Future-proofing with 6LoWPAN-based IoT Sensors

Steven Lee
Steven Lee
Technical Director IoT Sensors Group

Remember the 25-pin parallel printer cable? It did what it was designed for: connecting one printer to one computer. If you were clever, you could add a switch box to connect more than one printer, or another device, like a scanner. When that printer was set up in a local area network through a dedicated terminal or a primary computer, it almost certainly required a weekly reset. This constant downtime affected productivity. It was also time consuming to update new user sharing permissions and address security issues, something that would make modern day IT managers cringe. 

It was not too long ago when these devices became WiFi-enabled. Originally used as a single point-to-point system, these WiFi-enabled devices could now be accessed from anywhere in the world. Drivers could be updated, and security patches could be applied, with little to no impact to the network system.

Now let’s imagine sensor nodes or end devices as these dated printers. The purpose of these systems was to isolate one end device to a specific task, with no intentions of scaling the system or adding other devices. However, in today’s  commercial, factory, or building setting, the initial planning stage for an IoT system architect either begins small (with expansion in mind), or it begins with expansive coverage including a requirement to integrate more devices in the future. This is where the 6LoWPAN protocol excels.

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Unlike proprietary protocols like LoRa, 6LoWPAN is an open standard stack that communicates natively with IPv6 over IEEE 802.15.4 radio links. Going back to our dated printer analogy - if there were separate networks for that one printer and another for the corporate WiFi, and another for another device, then it quickly becomes unmanageable and limiting. 

With 6LoWPAN, devices all utilize the same Internet Protocol (IP) standard, consistent from the home to the factory floor. This has opened up new possibilities for smart applications. For example, the thermostat can now “talk” to the lights, blinds, and vents; all controlled via a mobile device. This interoperability allows for integration of different sensors or end devices, as they can be added, removed, or moved to a different location. Furthermore, since it is IP-based, all these devices can talk to each other with no interference issues.

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IDT’s 6LoWPAN modules act as gateways and nodes to enable easier sensor networking

While there are debates on range limitations of 6LoWPAN, there are various factors that must be considered when selecting a wireless technology. For example, power consumption, data rate, signal propagation (sub-GHz vs 2.4 GHz), and complying with any FCC or regional air time constraints may be critical to the application. As a whole, these considerations will ultimately favor one technology or the other. 

One clear advantage with 6LoWPAN is the low power consumption and the meshing capability, enabling the wide dispersion of battery or battery-less sensor nodes into the field. In addition, as the technology evolves, so does the 6LoWPAN system along with it. 

In conclusion, this idea of using a “future-proof” technology has convinced me (and many of our customers) to take the 6LoWPAN approach. If you’re not convinced yet, think again about how we connect to our printers.

For more information on our IoT solutions, visit idt.com/6lowpan.

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