Enabling the IoT revolution

8 mins read

The ZETA LPWAN is a new wireless standard that aims to revolutionise the IoT. New Electronics talks to Tomislav Drenski about its possible impact.

More companies are focusing on networking their IoT devices - ranging from small sensors to complex industrial machines. However, conventional radio standards are quickly reaching their technological limits so new radio technologies such as ZETA LPWAN (Low-Power Wide-Area Network) are increasingly in demand.

These technologies enable much faster and more secure data communication over longer distances.

In this extended interview with Socionext’s Tomislav Drenski, Marketing Manager (Wireline) Socionext Europe, New Electronics looks in detail at the potential of the new ZETA based on the Advanced M-FSK communication standard.

New Electronics: Socionext has developed the Next Generation ZETA LPWAN communication standard in collaboration with ZiFiSense and Techsor. How did this collaboration come about?

Drenski: Initially, the ZETA LPWAN communication standard had been defined and developed by ZiFiSense. The ZETA standard supports today’s three protocols: ZETA-G, ZETA-S and ZETA-P answering different communication use cases.

Socionext has worked with ZiFiSense and Techsor in specifying new SoCs (System on Chips) to support the ZETA standard and the company’s first target is to provide special SoC solutions for the ZETag market.

ZETag is an IoT-Tag product that uses the ZETA-G protocol, a subset of the ZETA standard.

The ZETag-System is particularly characterised by low cost, low power consumption and long-distance communication. Sometimes ZETag is also simply called cloud Tag. It is typically a very simple product for cloud connectivity.

During this first development, the three companies worked together to review the standard and to improve the performance of ZETA LPWAN, supporting the vision of LPWAN 2.0.

NE: Can you briefly explain the technological basis of the ZETA technology?

Drenski: The ZETA-Technology has been specified by ZiFiSense and is part of the global LPWAN (Low Power Wide Area Network) standard suitable for IoT applications.

The ZETA-Standard uses sub-GHz ISM bands also called unlicensed bands and deploys multiple Ultra-Narrow Band (UNB) channels to offer wide area coverage and deep signal penetration.

ZETA features bi-directional communication, high reception sensitivity, as well as low power multi-hop topology through relays. This provides advantages over other LPWAN standards where radio waves are sometimes difficult to reach in specific conditions.

The standard is also the first communication protocol that is tightly coupled with edge computing. So, a sensor with the ZETA-Protocol can be upgraded to an ‘LPWAN intelligent front-end’ and become capable of performing local data crunching to reduce latency and optimise the network bandwidth.

NE: ZETA-LPWAN is based on ‘Advanced M-FSK Modulation’. Can you explain this modulation technology (also in relation to 2FSK) in more detail?

Drenski: Sure, the latest ZETA-Standard benefits from multi-frequency shift keying, called Advanced M-FSK modulation and features many advantages compared to the conventional ZETA that is based on 2-FSK modulation.

A 2-FSK modulation converts only one bit at a time, a 4-FSK (M=4) converts two bits at a time, an 8-FSK (M=8) gives three bits at a time and so on. This modulation technique increases the data rate and enables data communication at a higher bit rate with better scalability.

The ‘Advanced M-FSK-Modulation method’ uses a multi-level modulation, such as 64-FSK and improves the communication speed along with a number of other additional advantages.

For example, Advanced M-FSK achieves a transfer rate up to 20 times faster, improves the sensitivity to noise level of 10 dB and enables communication with mobile objects. In this way we can track object movements up to speeds of 120 km per hour within a distance of 3 to 5 km. Finally Advanced M-FSK is also backwards compatible with existing ZETA-Equipment supporting 2-FSK-Modulation.

NE: How does ZETA technology differ in relation to comparable LPWAN standards such as LoRaWAN, Sigfox or Narrowband IoT?

Drenski: Inside the LPWAN-Standard there are two groups: the licensed spectrum with NB-IoT and the unlicensed spectrum with LoRa, Sigfox and ZETA, that are using free frequency bands for which no license fees are charged.

