After talking about IoT development kits for the past several years, I figured it was time to get my hands dirty. So the folks at Blues Wireless sent me their Sparrow Development Kit for review. And I got my hands dirty! Over the past week, I’ve been using the Sparrow components to gather temperature and humidity data using LoRa-enabled sensors.
I found the kit super easy to use as a prototyping tool for LoRa solutions. How easy? All you need to know is how to plug some components together and run a few commands in a web-based terminal to get started.
What’s in the Sparrow Development Kit?
Before diving into the experience, let me share what’s actually in the $199 Sparrow Development Kit.
First is a Sparrow LoRa Gateway board, which has a slot to add the company’s Notecard radio module. You can insert a Notecard that uses Wi-Fi, LTE Cat-1, or other IoT network radio. The kit comes with a Wi-Fi Notecard. The Notecard is needed to take sensor data received by the LoRa gateway and get it to the internet using Wi-Fi or cellular connectivity.
You also get three Sparrow Essentials Boards, which have LoRa radios built in; you can attach sensors directly to these boards. Finally, you get a pair of pre-made Sparrow sensors that can measure temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure. This is helpful because it removes the barrier to adding your own sensors to the LoRA boards, getting you started quickly. Batteries and cables are also provided.
The idea of the kit is to prototype a solution with one or more sensors, which communicate their data back to the gateway over a LoRA network. That data can then be sent to the cloud for slicing and dicing. Note that the Essentials Board in the diagram is the same board as in the two Reference Nodes shown below; all three have a LoRa radio:
Putting it together
Before even touching the hardware, you need to create a project through an online dashboard. This is your workspace and it “pairs” your hardware to that project. Then it’s time to roll up your sleeves and put the kit together.
Thanks to solid online instructions, I was able to piece this puzzle together in less than 15 minutes. Essentially, you connect one of the Essentials Boards to the Gateway with a cable, insert the Wi-Fi Notecard, and connect the Gateway to a computer with a USB cable. You also connect the included antenna cable on the Gateway.
Next, you open up an online terminal and run two simple commands. This “pairs” the Gateway to your prototype project and configures the Wi-Fi connection the Gateway uses to send data to the cloud.
Lastly, you open up the included sensors and insert the included batteries. Once they have power, you can press the small pairing button on both the Essentials Board attached to the Gateway and on the Essentials Boards in the sensors. After about 15 seconds, mine were paired and I had two LoRa boards communicating with the Gateway.
And that’s really it. Once configured and paired, the sensors start sensing and their data is sent to the Gateway via the LoRa radios. From there, the Gateway uploads the data to the cloud over Wi-Fi.
How does it work?
Although I’m only using the included sensors, they’re a great example of how this type of system works. Immediately following my setup, sensor data started arriving on the cloud-based dashboard. It shows all kinds of relevant information about every piece of the hardware and the network connections. More importantly, is that the sensor data is readily available.
In the above image of the cloud dashboard, I’ve filtered the data to only show information from the sensors. There’s quite a bit more data to see if you want, but for my project purposes, this is what I was after. I wanted temperature and humidity numbers from sensors placed beyond the reach of my home’s Wi-Fi network. And that’s exactly what I got.
Once that data is accessible, it can be ported to a cloud service such as AWS or GCP. There are also integrations with Twilio to send texts based on sensor data. I chose, however, to go old school and take the data to make my own visualization.
Above you can see the code that reads through the JSON-formatted sensor data and creates an array of data objects. Then, using a Google charting package, the data objects are transformed into a simple line chart. Note that since I was prototyping, I only used a slice of the fully available data. I even ignored the barometric pressure data even though you can see the included sensors provide it.
One of the many things I’ve learned during my studies is to create small, scalable solutions. I could easily extend this code to have all of the historical and future sensor data automatically updated in the chart.
Is this a good kit for LoRa prototyping?
I’m not a product designer, but based on my experience with the Sparrow Development Kit, I’d definitely recommend it to anyone with a LoRa project in mind. It’s drop-dead simple to use and there’s no cost for data if you use the Wi-Fi notecard.
For prototyping LoRa projects over a greater distance, you can purchase Notecards that support various cellular IoT networks. These cost $49 to $69, depending on the radio and include 10 years of service with 500 MB of data.
Each Gateway supports up 15 Essentials Boards so you could deploy a cluster of sensors. And with 20 I/O pins on each Essentials Board, you could wire up whatever sensors are needed for your own project.
What this kit gets right is removing the complexity of adding the LoRa component to a prototype project. All of the heavy lifting is done for you in the hardware and the online software. That lets you focus on choosing, connecting, and configuring your sensors so you can start getting IoT data to the cloud.
Given that I’ve only really experimented with the basics, I’ll continue to use the kit for future projects. That will let me get other types of sensor data and integrate it with some of the supported cloud platforms and services. Will I ever create a LoRa product you can buy on store shelves? No, but that’s OK. I’ll learn a ton along the journey.