Last month, we spoke with the co-founders of IOTAS, Sce Pike, CEO and Jeremy Steinhauer, VP of Data Services and learned how multi-family residential buildings, otherwise known as apartments, have recently stepped up their smart home game. IOTAS, which stands for IoT as a Service, has been a key player in making this happen after creating a smart home platform for apartment renters several years ago. The platform, built for residents, property owners and installers, provides residents with a seamless IoT solution that monitors apartment unit systems, including thermostats, motion detectors, security and lighting. The solution is so easy to use renters have been asking to take it with them when moving out of their apartment.
IOTAS has grown rapidly since its inception four years ago and was recently recognized by the Bay Area’s Start-up Grind as the 2019 Start-up of the Year. The company’s install base has grown to 100,000 smart devices in more than 70 communities.
Read more below about our conversation with IOTAS and how the company tapped into a major new market opportunity for smart home technologies.
How did IOTAS get started?
Sce: In 2014, a real estate developer in Portland approached me and explained he was looking for technology differentiation for his apartment property. My background is in mobile design development, and I had recently sold my first mobile consumer company, so the idea of focusing on the technology experience in the real estate market was intriguing. I quickly realized the $5 billion real estate market had the potential to scale a new technology extremely fast.
I went ahead and recruited Jeremy as my co-founder and we immediately built out a technology solution focused exclusively on apartments. We installed 40 smart home devices in a 1,000 square foot apartment unit to create a true smart home experience, not something that was cumbersome to put together. We wanted to create a move-in ready solution that just worked. We then took the idea out on a real estate conference roadshow, and it became obvious fast that we had created the next amenity commercial property owners were seeking. Property owners knew they had to provide technological advancements in their buildings to meet the demands of millennials and GenZ.
Once we received this feedback, we scaled the solution exponentially over the next few years, with our installs growing by 500 percent last year alone. We see the potential of disruption for all multi-family properties within five years, with all of them having some level of smart technology.
How did the real estate market know they needed this?
Sce: The real estate industry is 13 percent of the U.S. GDP and does a great deal of collective research. Property companies understand their own demographic very well, and at the time they were seeing technology become pervasive across their tenants’ lives, but the shift wasn’t reflected in apartment buildings. The industry saw this void as an opportunity to create an edge for their properties. Five years ago, when we first entered the market, the conferences were only starting to talk about smart home technology, but now smart apartments are mainstream, and the vast majority of properties are allocating budgets to incorporate smart home technologies.
Tell me about your product.
Jeremy: We’re focused on making the smart home experience extremely easy for residents and property managers. We work with property developers and managers to install smart devices in apartments with a suite of applications, including door locks, thermostats, light switches, power outlets and sensors to monitor leaks, motion, temperature, etc. Residents simply download the app to their phone and get a smart home out of the box. We also created automated defaults, like “out for the day” or “welcome home,” which set up preferred systems for that specific time period.
The second application is geared towards property managers to improve efficiencies – it’s the tool managers use to link the residential units and create their own automations for vacant units, such as temperature, appliances and lighting. Property managers can use it to immediately set-up for tours of certain units by turning on lights, setting the thermostat to a comfortable temperature, etc. on and off before or after. The application also has alerts for property managers if something is amiss, such as extremely high or low temperatures or humidity levels for vacant units.
The third application is the installer and/or auto-provisioning application. During our initial foray into smart apartment, we were installing 40 devices and quickly learned that commissioning that many devices to a gateway was a painful process and not scalable. We then spent the next few years perfecting the provisioning process. Now we have several auto-provisioning patents, where we have reduced the time to install devices for an installer from one hour to 15 minutes.
The final application is our internal application – how we administrate the system and create the data around the buildings and users.
Have you ever thought about going beyond multi-family homes?
Sce: From the onset, we have been focused on the multi-family market, for a variety of reasons. The economy of scale is a big reason – we didn’t want to sell one device at a time, we wanted to sell to buildings and make installations quickly. It’s much easier to design a solution for multiple homogenous units versus custom homes.
Though we have had many residents leave their apartments and ask how they can take IOTAS with them – so much so, that we’re now working on a way for residents to be able to upgrade their systems and go on a subscription basis to take IOTAS into their new home. This new solution is on our roadmap and we’re hoping to offer it by the end of this year.
How does Silicon Labs fit into your product?
Right now, we’re using the Z-Wave 500 Series Module solution and we are using the Z-Wave 700 Series for our next generation product to be rolled out later this year. We’re also considering using Zigbee in the future for wireless, so we’re using a Silicon Labs Zigbee module as we figure out a potential software stack for a Zigbee-based application. All of the end nodes are controlled by Z-Wave; we don’t have any internal connections over Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi is purely used to connect the hub to our cloud.
