On our most recent IoT Podcast, Billy called into our voicemail hotline with a question about asset tracking using a LoRaWAN network. Billy’s town has one gateway for this already and he’s thinking about adding his own, in order to expand the network, but he’s not sure how to get started.
Luckily, Stacey has some experience with this, having previously purchased a LoRaWAN hotspot from Helium. Note that Helium is using “Long Fi” as the underlying network technology, but it is compatible with LoRaWAN gateways, networks, and devices.
The Helium hotspot costs $350 currently and is relatively simple to set up. You essentially connect it to power and your home broadband network. There’s also a registration process to assign the hotspot to your Helium account, which is important because you earn cryptocurrency tokens when people use the network through your hotspot.
This registration may take a day or two because Helium wants to ensure that your hotspot is creating a legitimate gateway on the network. As a result, there are some interactions from other hotspots that yours has to wait for.
After that, however, you’re all set with a LoRaWAN gateway that has expanded the overall network in your area. Provided you have sensors, asset tracking tags or other devices compatible with the network, you can now use them. Depending on your surroundings, the network can reach around 2 miles; possibly up to 10 miles in very open, rural areas. You can see where Helium hotspots have been deployed in your area on this coverage map.
I’ve considered buying a Helium hotspot myself as I live close to an Amazon warehouse and our local turnpike where packages and other assets are surely passing by.
Update on April 26, 2021: Normally we don’t do updates a year later, but at some point, Helium changed the rules about building your own hotspot, so that is no longer supported.
(Update: This paragraph is to build a device that can work with the network, but it is not a hotspot. To build a hotspot, see the following paragraph) It turns out that I can create a network-compatible device with an Arduino board as long as I add a LoRaWAN radio board to it. This board should work and costs around $20, so between it and the cost of an Arduino, the project budget would be under $50. I happen to have a spare Arduino from one of my Computer Science classes, so I’m all set there.
To build a hotspot for network expansion, you need one of the higher-end Raspberry Pi boards, which can run from $35 to $50 and a microSD card with at least 64 GB of storage. These can be had for around $10 to $15, depending on the speed and brand. Adding to that is a $120 LoRaWAN board and these instructions but the total cost is still far below the $350 price of a Helium hotspot.
Of course, it’s not a plug-and-play solution so there’s time involved to download and install the necessary software. Luckily, the Helium Devkit page has full instructions for this, so if I take the plunge, I’ll be sure to write up the experience in a future post. I figure besides adding network expansion for others, I can tackle that LoRaWAN mailbox sensor I’ve long wanted.
To hear Billy’s question in full, as well as our discussion on the topic, tune in to the IoT Podcast below:
Updated at 2:12pm CDT, April 21 to clarify the Arduino project and add gateway instructions for a Raspberry Pi.