Now LoRa and NB-IoT are well established LPWAN technologies. ZETA is now emerging and is popular in some Asian countries like China.

All LPWAN standards are designed for low power consumption, but ZETA is the most optimised in terms of energy consumption.

When we look inside the unlicensed spectrum, LoRa and ZETA enable bi-directional communication and have the most bandwidth with a reasonable data rate compared to Sigfox.

One more essential difference is the network infrastructure, in that LoRa and ZETA technology can be deployed with a private network or using a public network operator - although that is dependent on country coverage. But Sigfox is only dependent on public network coverage, involving subscription fees.

So, finally ZETA is also the first LPWAN supporting a distributed Mesh network using advanced M-FSK modulation ultra-Narrow Band (UNB) as well as enabling multichannel communications. In terms of receiving, ZETA offers the highest sensitivity (a 5dB improvement versus LoRa).

NE: What are the main technological advantages of the new ZETag wireless technology in terms of speed, range, security, or energy consumption?

Drenski: Let’s start with some of the key technological advantages of ZETag: ZETag offers a wide coverage, up to 3 km and micro-amp power consumption and offers a longer lifetime (up to 5 years).

It is always difficult to compare solutions but to give you an idea - with costs input of 1/3 to 1/10 of similar technologies ZETag can be declared an ultra-low-cost technology.

It also offers large capacity concurrency, up to 60 times more than similar technologies and allows communications with moving objects up to a speed of 120 km per hour within 3 to 5 km range.

Above: The SETag-System is characterised by low cost, low power consumption and long distance communication

NE: Which industrial and non-industrial applications is ‘Next Generation ZETA LPWAN Technology’ particularly well suited?

Drenski: LPWAN technologies are being deployed and have shown good potential for a large range of applications in the Internet of Things (IoT) and machine to machine (M2M) markets, especially in constrained environments.

Overall, ZETA technology is well-suited for a broad range of smart and intelligent applications that include environment monitoring, smart buildings, smart cities, industrial automation and smart manufacturing.

And now regarding ZETag. ZETag is dedicated to IoT-Tag-Products that are using ZETA-Technology and has many applications in the field  of     Asset management to optimise the use of pallets, boxes and smart containers and ensure real time tracking and monitor status of goods during transportation like cold chain - the aim being to improve transportation efficiency.

NE: What infrastructure do users need to deploy the ZETA-Communication-Technology?

Drenski: In order to deploy an IoT network based on ZETA communications, you need the following infrastructure.

First of all, multiple sensors, also called ZETA nodes are required. They are responsible for collecting data and transmitting it to a ZETA Access Point (AP) also called a ZETA gateway. In some applications, IoT sensors can be attached to assets like logistic parcels or containers.

You also need a ZETA access point that receives data from different sensors and uploads volume data to a server. Some smart gateways might process some data locally and upload the processed data to the cloud, which means only important processed information needs to be uploaded to the cloud.

Occasionally some Mote devices, also called Mesh Routers, can be added to the network to enhance the wireless communication strength and extend the communication range.

NE: Socionext is a member of the ZETA-Alliance. What made you join the organistion?

Drenski: The ZETA Alliance was created in 2018 in Japan and founded by Techsor, ITAcces, QTNet and Toppan Group. Today, more than 123 organisations are referenced in the Alliance and Socionext is a promoter and a member of the ZETA Alliance board.

The ZETA Alliance in Japan is promoting and expanding ZETA technology through sharing ZETA adoption cases and has published an implementation reference guide. It also encoourages data exchange between company members, including joint-development of ZETA-compatible products and services as well as handling ZETA standard improvement requests and supporting developments of ZETA infrastructure with local companies.

NE: What is the focus of the ZETA- Alliance and how do companies benefit from membership?

Drenski: The ZETA Alliance was set-up to promote ZETA Technology. The global Alliance has over 300 members who are primarily located in China and Japan but there are now some in Europe.

