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With cellular IoT finding increasing acceptance in global markets, many innovative use cases are emerging across various verticals.From smart cities to agriculture, utilities to industry, cellular architectures such as LTE-M and Narrowband-IoT (NBIoT) that use Low Power Wide Area Networks deliver significant business advantages.
In many cases, the deployments comprise low-power devices with relatively low data rates through mobile cellular networks – allowing the connection of physical objects such as sensors or actuators that previously might have operated in isolation. The combination of extensive coverage and remote management provides a step-change in connectivity, allowing organisations to develop new business models and usher in more efficient ways of working.
So, let us look at how cellular IoT makes a practical difference in real-world applications. Here are five innovative use cases that have a tangible and positive effect on the world around us.
1. Agriculture: Crops growing in perfect conditions
Cellular IoT is a good fit for farming, where there is often a need to deploy multiple sensors and other equipment across remote areas that network protocols such as Wi-Fi cannot support. Architectures such as NBIoT allow sensors with battery lives of up to 10 years to be used to gather crucial information on environmental metrics such as temperature, soil condition, crop health or the location of livestock, operating in a low-cost power-saving mode for data transmission at regular intervals. One of the most common applications in recent years is the connected greenhouse , with small, fixed sensors used to monitor humidity, moisture and acidity levels in water inside a greenhouse. This type of deployment helps farmers replicate consistent conditions over time – increasing the likelihood of successful harvests. This sort of setup often uses battery-powered devices in fixed locations, with two-way communication over the cellular network, allowing firmware and software updates when required.
2. Smart cities: Parking without the pressure
Urban environments have historically featured many ‘dumb’ devices and objects that have performed a purpose while not offering real-time insight into their operational performance or functionality. That is why it was commonplace to see assets such as streetlights not working for extended periods or wasting energy when not required. Now, though, cellular IoT provides an opportunity to connect city landscapes, allowing authorities and municipalities to improve the lived experience of residents.  One example is more efficient lighting – set via sensors following ambient conditions rather than timers. But there are many others. Cellular IoT-based parking management projects have emerged in many cities worldwide, with sensors used to identify empty parking bays and slots allocated to the nearest cars seeking parking to lower emissions. Traffic management is another exciting area. Here, sensors can assess congestion, providing citizens with real-time information and possibly allowing traffic engineers to re-phase traffic signals to alleviate congestion.
3. Utilities: Detecting leaking pipes
Many billions of litres of water are wasted every day worldwide through unrepaired pipes. Historically, the problem is difficult to contain, as water companies often oversee highly distributed water distribution networks – fitted mainly underground – making it hard to spot leaks when they occur. That is where cellular IoT comes in. Increasingly, water companies are creating more intelligent water distribution networks, using digital water meters, sensors and acoustic loggers on underground mains pipes.  In the case of acoustic loggers, fixed devices ‘listen’ for escaping water within the network to determine when leaks have occurred and to assist in pinpointing the precise location. In the future, it might be possible to use similar sensors to predict and prevent pipeline failure before it occurs. Technology such as NBIoT is well-suited to such applications, as the narrowband frequency enables more comprehensive coverage and deeper penetration than traditional networks.
4. E-Mobility: Locating stolen bicycles
Electric bikes offer a flexible and sustainable means of getting around towns and cities. But there is a problem. These bikes are expensive and desirable and, therefore, risk being stolen. Traditional locks have proved a scant deterrent for a determined thief with hacksaws and cable cutters. Increasingly, then, cyclists are looking to technology to help them protect their bikes. The latest bike security trackers combine GPS and low-power wide-area technology, allowing users to automatically locate and track their bikes from a smartphone for up to 90 days on a single charge from a lithium-ion battery.  The tiny ‘plug and play’ tracking devices – usually around half the size of a deck of playing cards – can be fitted under a bike’s seat or a water bottle, requiring no further input. System-in-Package devices with integrated LTE-M/NB-IoT modems plus GPS represent a robust solution for such applications. They offer a good range and upload speed at reasonable power consumption, with few restrictions on duty cycles.
5. Safety and security: Preventing fires
Smoke detectors are crucial deterrents against fires in homes and premises, providing an early warning system that can save lives. However, traditional devices do have their shortcomings. Users are typically unable to monitor the operational status of smoke detectors in real-time or receive alarms or other information if they are not present on the property. Cellular IoT-enabled devices answer these shortcomings – allowing smoke detectors to communicate directly with firefighters and property owners.  Advantages of wireless LTE-M/NB-IoT and other architectures include long battery lifetime and reduced requirement of associated cabling. Similar technology is also being deployed for gas and carbon dioxide detectors, supporting higher levels of safety and security in the connected home.
These five examples provide a glimpse of cellular IoT applications. Others include CCTV and location security, wearables, healthcare, electronics and automotive. The list will likely keep growing as design engineers make the most of wireless technology's opportunities.
Articles in this series:
- Cellular IoT Explained: A Quickfire Guide to Mobile Connectivity
- Cellular IoT Explained: The Pros and Cons
- Cellular IoT Explained: Implementing Cellular Connectivity
- Cellular IoT Explained: Five Ways Cellular IoT is Transforming Our Lives