Swiss Post digitally transforms Switzerland’s postal services through LoRaWAN technology.
Traditional postal services are facing increasing pressures.
On the one hand, they must respond to increasing competition as customers demand fast delivery, low prices, and excellent service to accommodate smart city lifestyles.
On the other hand, postal companies are struggling to maintain post offices that are becoming less profitable to run, particularly in rural areas that may be difficult to reach due to a lack of infrastructure. This is exacerbated by national regulations that may require companies to serve a certain percentage of citizens with a defined level of service.
These were the challenges faced by Swiss Post, Switzerland’s national postal service. The public company plays a central role in the lives of the country’s citizens, delivering 7 million letters and 500,000 parcels every day.
Swiss Post envisioned a simple device based on IoT technology that would make it easy for customers to order postal supplies and services. The device relies on Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) technology for low device battery consumption and has devices that can communicate over long distances to serve rural customers. This was essential as the system would cover distances too great for the usual cellular network technologies.
After having evaluated various network technologies, Swiss Post selected Semtech’s LoRa wireless devices. Switzerland has also deployed a public LoRaWAN (Long Range Wide Area Network) network operated by Swisscom, called LPN, to provide near nationwide coverage.
In an interview with EE Times Europe, Roelof Koopmans, senior director Strategic Alliances Solution Partners LoRa-IoT at Semtech, discussed the deployment of Swiss Post “Order Pens” leveraging Semtech’s technology.
Order Pens, previously known as SmartButtons, are battery-operated devices connected to LoRaWAN, which incorporate Semtech’s LoRa transceivers and optical identification code (OID Codes).
Whether you want to send letters and parcels, order stamps, collect cash or pay bills, you simply scan the right code with your pen and place your order. The postman receives a message immediately. In this way, you can carry out the desired postal transactions easily and conveniently at the touch of a button without a login or password. The digital door-to-door service is sustainable because it eliminates the need for additional routes for the postman and reduces CO2 emissions. The postman receives the order message directly on the hand scanner and sees immediately whether a customer needs something from him. As a result, there are no more empty trips.
The Order Pen sends data via the low-frequency radio network for the Internet of Things – LoRaWAN. This open standard connectivity technology allows to leverage its ultra-long-range, low-power capabilities to cover thousands of kilometers at low cost, especially in remote areas that are difficult to reach, and to deploy LoRaWAN devices that provide real-time data while lasting for years on a battery charge.
Unlike most other technologies, the Order Pen sends data only when the button is pressed and every 72 hours for between 26 milliseconds and 1.4 second, depending on location. This is the only way to keep the Order Pen running for years on one battery.
EE Times Europe: Can you describe the challenges you were looking to solve with this device?
Roelof Koopmans: The national postal service of Switzerland, known as the Swiss Post, holds the critical service mandate of providing national postal services, which translates into delivering 7 million letters and 500,000 parcels each day to citizens across the country, regardless of their location. While there are households in small villages and rural areas, it was hard for the Swiss Post to economically justify having physical post office branches in these locations. Though, due to Switzerland’s Postal Services Act, the Swiss Post and postal services must be accessible to all communities, regardless of terrain.
To ensure this accessibility, the Swiss Post collaborated with Miromico to develop and deploy a system running on the LoRaWAN standard that allows individuals based in rural areas with limited access to postal services to coordinate needs through an “Order Pen” with a click of a button. The Order Pen also leverages Semtech’s LoRa devices to coordinate on-demand postal services for those who would otherwise have limited access or no access at all.
To use the device, the customer places the Order Pen directly on a product code icon (that identifies if a letter or parcel needs to be picked up), and presses the button to scan the code. From there, the order is sent to a Swiss Post cloud server to process and transmit data through Swisscom’s LoRaWAN network, called LPN. Swisscom is Switzerland’s largest telecom provider.
Also a smartphone app has been developed as an alternative to the Order Pen for those who prefer to use their smartphone.
Why were LoRa and the LoRaWAN standard selected for this application?
Koopmans: Semtech’s LoRa devices and the global LoRaWAN standard provide businesses and individuals looking to leverage the Internet of Things (IoT) with long-range, low power wireless solutions that are flexible, scalable and easy to implement. LoRa has proven to be particularly beneficial to those in rural areas who would otherwise be without coverage or connectivity due to its affordability, scalability and ability to send essential data across long distances on very low power. LoRaWAN fills the technology gap of cellular and Wi-Fi/BLE-based networks that require either high bandwidth or high power or have a limited range or an inability to penetrate deep indoor environments.
While the Swiss Post considered developing its own LoRaWAN network to remotely transmit data from customers’ devices to the Swiss Post, Swisscom was already building a nationwide LoRaWAN network across Switzerland. Swiss Post and Swisscom came to an agreement about the expansion of LoRaWAN network coverage to support Swiss Post’s needs.
EETE: How is data transmitted from the consumer’s home to Swiss Post?
Koopmans: Thanks to LoRaWAN’s unique long-range, the Order Pen can collect data from the Optical Identification (OID) and immediately transmit the data up to 30 miles. The Order Pen is using AES-128 encryption to ensure the data safely gets to its destination. The system allows individuals to place orders with the Order Pen without requiring Wi-Fi or cellular network connectivity. Furthermore, Swisscom’s LoRaWAN network (LPN) is able to provide coverage across 97% of the Swiss population. For this amount of network coverage, Swisscom deployed only 1,100 gateways across Switzerland (41,000 km2).
EETE: Was the Order Pen designed specifically for this application? Could it be used in other sectors?
Koopmans: The Order Pen was fully customized and developed by our partner Miromico specifically for the Swiss Post to operate at the lowest power and have the best antenna performance. From a design perspective, the devices were optimized for the highest user acceptance while remaining low cost.
While the Order Pen has optimized postal services for both consumers and businesses, this product has a huge potential to expand far beyond this specific postal use case. It is also being evaluated by small and medium businesses using the technology to efficiently order items of any kind, like pizzas or office supplies. In turn, this can enhance supply chains for businesses to automate the ordering and replenishment processes inside production facilities.
EETE: When did the product go live and how many people have been using the Order Pen to date?
Koopmans: While the initial product was launched in 2018, the Order Pen has gone through several iterations to date. The latest revision includes a significant cost reduction to fully integrate electronics in new housing and firmware optimization to extend battery life and improvements on the antenna which in turn, increases range.
The Order Pen has proven to be more than convenient for the consumer and essential to the livelihood of those in rural areas. If an order is placed before 7:30 a.m., customers can expect their requested services the same day. In the event the order is placed later in the morning, they’ll receive their service the next business day.
To date, more than 100,000 people across Switzerland have received the Order Pen and can order their postal services from home. In total, about 400,000 households in Switzerland will be entitled to receive the Order Pen as per the rules of Swiss Post for providing services to consumers in areas without any post office in close vicinity.
This article was originally published on EE Times Europe.
Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio holds a Ph.D. in Physics and is a telecommunication engineer and journalist. He has worked on various international projects in the field of gravitational wave research. He collaborates with research institutions to design data acquisition and control systems for space applications. He is the author of several books published by Springer, as well as numerous scientific and technical publications on electronics design.