How to build a wireless mesh network

A bookmark-able guide detailing the fundamentals and primary benefits of wireless mesh networking for IoT.

Jeffrey Lee article author avatarJeffrey LeeApril 28, 2018
How to build a wireless mesh network

In the past, building beyond a single-point connection required high-cost hardware solutions and software implementations to connect the in-between spaces needed for device to device communication. As IoT platforms have matured, they have started to embrace a low-power, low-cost alternative that can bridge the gaps between these devices: wireless mesh networks.

What is a wireless mesh network?

A wireless mesh network is an infrastructure of nodes (a mesh topology) that are wirelessly connected to each other. These nodes piggyback off each other to extend a radio signal (like a Wi-Fi or cellular connection) to route, relay, and proxy traffic to/from clients. Each node spreads the radio signal a little further than the last, minimizing the possibility of dead zones.

wireless-mesh-networks-roles, wireless mesh networks

What are the components of a mesh network?

  1. Gateway – Border routers are the devices that have additional connectivities beyond mesh that allow them to pass messages between networks. You can think of these devices as providing a “backhaul” to the internet for the local mesh network.
  2. Repeater – Routers are devices that forward messages between end devices (endpoints) in a mesh network. They are not typically designed to sleep because they are a part of the mesh networks’ infrastructure.
  3. Endpoint – End devices are mesh-only devices that do not route messages for other devices in the mesh network. Because they have no networking responsibilities, they can enter sleep mode and are good candidates for battery-powered nodes and sensors.

How do repeaters, gateways, and endpoints work together?

Repeaters make up the backbone of the mesh network – They are always on and can be trusted to relay messages across the network.

Endpoints are typically sensors or actuators – As oppose to repeaters, they are not required to always be on and therefore can be battery-operated and enter a sleep-like mode. They pair with a nearby “parent” repeater, who queue messages on their behalf when the child endpoint is asleep.

Gateways are special types of repeaters that have a backhaul back to the internet.

How do you build a wireless mesh network?

When planning your network, you need to ask yourself how many sensors and actuators you actually need. That will govern how many repeaters are needed for the network. Then you can decide how many gateways you need to guarantee connectivity. To increase the total network size, you increase the number of repeaters/gateways in a network. A network can support multiple gateways which allows for redundant connections to the Internet.

wireless-mesh-network-particle-hardware, wireless mesh networks

How does Particle Mesh work?

Particle Mesh is a wireless mesh network technology built on Thread networking protocol, and designed to connect the spaces in between existing Wi-Fi and cellular deployments with local networks that are low-cost, secure, and ultra-reliable.

Traditional IoT devices that use Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity depend on the cloud to relay messages between devices. This works great when you’re making a standalone product – but sometimes you need more than that. Particle Mesh development kits aren’t just connected to the Internet, they’re gateways to the Internet and create a local wireless mesh that other devices can join. These devices work together to ensure that messages get where they’re going, and power products that aren’t possible or economically feasible with Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity. Particle Mesh gives every IoT device a local network to understand and connect with the world around it, ensuring products have the information they need to sound the alarm when it matters most.

In other words, Particle Mesh is for Wi-Fi or cellular connected product that could benefit from additional sensors or add-ons. Giving each of those additional sensors an independent Internet connection would be cost-prohibitive, so Particle Mesh provides a path for a secondary product line to be incrementally added to the system connected via a local network to the central device in an affordable manner.

Why use wireless mesh networking for IoT?

While wireless mesh networking technologies has been around for some time, only recently has the power of mesh reached a point of maturity alongside high availability from chip and silicon vendors. With newer approachable costs, wireless mesh networking has become ideal for IoT builders. And with the rise of connected homes and industry support on open source resources like Thread, Mesh is now truly accessible while being low-cost enough to scale for production. As such, wireless mesh networking is becoming a much more viable choice for industrial and commercial applications. It can provide additional services in a system where extending a connection between two nodes is limited:

  1. Smart Cities – Wireless mesh networking is great for extending radio signals through parking garages, campus grounds, business parks, and other outdoor facilities. Parking garages that utilize space availability checkers benefit greatly from mesh networks because they can extend the signal throughout the whole space, and be able to communicate when a spot has been taken by other clients.
  2. Healthcare Equipment – Wireless mesh networks can help monitor and locate medical devices quickly. They can also act as a backup for medical equipment that always needs to remain online. If one node loses connectivity, another node can step in to keep the connection alive.
  3. Smart Home – Wireless mesh networks can help you track and manage temperatures across your house. Setup one powered gateway and use temperature sensors and Mesh-enabled nodes in each room to capture live data and adjust settings automatically.
  4. Farming – Wireless mesh networking is also great for tracking sun exposure and water levels across your crops. You can scale at a low cost with Mesh-enabled nodes across a whole acreage to create a cellular-connected IoT farm.
  5. Industrial Internet – Wireless mesh networking is also great for tracking pallets and monitoring large physical objects with a highly reliable wireless connectivity network. With wireless mesh networks, you can easily track key data across your factory floor, and across multiple locations to identify issues before they happen.