Why did you decide to use the Z-Wave hub?
Jeremy: We started with Zigbee, but the standards were not there yet, as the devices weren’t all interoperable. The decision to use Z-Wave was also driven by the cost of each product. Having the ability to work with something like Z-Wave right out of the box with standardized protocols was a big selling point, as well.
Where do you IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
Jeremy: We’re extremely focused on the user experience, and we knew early on that we didn’t just want to be remote control for the home. In that same vein, I think that’s where IoT is headed – the more interconnectivity among devices, the richer the home experience can be. We see this going beyond the home, where people can take the experience with them. The smart home experience isn’t just about building profiles around people within the four walls that they live in, but taking the experience everywhere they go in the living world, such as their car, workplace, hotels, and even vacations.
Earlier this year, we spoke with Ryan Kincaid, an Allegion global hardware architect, who focuses on connectivity and the security of embedded systems. Allegion is a long-standing and trusted brand in mechanical security, with a 100 + year history of building locks and entry systems for residential and commercial buildings. With more than 30 brands in 130 countries, Allegion has been specializing in security since long before electronics of any kind even existed.
True to its pioneering roots, Allegion sees tremendous opportunity in IoT to create even more value within its product portfolio. Over the past few years, the company has been working closely with Silicon Labs to add connectivity to a broad spectrum of smart home and commercial security products in its portfolio.
In the blog below, Ryan shares insight behind some of these new products and use cases for access control technology, including enabling features like granting delivery personnel access into homes without the need for the homeowner to be on-site.
Tell me a little bit about Allegion.
Many people are familiar with Allegion’s brands without even knowing it. For example, if you look at your key chain, there’s probably a key that says Schlage on it, which is one of our core U.S. brands. Schlage can also be found on exterior and interior locks in your house. When you walk through an entry way of a commercial building, people often push our Von Duprin exit devices to open the door (that’s the bar running across the door) or use a credential reader to gain access. Many people first think of these brands as mechanical, but what is happening in the industry is a migration of electrifying mechanical devices. We are adding in connectivity, sensor technologies, and fairly high-end embedded security to make them intelligent.
Can you tell me about how Allegion is working with Silicon Labs?
We use Silicon Labs in a variety of different products, especially related to connectivity and our connected home solutions. We started using Silicon Labs’ technology through the acquisition of BlueGiga and quickly saw the benefit of the support Silicon Labs provided. We have gone on to leverage products like the Silicon Labs Mighty Gecko SoC and others over time. For example, we recently worked with Silicon Labs to develop a Zigbee-certified smart home lock, a solution great for people who want in-home delivery. A homeowner can grant access to a third-party, such as Amazon, and allow that delivery service access on a limited basis to that person’s door (which can also be paired up with a camera). When the delivery person arrives at the home, he or she can unlock the home and lock on their way out.
Another product we launched recently is a networked version of an exit device that allows remote monitoring and access control in commercial settings. This product utilizes the Blue Gecko SoC and is targeted specifically at the K-12 educational vertical. We call it a safe school application, as it enhances perimeter security by providing electronic override of mechanical solutions for an emergency facility lockdown. This product can be invaluable to school administrators as prior to this type of technology, a human would have to go around to every single access point and ensure it was securely locked.
What are some of the major product design challenges you typically run into?
Time to market is always a challenge. We have found Silicon Labs’ offering of both SoC and pre-certified module (FCC certified modules) solutions especially valuable to us. The pre-certified modules accelerate our time to market because we can circumvent some of the compliance and certification processes. For example, the Zigbee product I mentioned earlier was not a new technology to the industry, but it was new for our product line, and being able to use the tools and certification support Silicon Labs provided really sped up our product delivery. One of our other largest challenges is decreasing our time to market while maintaining our high standards for safety and security.
How important is security and how do you see security evolving with IoT?
Security is priority number one – there is no question about that. For example, at schools, connected devices allow for fast and safe lockdowns. At home, you can get an alert when your child arrives home from school and enters the door, allow temporary access to a visitor, and verify that the door is locked before you turn out the lights.
Our reputation is built on security, so when it comes to adding electronics to mechanical solutions, our security mindset comes with us. We have added roles within the company that specifically focus on cybersecurity. When we look to products that we’re using within our embedded system, we’re constantly refreshing our security requirements around those pieces. This includes enabling security updates in the field. When we look for silicon or firmware partners, security is always the first thing we review.
One of the things we want consumers to be mindful of is the market is full of products touting home security, but some of these are companies don’t necessarily have the history or track record that we do.
