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Remember Sure-Fi? Lostik is open standards Lora you can play with

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Lostik is plugged in to the left USB port of this Samsung Chromebook running GalliumOS Linux. It's currently transmitting packets, using the sample sender.py utility, from a basement about 15 feet underground.

Enlarge / Lostik is plugged in to the left USB port of this Samsung Chromebook running GalliumOS Linux. It’s currently transmitting packets, using the sample sender.py utility, from a basement about 15 feet underground.

Jim Salter

A lot of readers commented on our earlier report on Sure-Fi long-range, low-bandwidth RF chirp communicators that we should test generic Lora gear. Lora is the open standard that Sure-Fi began with and built on top of, and it’s available in a variety of inexpensive kits. Most of those kits are aimed at low-level maker-style integration with IoT gear like Arduino, but I found a couple of preassembled kits with generic USB interfaces suitable for use with regular x86 computers. One of those, Lostik, had consistently better user reviews and glowingly boasted of its “extensive documentation,” so we picked a pair up for $46 apiece and got to testing.

We should be clear about one thing up front—nobody should claim that any Lora device has “extensive documentation” with a straight face. Lostik seems to have more documentation than any of its competitors, but figuring out exactly what it would do felt like learning to play pirated video games in the 1980s. What we eventually discovered was that Lora devices are sort of like dial-up modems all connected to a single party line—they run on serial interfaces over which they can be issued commands and can send or receive data.

It’s possible to use a generic terminal emulator (at 57,600bps, 8 data bits, 1 stop bit, and no parity) to communicate directly with Lostik, but you’ll need to understand its commands—analogous to the Hayes AT modem commands of yore—if you do. That was a bridge too far for us, so we said the heck with it and just lightly modified the ./sender.py and ./receiver.py sample scripts from Lostik’s Github repository and used them for some simple range testing. These scripts don’t require (or offer) any kind of authentication or pairing; any Lora device running receiver.py will successfully receive data from any Lora device running sender.py within its effective range.

After fiddling for a couple of hours getting Lostik working, our first real test was taking it down to the same test facility we used to put Sure-Fi through its paces. If you didn’t read our earlier Sure-Fi article, this facility has test sites about 100 feet apart in unconnected subterranean floors under two separate buildings. Unlike Sure-Fi, Lostik couldn’t quite cut the mustard between the two basements—it dropped all but the first three packets after we walked the receiver unit downstairs at the second site. It did reconnect again at the top of the stairs, though, and never dropped a single packet from there.

Although these results don’t quite match Sure-Fi’s range at this site, we need to stress that they’re still impressive. The sending unit is still fifteen feet underground and more than 100 feet away—you can’t even catch a bare hint of the BSSIDs of the Wi-Fi access point near the sending Lostik unit, but Lostik itself reads loud and clear with never a dropped packet.

Next up, our Lostik units and laptops went to my parents’ house where Sure-Fi got its longest-range tests. The sending Lostik unit sat in the living room, while the receiver roamed around to test connectivity through distance and obstructions. Inside the roughly five-acre clearing the house occupies one corner of, coverage was flawless. The longest-range shot inside the “yard” is 550 feet away, with about ten feet of ground swell between the receiver (at ground level) and the sender inside the house. The really fun shot, though, was from inside the big rusty iron silo—three hundred feet, a grove of trees, and structural iron walls weren’t enough to make Lostik skip a beat!

Although there aren’t any fun action shots, we also tramped around inside the woods and even along the bottom of a fifteen-foot ditch another hundred feet past the silo. There was never any point on the property where Lostik dropped a packet between sender and receiver.

Wandering around on the property with Lostik was a flawless experience, but the difference between it and the more expensive Sure-Fi was obvious once we hit the road. Sure-Fi maintained coverage with very few exceptions for up to a mile and a half in every direction, but Lostik crapped out at either end of the dirt road, less than a half-mile from the sender. Still, with Lostik effortlessly covering a five acre spread—even with hills, trees, and iron siloes screwing up its line of sight—we have trouble calling this a “lose” for almost any use case.

Conclusion

Although Lostik can’t match Sure-Fi for sheer range, it almost certainly has enough punch for any normal project—and you can pick a pair of them up for less than $100. If you have an actual commercial project or want to connect two devices, Sure-Fi has pre-built bridge devices (for HVAC controllers, remote-controlled access gates, security doors, etc). It’s almost certainly worth ponying up the extra $300 or so for a Sure-Fi kit just for the sheer plug-and-play, commercially supported aspect.

On the other hand, if you’re a maker or do-it-yourself IoT enthusiast willing to get your hands dirty, we don’t see how you can go wrong with Lostik. The USB form factor means it works with everything from a Raspberry Pi to a standard PC, and its pre-assembled case and standard rubber-coated antenna with coaxial connector removes a lot of the potential for screw-ups. If you’re a Linux person, you don’t need to worry about weird kernel modules; the device shows up as /dev/ttyUSB0 or similar on first plug-in, without any external drivers required. It should also work fine with Windows or Mac PCs, although we did not test those platforms.

Lostik is also capable of joining full-on LoraWAN IP-based networks, but this requires a LoraWAN gateway device. It looks like you can pick up a generic LoraWAN gateway device on Amazon for around $120, including shipping, but we didn’t buy one and haven’t tested that functionality—so caveat emptor; if you buy one, let us know how it works out!

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