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Top 5 Cellular IoT Development Boards & Shields of 2018

/ Written By benstr

The summer of 2018 is upon us, and our formerly house-bound products are moving outside. This means IoT projects previously constrained to WiFi may require a cellular connection. To help with deciding what cellular board is right for your project we’ve compiled the following list. These are the best cellular IoT development boards and shields available in 2018. Most of these boards include support for the new LTE-M and NB-IoT standard, but with lack of ubiquitous NB-IoT coverage, we still see manufacturers releasing new boards that support 2G/3G.

It’s refreshing to see how capable these new cellular boards are. Most include industrial modems, advanced firmware, power management, full certification, and lower prices. As such, the top cellular boards listed below can meet demands both large and small. Readers building small volume (hobby) projects, as well as those who hope to move to production could use the same technology.

Why is ____ Board missing?

You might notice some popular hardware excluded. To keep the list more focused on new cellular development boards we’ve made the following consideration requirements.

  1. Device inventory first became generally available in 2018
  2. The device was in-stock at the time of writing
  3. The device has mature enough firmware or documentation for essential communication
  4. We’ve used the device and found the experience enjoyable

If you see a board missing, please DM me on twitter @_benstr or email benstr@hologram.io.

Arduino MKR 1400 GSM

Arduino is no stranger to cellular. They’ve created 3 generations of the GSM Shield and maintained an official GSM Arduino library. However, after retiring the GSM Shield, they did not have another proper cellular solution.

Recently they announced the new MKR line of breadboard friendly IoT boards. During New York World Maker Faire in 2017, Massimo Banzi introduced the MKR 1400. Though it’s a 3G capable board, we added the MKR 1400 to this list because it became available in January 2018.

Arduino MKR GSM 1400 with Hologram SIM benstr alex glow

Not officially on this list, but a close relation is the MKR 1500 LTE-M and NB-IoT. The growing popularity and support with Arduino mean MKR boards will make many future lists as well.

Fabio Violante, the CEO of Arduino, had this to say about the upcoming MKR 1500:

“NB-IoT and CAT M1 are gradually becoming a reality in many countries in the world. With MKR NB 1500 we wanted to create a versatile and standard technology to democratize the access to the new networks, enabling our customers to take advantage of this big opportunity early on.”

Looking at the MKR 1400 specs, we find the popular SAMD21 chip which integrates seamlessly with the Arduino IDE and online Code Editor. For cellular connectivity, Arduino integrated the automotive grade U-Blox SARA-U201 which provides worldwide 2G/3G compatibility. We enjoyed the integrated LiPo battery support. Cellular boards commonly require more power than what USB offers (500 mA). Some cellular IoT development boards require a LiPo power in addition to USB power when programming. The MKR 1400 is capable of being entirely powered by the USB making those of us who do not have a spare LiPo laying around appreciative.

The MKR 1400 firmware is well organized and modular. Arduino has open sourced their cellular library under GNU Lesser General Public License and is available at the MKRGSM GitHub repo. Sandeep Mistry is the talented lead software engineer behind the library (@sandeepmistry).

  • Price: $69
  • Language: C/C++
  • Coverage: Global
  • Compatibility: 2G and 3G

The Arduino MKR 1400 GSM is available for $69 from the Arduino Store and all major online resellers.

Pycom GPy

Pycom is well known for their WiPy and LoPy boards which pack a ton of functionality into a tiny package. In 2017, Pycom announced some newcomers to their line-up in the GPy and FiPy. Although Pycom announced these boards in a 2017 Kickstarter, we included them in this list because general availability and functional firmware did not come to market until 2018. Now that we’ve had time with these boards we have seen the devices perform well on our test benches.

Pycom GPy Hologram SIM M2M

Fred de Haro, the CEO of Pycom, chatted with us about the decision to integrate cellular:

“At Pycom we believe in giving our customers a choice of [technology] used for their IoT deployments. As such, developing a module able to offer BLE, WIFi and new LTE-M / NB modules was critical to our product strategy. The GPy is able to connect to any LTE-M/NB Cellular network wherever your IoT deployments take you. In addition, the low power consumption the modules offers reduces the need to [recharge via a base station].”

The Pycom GPy is a little powerhouse containing an Espressif ESP32 microcontroller, Sequans Monarch cellular chipset, 8MB of flash, and 4MB of RAM. The Espressif ESP32 is a popular dual-core microcontroller and acts as the main MCU as well as providing WiFi b/g/n and BLE 4.2 support. The GPy was the first small footprint development board to offer support for the new LTE-M and NB-IoT cellular networks. LTE-M support is via the Sequans Monarch Cellular IoT chipset. This chipset is affordable and available today.

First to market devices such as these come with unique challenges. Initial units lacked robust libraries, which made programming LTE communication difficult. As Pycom became familiar with the Sequans chip, their LTE library became a reality. It is now possible to communicate over LTE-M and NB-IoT securely. Special recognition goes to Daniel Campora (@danielpycom) and Jose Marcelino (@jmarcelino) who created the LTE library and kept the community updated with progress.

  • Price: $81 ($52 board + $29 shield)
  • Language: MicroPython
  • Coverage: Global
  • Compatibility: LTE-M and NB-IoT

The Pycom GPy is available for $52, and we recommend one of Pycom’s expansion boards to program over USB (~$29). Both are available from the Pycom website and all major online resellers.

Pycom FiPy

Pycom’s ambition shines through with their second product on this list – the FiPy. While the GPy combines cellular, WiFi and BLE in a small breadboard compatible package. The FiPy does all of that, and adds support for both LoRa and Sigfox! FiPy = Five ways to connect (Cellular, WiFi, BLE, LoRa, SigFox).