The ZETA Alliance Japan was established in June 2018 with four members and now has over 120 members. The ZETA Alliance China was established in April 2019 and now has upwards of 200 members.

By joining the Alliance, companies have access to technical information on all ZETA standards at an early stage in the developer forum and can easily find commercial partners within the IoT market.

In Japan, the ZETA Alliance is promoting the spread of ZETA technology but is also pushing Japanese-made devices by Japanese manufacturers for the ZETA infrastructure and ecosystem.

NE: In Asia, ZETA technology has already established itself. What’s happening in Europe?

Drenski: The ZETA Alliance is a global alliance that aims to promote the ZETA LPWAN standard for a wide range of IoT solutions based on the Advanced M-FSK modulation technology.

Europe is the fourth region to be established after China, Japan, and the Southeast Asia chapter.

At the moment, ZiFiSense and the ZETA protocol have little recognition in Europe, but the new ZETA Alliance Europe will capitalise on the successful implementations in China especially for smart logistics and asset tracking industries.

At the start of 2021, ZiFiSense’s partnership with Sensing Labs in France was the first step in the deployment of the ZETA Alliance in Europe. IoT players, silicon vendors and distributors are now invited to join existing Alliance members to deploy the new model of LPWA 2.0 - Pervasive IoT.

Sensing Labs in France will also promote and distribute solutions based on ZETA and ZETag and Socionext will join the ZETA Alliance Europe to participate in this as well.

Above: An example of the ZETA network structure

NE: So what products can Socionext currently offer or is looking to develop, according to the new ZETA standard?

Drenski: Socionext is developing products designed for ZETag, the next generation of Cloud Tag using the ZETA communication protocol.

The first product is the SC1330 which incorporates a signal processing unit that supports “Advanced M-FSK” modulation. Plus, we also have a RISC-V 32bit CPU core and embedded memories including various interfaces.

This new product offers high integration, fits to a QFN24 package (4 x 4 mm) and supports a one-way communication (Up-Link). The reduction in the size and number of components needed for Tag-Products will also contribute to a reduction in the BOM costs and will improve both the quality and reliability.

Socionext announced the SC1330 in October 2021 and plans to start volume production by the mid- to end of 2022.

NE: How do you support customers when they want to integrate the new ZETA-Technology into their solutions?

Drenski: For ease of use in the evaluation and the design of the new ZETag SoC SC1330, Socionext has been working hard to prepare an ecosystem which includes evaluation boards, reference designs and ZETag protocol firmware for customers.

For specific needs like dedicated ZETag module or ZETag firmware updates, we are working with partners to expand our support capabilities and the ecosystem.

NE: What are Socionext’s further plans and goals regarding ZETA-Technology?

Drenski: Socionext has long experience in supporting different wireless communication standards based on RF-CMOS technology to address a large range of applications like radar sensors, SubGig communications, satellites, broadcasting or RF medical. IoT communications using LPWAN have great potential and we will expand our offering to support the  ZETA protocol in various ways such as with next generation SoCs with Bi-directional communications for different ZETA product ranges including Advanced M-FSK modulation.

We are also looking to develop some LPWAN hybrid SoCs and custom SoCs with the ZETA protocol if needed.

NE: What is the difference between ZETA and ZETag?

Drenski: ZETA is a standard and ZETag is a tag solution that has been optimised for active tag applications, taking advantage of ZETA’s low power consumption and long-distance communications. This ZETag solution is also called a Cloud Tag. ZETA supports bi-directional communication and hopping communications like a repeater, while ZETag is a subset of the ZETA standard, it handles one-way communications only, does not support the repeater function and the output of radio waves is about half that of ZETA. A major advantage of ZETag is, that it targets a low cost and ultra-lower power consumption IoT system.

NE: What do you mean by LPWAN 2.0?

Drenski: With LPWAN 2.0, we are looking to develop the next generation of LPWAN technologies that offer low cost IoT-SoCs for ZETag applications that could be powered by printed batteries reaching up to 10 km range outdoors.

This is now expanding the IoT market by addressing small and basic objects.