LoRaWAN in Spaaaaaaace

A couple of weeks ago we were exploring 850-year old technology at Woodbridge Tide Mill, and this week we are right at the cutting edge.

As those great explorers and philosophers of the 1990s rave scene, The Prodigy once said:

Pay close attention.

Screengrab from Out of Space video by The Prodigy, 1992

Now I’m not going to take your brain to another dimension, but yesterday my Lacuna Space LS300 dev kit successfully sent a LoRaWAN message into space, where it was picked up by a passing satellite and beamed back to Earth.

I, and many in the TTN community have been avidly watching Lacuna Space‘s adventures in space – from when they appeared at the first The Things Conference and sent messages from a satellite down to an ancient teletype machine in the exhibition hall. Their progress updates at each subsequent conference are a real highlight – and this year was particularly exciting because they brought some early dev kits with them!

The team at Lacuna Space and their manufacturing partner RF Things have done a terrific job in making this possible for mere mortals who have enough geek in them to use the Arduino IDE – so basically schoolkids upwards.

It would be MIND-BLOWING to teenage me to know that in my lifetime I would be able to casually program a battery powered (3 x AA – nothing flashy) device to send the temperature and humidity of my chicken coop to a passing satellite. Obviously I would hate future me for the chicken coop.

So this is the device – the LS300. It is intended as a reference for device manufacturers, and is made entirely of COTS components. The idea is that this will encourage other organisations to design and build their own devices. In the meantime this is great for proof of concept projects.

It comes with some built-in sensors – an accelorometer, temperature, humidity, pressure, hall effect sensor and of course GNSS for location info. It also has expansion connectors for 3rd party sensors.

The MCU is an STM32WB55 and the LoRa radio is a Semtech LoRa Edge™ LR1120. On the top you can see the rather lovely PCB satellite antenna. As we are sending data to a satellite it is important the antenna faces upwards! The whole thing is enclosed in a weatherproof case so you can leave it outside in the rain without worrying.

The LS300 can be programmed using the well known Arduino IDE on your computer, via a micro-USB lead.

The team at Lacuna have provided excellent sample programs and documentation, as well as a support forum, and there are some familiar names to the TTN community who are active in the forum.

Terrestrial LoRaWAN is the way to go for many use cases, but there are many others where it is simply not cost effective or feasible to deploy a network – areas lacking in cellular coverage an/or power for a gateway for example. There are more of these than you might think, perhaps even somewhere in a field in Hampshire, where Jarvis Cocker left an important part of his brain – to go back to the 90’s rave scene.

Augmenting a terrestrial LoRaWAN network is likely to be an area of interest for some UK local authorities – one in the north of England is already experimenting with Lacuna Space. They are deploying a normal earthbound LoRaWAN network, but there are several hard-to-reach areas among the hills, and it is more cost-effective to use satellite for the backhaul, whilst still gaining the benefit of very low powered sensors.

Lacuna Space has a schedule of satellite launches planned over the coming months and years which will increase the frequency with which a LoRa-receiving satellite will be overhead, wherever you are in the world.

We live in exciting times indeed.

Footnote: putting the space-age tech to one side for a moment – the Lacuna team are among the finest people I’ve met in technology, and the founders do a superb job of recruiting and retaining the perfect people for the job in hand. As well as the obvious talent within the company, there is resilience and drive but also a real sense of fun and adventure. Thomas’ recent side project – bouncing LoRa signals off of the moon is a great example of a founder making time for fun.

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