Pycom FiPy Hologram SIM M2M

The FiPy adds LoRa class A and C compatibility along with global SigFox support. Pycom increased value for their customers by making the Semtech SX1272 operate on both the SigFox and LoRa standards. For LoRa, the FiPy allows for global support operating between 860–1020MHz. For SigFox, the FiPy operates as a class 0 device with support for Europe (+14dBm), America (+20dBm), Australia and New Zealand (+20dBm).

  • Price: $93 ($64 board + $29 shield)
  • Language: MicroPython
  • Coverage: Global
  • Compatibility: LTE-M and NB-IoT

The Pycom FiPy is available for $64, and we recommend one of Pycom’s expansion boards to program over USB (~$29). Both are available from the Pycom website and all major online resellers.

Botletics SIM7000 Arduino Shield

Botletics is a newcomer to the cellular manufacturing arena. Founded by Timothy Woo (@botletics), they’ve introduced two cellular shields which are rapidly growing in popularity in the Arduino community. In February of this year, Botletics announced their first Cellular IoT product in the SIM7000 Arduino shield. Since then, this boutique hardware manufacturer has met demand by keeping this shield in stock while simultaneously growing manufacturing capabilities to support large orders.

Botletics SIM7000 LTE-M NB-IoT Arduino Shield Hologram IoT M2M SIM

The Botletics SIM7000 is an Arduino compatible shield providing 4G LTE-M, NB-IoT, and 2G connectivity along with LiPo/Solar support, GPS, and an MCP9808 High-accuracy temperature sensor. WOW! At its core, the GPS and cellular support come from a SimCOM7000 module. Botletics SIM7000 comes in 4 different versions for regional compatibility – SIM7000A (America), SIM7000C (Asia), SIM7000E (Europe), and SIM7000G (Global). The board is compatible with all Arduino Uno, Arduino Mega, and Arduino Leonardo boards natively and any 1.8-5V microcontroller if wired externally. Conveniently the SIM7000 can be debugged through its micro USB. Powering the shield is easily done through being paired with an Arduino or on its own through LiPo/Solar support or through the USB port.

Timothy Woo, the Founder of Botletics, shared with us where his shield fits in the expanded Arduino ecosystem:

“The Botletics SIM7000 shield was created as an affordable LTE cellular solution for users to upgrade from the widely-used SIMCom 2G and 3G modules painlessly. The shield is built around great documentation and the ubiquitous Arduino platform while also allowing for customization, making it a simple and intuitive way to get started with the latest LTE CAT-M and NB-IoT technologies.”

The Botletics firmware is a fork of Adafruit’s FONA library, also based upon a SIMCOM modem. Botletics modified the library to include support for the SimCOM7000 line of modules. Furthermore, Botletics officially supports the Hologram SIM and showcases multiple examples of working with the Hologram Dashboard. This library supports both the Botletics boards and the FONA currently.

  • Price $79
  • Language: C/C++
  • Coverage: Global or Regional
  • Compatibility: LTE-M, NB-IoT, 2G (GSM/GPRS), and 2.5G (EDGE)

The Botletics SIM7000 Shield is available for $79 from the Botletics website.

RAK WisLTE Arduino Shield

RAK Wireless is another player making waves in the IoT hardware industry. RAK has an impressive catalog of LoRa, WiFi, and Cellular IoT hardware solutions. At the beginning of this year, RAK released the WisLTE Shield which is one of the most capable cellular shields we’ve seen.

RAK WisLTE LTE-M NB-IoT M2M Hologram Shield

The RAK WisLTE is an Arduino compatible shield providing access to global 4G LTE-M, NB-IoT, 3G, and 2G connectivity. Also, it has integrated GPS. Connectivity comes from the Quectel BG96 module, a global module certified to work with Hologram’s carrier partners around the world. The shield can be powered through its pins, barrel jack, USB, or LiPo/Solar.

We asked Ken Yu, the CEO of RAK Wireless, to share his company’s vision for Cellular IoT.

“RAK wireless is offering innovative modular IoT hardware that aims to provide rapid adoption of IoT to benefit our life’s! The unique cellular modules further enable devices with the most simple, reliable, managed and secure channel to send the data to [the] internet! We envision the future of IoT which reflects in the core principles of our hardware journey.”

RAK does not have an official software library, but they offer documentation and quick start guides including one with Hologram. Be sure to check out the WisLTE tutorials on Hackster.

  • Price: $43
  • Language: C/C++
  • Coverage: Global
  • Compatibility: LTE-M, NB-IoT, 3G, and 2G

The RAK WisLTE Shield is available for $43 from the official RAK AliExpress store.

Conclusion

As 2018 continues, we’ll update this post as new boards become available. Notably, we’re excited to review the Arduino MKR 1500 LTE, Particle Mesh Boron and Seeed Studio Wio LTE once they are available. As much as we know about these boards they all are compatible with the Hologram M2M IoT SIM.

The Pitch

Interested in Cellular IoT for your current project? Check out Hologram’s Cellular IoT Platform.

Since 2013 Hologram has provided self-serve access to the worlds largest cellular M2M IoT network. With the Hologram SIM, our customers have access to 2G, 3G, LTE, LTE-M, and NB-IoT networks from over 500 carriers. In America that includes T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint.

Get started by ordering the Hologram Pilot SIM today. Pricing starts at $0.60 a month with data billed per kilobyte.


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Ben (benstr) Strahan – Marketing Director/Head of Developer Relations
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