photo by Michael Miller

Senet Partners With IBM, Semtech, Others to Broaden M2M Reach

Armed with a new name and updated technology, Senet hopes to bring its low-power, long-range machine-to-machine services to a wide range of industries.

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

November 21, 2014 - EnerTrac, a New Hampshire company founded nearly five years ago with a mission to help home heating fuel vendors make their delivery services more profitable, efficient and timely, has recently expanded into an Internet of Things services firm that hopes its low-cost, long-range wireless technology will attract new customers from a host of industries. The shift comes in combination with a new name—EnerTrac is now Senet, a reference to "sensible network."
When EnerTrac set out to devise a way for fuel companies to remotely monitor the level of propane or oil inside tanks at its customers' sites, it saw major limitations with the two first wireless technologies it considered. Using sensors that communicate via Wi-Fi to routers located within a customer's home would depend on consumers maintaining their Internet connections and Wi-Fi hardware, explains George Dannecker, Senet's CEO. Using GPRS technology to collect sensor data over cellular networks, on the other hand, would be prohibitively expensive for the application. Moreover, Dannecker notes, the batteries used to power the cellular radios would be completely inadequate—especially given the low wintertime temperatures to which outdoor heating fuel tanks are exposed.

t quickly became clear that EnerTrac would need to develop its own solution. The company pulled together each element of the system, including sensors to measure fuel levels, transceivers to transmit sensor data, receivers, gateways and application software development. The receivers are mounted high on telecommunication towers. Via cables, they send data to a gateway, which is mounted at the base on the tower, and is linked to the Internet via either an Ethernet cable or a cellular modem. The gateway transmits data to EnerTrac software running in the cloud. All the fuel vendor has to do is log onto the EnerTrac software running on its enterprise platform and view which tanks need to be filled, as well as where those tanks are located.
EnerTrac uses the transmitters to collect data from wireless sensors that its customers attach to fuel tanks, in order to track fill levels. The first generation of its technology was based on a proprietary protocol, with transmitters operating at 433 MHz, while the second generation employs 464 MHz transmitters (both have very low power consumption, supporting a long battery life). An EnerTrac receiver mounted on a telecommunication tower can collect data from up to 1,000 tanks within a 10-mile radius. More than 20 propane and fuel oil dealers are currently using the company's technology. The system has helped these dealers reduce the number of refueling stops by up to 30 percent, and Dannecker estimates that if machine-to-machine (M2M) technology were used to guide refueling activities across the industry, the annual savings could amount to $3 billion. This could be accomplished, he explains, by reducing the amount of fuel consumed by fleet trucks within the United States by 200 million gallons each year.

When EnerTrac decided to again upgrade its wireless network, Dannecker says—partly to move away from the 464 MHz band, the use of which requires licensing from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—it also opted to expand its products to other industries that could benefit from a wireless network offering lower cost than GPRS technology, as well as long-lasting transmitters with a long read range. But to do that, he notes, it needed to address some of the technology's limitations: the transmitters used by the sensors are simplex, meaning that they only send data and cannot receive it. While the sensors do not need to receive data for the tank-level solution, they might be required to do so for other applications. Another shortcoming of EnerTrac's older network was that it did not support data encryption for security.

"Semtech came on our radar, and we decided to build our product around Semtech's radio," Dannecker says. Semtech manufactures RF transceivers, and its LoRa (for long range) model has a range of up to 9 miles in rural areas (this falls to around 3 miles in urban areas, due to interference), while consuming very little power. The devices operate at 915 MHz in the United States, and 868 MHz in Europe. Depending on how often the tags are set to transmit data, as well as how much information is being transmitted, the batteries can last for up to 10 years.

As luck had it, while EnerTrac was considering the LoRa transceiver's capabilities, so were networking giant Cisco and enterprise software company IBM. "They all just needed a network service provider [to bring the technology to market]," Dannecker states.
Thorsten Kramp, a staff member at IBM Research, in Zurich, says IBM became aware of Semtech's LoRa transceivers about two and half years ago. Kramp had conducted some testing with ZigBee radios, but had determined their range was limiting, whereas he and his colleagues found that LoRa technology "was a sweet spot in terms of radio modulation technique." LoRa employs spread spectrum radio modulation, which sends signals across a wide bandwidth and at low power, and is highly immune to interference. LoRa does not support large data transmissions, he notes, which would make it impractical for sending things like video, but it is well suited for applications in which a small amount of data must be frequently transmitted over a long range—such as forwarding fuel tank fill data to EnerTrac.

Last year, IBM and Semtech announced that they were collaborating on radios controlled with IBM software. The two companies jointly developed a media access control (MAC) protocol, by which the transceivers communicate. IBM has developed M2M infrastructure software called Long-Range Signaling and Control (LRSC), which EnerTrac—now known as Senet—licenses, with Cisco providing backhaul services to link the field equipment to the back-end software. LRSC enables encrypted, bi-directional communication between the transceiver and gateway. Similar to the older EnerTrac solution, gateways are mounted on communication towers and are used to collect data from the transceivers. They then forward that information to the back-end software, via an Ethernet cable or a cellular modem.

Kramp thinks telecommunications operators should find much to like about low-power, long-range networks such as those based on the LoRa transceivers, since the technology is complementary to GPRS. On the one hand, it supports a low data rate, so as not to compete with cellular services, and its low energy means the end devices' batteries can run for years. As for applications, he believes the technology would work well for companies in waste management that use sensors to track fill rates in trash receptacles, or utilities or cities looking to collect data from or communicate to smart meters. "These end devices might only send a few bytes every hour, but you need good coverage and low cost," Kramp says. "So [LoRa] addresses a segment you can't address with GPRS technology. For telecoms, it opens up new applications without cannibalizing existing applications."

According to Dannecker, Senet is looking at a wide range of potential industries that would benefit from the company's M2M offering, from utilities to energy companies to irrigation providers. As for the types of applications for which the technology could be used, he says vibration sensors attached to motors or compressors in mission-critical machinery could help companies perform predictive maintenance—such as replacing bearings before they fail, for instance—that he claims could save businesses 30 to 40 percent on yearly maintenance costs.

Of course, Senet is not the only company hoping to harvest the benefits of low-power, long-range networks. Arizona-based M2M Spectrum Networks, French company Sigfox and Neul (purchased this year by Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei) are three competitors.