excited to announce that we…

Nope, just kidding. There is no wireless technology that works everywhere. It simply doesn’t exist.

LTE is about as close as you can get. Our Wi-Fi-connected customers generally see <25% “attach rate” (the percentage of devices that are connected), because most consumers can’t be convinced to connect things to their network. Our LTE customers can get up to 85% attach rate because of the ubiquity of LTE networks (and the fact that no one needs to type in the Wi-Fi password). But that last 15% of devices are in basements, elevator shafts, or the Permian Basin.

To put it simply: telcos put cellular towers where there are people, and some machines go where people don’t go.

So what are you supposed to do if you want to get to 100% attach rate?

There are other wireless technologies available. There are satellite networks that can reach far away places — but they don’t work indoors. There are sub-GHz networks like LoRaWAN that can penetrate deeper into buildings, but they only work where gateways have been connected. No one radio can exceed 85%.

Well, how about all the radios?

That, my friends, we can do.

Introducing: Multi-radio networking

I’m excited to announce Particle’s latest networking feature: multi-radio networking. Until now, every Particle device has had one connection to our cloud service, over whichever wireless radio was included in the product (Wi-Fi or LTE). Particle is now adding support for multiple radios in a single product, which gives you two major advantages:

  • Network diversity with a single product: Customers who need to connect to different types of networks in different environments typically need to create different versions of their products, each with a different radio and running different software. Particle’s multi-radio products make it possible to have a single product that can connect to whichever wireless network is available to it when the product is set up and installed, even if you don’t know in advance what networks will be available.
  • Network redundancy and failover: Devices can connect to multiple networks simultaneously, and Particle will handle the network infrastructure to ensure that every Particle.publish() reaches its intended destination, regardless of how the device is connected. If the preferred network disappears, the device will automatically fail over to a secondary network — and a third, and a fourth, until the data breaks through to the cloud.

Wait a second… third? Fourth? How many networks is Particle going to support?

The big 4: Wi-Fi, cellular, satellite, and LoRaWAN

Particle currently supports two primary wireless radios: Wi-Fi and cellular. These two radio technologies get us a ton of coverage; 95% of human beings on the planet have access to one of those two networks. That’s a lot.

But IoT devices are sometimes installed in places that humans don’t often go, creating two common network gaps:

  • Devices that are far afield: methane sensors in oil and gas, boats, environmental sensors in wooded areas
  • Devices that are in enclosed spaces: boiler rooms, elevator shafts, basements, mines

No one radio covers both of these gaps. But if we add two more radios, we can get to full coverage. Those two radios are satellite and LoRaWAN.

Satellite

Introducing Satellite

Satellite networking (aka “non-terrestrial networks” or NTN) isn’t new, and IoT products have been able to connect to satellite networks for years. However the existing satellite networks have a few major challenges:

  • The modules are painfully expensive ($150+)
  • The service is painfully expensive ($15-$30/mo)
  • They’re very power hungry (7.5W max power)

As a result, satellite IoT is not as widespread as it could be; the customers who use satellite networks are those who most desperately need them.

We’ve been keeping our eye on the satellite networking industry for a while, hoping that we’d see some innovation in this space that would make these networks viable for our customers. Finally, it’s here; the 3GPP (the standards body behind the telecommunications world) has defined a standard for IoT communications via NTN satellite that allows existing IoT silicon to use them with relatively minor tweaks.

We’re excited to be working with our silicon partners, Qualcomm (who makes the underlying cellular silicon) and Quectel (who makes our cellular modules) as of the first companies adopting their new silicon targeting NTN satellite; Qualcomm and Quectel are market leaders who are proactively investing in this space to get satellite off the ground (space pun!), and we’re proud to be working with the best folks in the business.

We’re equally excited to be standing up a new relationship with Skylo, a satellite network operator that is leading the charge in enabling NTN for IoT. Skylo works with folks like Viasat and Ligado who already have satellites in the sky, allowing them to quickly roll out a global network without sending new satellites up into space. They’re currently live in North America and in Western Europe with global expansion coming soon.

By partnering with these world-class technology companies, we’ll be able to provide reliable and secure satellite communications to our customers at a fraction of the price and power consumption of prior networks.

LoRaWAN

Satellite will fill a major gap in our portfolio for devices that are “far afield” — in environments far enough from populated areas that they don’t get great cellular reception. But there are still other gaps — devices in buildings, basements, and otherwise hard to penetrate environments that are typically lacking radio coverage.

And this is where we’ve got one more radio to throw into the mix — a radio called LoRa, on which we are utilizing a communications protocol called LoRaWAN, designed for “Low Power Wide Area Networks” (LPWAN).

What does all that jargon mean?

Network visualization

LPWAN is a category of wireless radios that have been getting more and more attention over the last few years. In general, the goal has been to create low power, low cost wireless networks specifically designed for IoT applications that cover large areas. There are a number of competing LPWAN technologies, like Sigfox, NB-IoT, Amazon Sidewalk, and LoRaWAN; while each has its place, LoRaWAN has emerged as the winner.

What sets LoRaWAN apart, beyond the remarkable capabilities of the LoRa (Long Range) radio technology, is its protocol’s design for standardizing communication between devices and gateways. This design caters equally to public networks, open for anyone to join, and private networks, which you can exclusively control and manage. Additionally, LoRaWAN networks have the ability to “peer,” securely exchanging data among themselves. This feature allows for expansive coverage, accessible wherever an existing gateway is available or through the installation of your own gateway, facilitating a federated network that effortlessly merges public and private gateways.

This makes LoRaWAN particularly well-suited for networks designed to cover a building, a campus, or a work site, as a single gateway can easily cover every nook and cranny of a site, and while that gateway might be set up for a particular application, other devices can be introduced onto that gateway to expand its utility over time.