What are the benefits of using a wireless mesh network?

It should be noted that not all wireless mesh solutions provide these benefits, but this is the complete list that is unique to Thread and Particle Mesh.

  1. No Single Point of Failure – Build a local mesh network that is self-healing – if an individual device goes offline, the network can reconfigure itself to the closest connection. This means no data loss, no dead zones, no problems.
  2. Self-Extending – Additionally, if you need to get more range out of a mesh system, you can add another node and the messages can hop through the mesh back to the gateway.
  3. Reliable Networks – Interconnected devices can simultaneously transfer data smoothly and will not complicate the network connection. If one node goes down, another nearby node can pick up the connection and continue data communication.
  4. Low-cost, low-power – Using wireless mesh networks eliminate the cost and complexity of installing fiber / wires between facilities. As more or less coverage is needed, wireless mesh nodes can be added or removed. Mesh uses comparable amounts of energy as Bluetooth so you can design devices that last for 3-5 years then get tossed and replaced.

Is wireless mesh networking right for you?

When using wireless mesh networks for your IoT project, it is important that you consider these three core variables: installation, network management, and support.

  1. Installation – This aspect entirely depends upon your intended application. You need to ask yourself if you actually needed a distributed set of mesh nodes for your use case. If you intend to implement wireless mesh networking for your home, this is relatively easy deployment that can be achieved with low-cost hardware. If you intend to implement mesh for commercial or industrial applications, you should setup a small-scale, prototype, mesh network to determine the efficiency of the system before deploying a mesh networking system at large.
  2. Device Management – Most wireless mesh networking solutions come with some form of device or network management through a desktop or mobile application. When comparing solutions, it’s important to find one that allows you to manage fleets of devices, monitor event logs, perform diagnostics and send updates wirelessly. The more control you have over your mesh-topography the better.
  3. Support – When selecting a mesh-solution, it’s also important to consider the community surrounding it. Mesh networking solutions with limited adoption will have fewer resources available to aid you in development. For example, Particle’s development kits have a large developer community surrounding it, which makes it easier to find information and support when needed. Also, by selecting a more widely adopted wireless mesh networking solution, you will ensure that integrating your IoT device with existing cloud services will be easy.

wireless-mesh-networks-thread, wireless mesh networks

Are wireless mesh networks secure?

Rest assured that many wireless mesh networking solutions are going to use standard industry levels of protection. However, new security vulnerabilities are discovered all the time which can put your network at risk. With this in mind, you’ll want to buy a mesh solution that has a team of security experts that can take care of these issues for you. For example, Particle continuously scans the security landscape and introduces security patches via wireless updates even after you buy one of our mesh solutions.

Particle’s mesh solution also builds upon a Thread-certified networking stack. It provides built-in security at the network layer with AES encryption and is supported by banking-class, public-key cryptography. It requires MAC-level security for authorizing devices onto a mesh network, as well as local mesh communication. That is, Thread provides link layer security guarantees similar to encrypted Wi-Fi networks.

Looking beyond wireless mesh networking

If you’re looking to implement wireless mesh-networking into your IoT infrastructure, you must examine the whole system and not just a singular component. To build any IoT product or infrastructure you need hardware, software, and connectivity. To integrate these three components, you must research, plan, and consult domain experts to help you scope these the three complexities. As a fully integrated IoT platform, Particle provides everything you need to deploy an IoT product and is already engineered to address enterprise scalability.

We offer the required scalable hardware, security protocols, reliability, and fully managed infrastructure to handle millions of concurrent device connections. Particle’s Device Cloud, which automatically comes with any of mesh hardware solutions, allows you to control your fleet of devices with wireless firmware updates. Particle’s Device OS also takes care of the many complex integrations between hardware and firmware (like carrier/sim support, security, cloud communications, and wireless modem software) for you. With Particle, you also have access to IoT experts and engineering services to assist you through every stage of your IoT development lifecycle.

The Bottom Line

Mesh networking is the critical driver for IoT because it’s creates self-extending and highly reliable networks for critical infrastructure. It offers developers and companies a low-cost and low-power alternative to connect and build millions of simultaneous device connections with an efficient and performant device-to-device communication system.

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