In order to get you the widest array of options, we’re excited to be partnering with three different LoRaWAN network operators — each with a different focus.

Helium

Helium is a decentralized LoRaWAN network where anyone can set up a Helium gateway (called a Hotspot) and add it to the Helium network. Hotspots are rewarded for providing wireless coverage and transmitting data for LoRaWAN compatible sensors in the area.

Since 2019, the Helium community has deployed hundreds of thousands of Helium Hotspots across the world, predominantly in populated areas; 80% of the U.S. population is in the range of a Helium Hotspot.

Helium Network Map

Helium is a great network to combine with our cellular and satellite networks because it provides network redundancy and a lower power option for battery-powered devices.

The Things Industries

The Things Industries provides perhaps the most widely used LoRaWAN network server, supporting more than 1.5 million LoRaWAN devices around the world. They’ve become one of the primary hubs of the LoRaWAN community, especially in Europe, and The Things Stack and The Things Stack Cloud have become the de facto standard for companies who are looking to manage their own LoRaWAN network and want to tap into the global developer community around The Things Network.

Comcast’s MachineQ

MachineQ offers dedicated LoRaWAN networks for enterprise customers who do not want to manage their LoRaWAN network, and want someone else to manage that complexity; they manage 300M square feet of private network coverage and 500,000 devices for global quick service restaurants, pharmaceutical companies, and hotel brands. MachineQ’s network is backed by an SLA, they provide enterprise-grade support, and, as part of Comcast, they have the expertise and resources to handle gateway and device installation on site with indoor or outdoor gateways, providing a practical solution for establishing a wireless network where one does not already exist.

Introducing the M-Series device portfolio

Obviously if we’re going to support this whole multi-radio thing, we’re going to need a portfolio of devices designed to support it. So here it goes: the M-Series device portfolio.

The M-Series comes in three different form factors — the M-SoM, our “system-on-module,” for embedding multi-radio connectivity into your devices; the Muon, our multi-radio development board for rapid prototyping, and Monitor M, our multi-radio industrial gateway. Each of these products stands on its own, but as a portfolio, they provide the most seamless “prototype-to-production” path yet, where you can transition from a hand-built prototype to an industrial-grade gateway in days.

The M-SoM multi-radio system-on-module

The M-SoM is the heart of our M-Series device portfolio. Like our prior generation of cellular SoMs, it’s an M.2 form factor module about the size of a large postage stamp. Like the more recent P2 and Photon 2, this is a “Gen 4” product, so it includes a high-end modern microcontroller (200MHz Cortex-M33 with 16MB flash and 4.5MB RAM) with Arm TrustZone, secure boot, and capable of running Edge ML models, combined with a best-in-class Quectel connectivity module.

M-SoM

We’ll be making three different versions of the M-SoM, depending on your connectivity needs:

  • M404: LTE-M + 2G fallback + dual-band Wi-Fi
  • M524: LTE Cat 1 + dual-band Wi-Fi
  • M635: LTE-M + 2G fallback + dual-band Wi-Fi + NTN satellite

All three M-SoMs also have GNSS on board for tracking and support our Location Fusion service, which provides accurate location, combining together GNSS data, cell tower triangulation, and Wi-Fi geolocation.

The Muon: Particle’s latest development board

Muon

The Muon is our latest development board and uses a new form factor — a credit card-sized carrier board with an M-SoM on board. The Muon is therefore not just a development board — it’s also a reference design for how to integrate the M-SoM into your own electronics.

The Muon adds the LoRa module, as well as other components to accelerate development:

  • An Expansion Card interface that extends the M-SoM IO through a set of female headers.
  • A Qwiic connector, enabling easy integration with hundreds of Qwiic-compatible accessories.
  • Power management that supports a wide array of power sources such as USB-C with Power Delivery (PD), a screw block for direct power source connections (5-12V), and a three-pin JST connector for a LiPo battery (charger circuit built in!).

The Expansion Card interface is great for prototyping with jumper cables, but we’re most excited about the creation of an open standard like Raspberry Pi HATs and Arduino shields for sensors, actuators, displays, and other accessories. We’ll be making our own expansion cards, as well as partnering with others to build out the expansion card ecosystem. And you can of course design your own; we expect that many of our customers will be able to ship reliable and robust products to market by using the Muon and a custom expansion card.

In fact, let’s say you wanted to do exactly that — but you need a mountable enclosure and some sensors, peripherals, power cables, and antennas exposed to the outside world through a cable. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a streamlined path to follow?

Muon to Monitor One: The fastest path from prototype to production

A few months ago, Particle began shipping Monitor One, our industrial equipment gateway, to help accelerate development of our many customers whose product take the form of “custom electronics in a box with a cable.” We’ll now be upgrading that gateway to incorporate the Muon such that a customer can buy a Muon, grab the right expansion card, put it in an enclosure, and ship to customers.

Stackable device

This “stackable” design gives our customers the fastest possible path from a day one prototype to a high-quality, reliable product deployed into the field.

Interested in a custom Monitor One-based product? Contact our sales team.

Get started for as little as $49

If you want to give Particle’s multi-radio portfolio a try, the easiest way to get started is to pre-order a Muon, which can be yours for as little as $49. We’ll be shipping the Wi-Fi + cellular + LoRaWAN Muons in Q2 and the Wi-Fi + cellular + satellite + LoRaWAN Muons in Q3.

If you can’t wait, or you’re an existing B-SoM customer looking to transition to the M-SoM, we have M-SoMs engineering samples available today for evaluation; please contact our sales team to learn more.

5 Likes