Where do you see IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
I think consumers are becoming more and more aware of security. They might not know all of the encryption standards and data privacy laws, but they’re getting to the point where they are asking sophisticated security questions, and people developing IoT products need to meet these new demands. This will drive new security standards, data storage requirements and computing at the edge.
There will be an increase in consumers questioning a product’s digital longevity. How long will this be supported? Will I continue to receive updates? Will the pricing model change? To be successful in the IoT market for the long run, manufacturers must have scalability and sustainability product plans in place before delivering each and every IoT device to market.
Finally, we will see a demand for a better user experience in IoT. Devices need to be easily commissioned and seamlessly work within the intended ecosystem. This could include sharing data with a smart devices or cloud services. Products constantly need to be checked for compatibility due to the rapid change in these technologies. Products genuinely need to address customer needs without becoming an annoyance.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with the CTO and co-founder of Notion, Ryan Margoles to talk about the release of their Gen 3 sensors and how the IoT will impact homeowners in ways that go beyond just convenience.
Tell us about the history of Notion. What was the impetus for starting the company and what were the immediate challenges?
The idea for Notion was literally sparked by a sounding alarm in the middle of the night. My wife and I had just adopted a puppy and our carbon monoxide alarm went off at 2am; it was a pretty jarring experience. We jumped out of bed and opened all the windows and exited the house. Fortunately, it was only the furnace fizzling out. The next day, I called my business partner and childhood friend, Brett, with the idea to make a Wi-Fi connected smoke/carbon monoxide alarm. We set out to learn more about the value proposition of a smart smoke alarm, and how we could make it valuable for customers. We learned quickly that people loved the use case, but were not used to buying smoke or CO2 alarms; they are usually already installed in the apartment or in the home you buy. The product evolved and coalesced into a concept of a single sensor that could do multiple things: listen for smoke/CO2 alarms, detect movement, doors and windows opening/closing, freezing temperature, and leak detection. The competition offered several single-function sensors: a door sensor, a temperature sensor or a leak sensor. In our opinion, this was a barrier to entry for people who aren’t as tech savvy. We knew we had found the right idea to pursue.
What is your background?
I have a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Colorado. My background is in product development, manufacturing and big data. I spent most of my early career with Titleist and Callaway developing smart golf clubs.
When you set out to do this, size and battery power were obvious considerations. What were some other known design challenges?
There were three challenges on the onset: 1.) Battery usage: Battery power and replacing batteries every three months is tough for a customer to get used to; it’s a hassle. Our Gen 1 kit had a coin-cell battery that was difficult to swap out. We learned over time that just two AAA alkaline batteries were important since they are readily available and easy to change out. 2.) Ingress protection: Devices that are placed outside, in really cold environments or used for water leaks need to limit the amount of water that gets into the devices. 3.) Simple user
experience: it was a challenge to design a simple user setup. One of the areas of opportunity was the pairing process. With most smart devices, you have to go through a pairing process. We identified that as a pain point for users so we developed our own protocol for pairing devices. Our goal is ease-of use. Every device is the same. It detects all five “senses” and device tasks are 100% configurable in the Notion smartphone app.
How did Silicon Labs become part of Notion?
First and foremost, the account management team at Silicon Labs is easy to work with. We were able to get the answers we needed to make important decisions and the team availed themselves to all-levels of the Notion organization, from executives to hardware engineers. Second, the Gecko platform allows us to configure specific protocols and free our team to focus on other things. Previously, the Notion team developed everything – from OTA update mechanisms to the security protocols. It was very labor intensive. Silicon Labs helped alleviate much of this burden. Third, the Silicon Labs team spent the time building rapport and working with us on a pricing model that worked for our start-up.
What’s been the market’s response to Notion?
Overwhelmingly positive. It’s the best multi-functional sensor on the market with its simple 15-minutes-or-less set up, increased range, and long battery life. Our channel strategy includes not only B2C, but also B2B; we are partnered with several of the top insurance companies in the U.S. Similar to car sensors that help lower your insurance premiums for good driving, we’ve pursued a similar path for home ownership. Now a homeowner or renter can augment their monthly premium by installing Notion. Additionally, we’re the first IoT company to have
a partnership with HomeAdvisor. So, if you have a water leak, we not only detect it, but we can connect you with an available plumber in your area within 30 seconds.
What do you see is the vision for the future of Notion, and the IoT in general?
We believe the services extension of IoT is changing what it means to have a smart home. Being a homeowner is hard and our mission is to help you take care of your home. We have a 10-year goal of making Notion a requirement to obtain property insurance -- that’s how powerful we think our product and data is. We partnered with one of our insurance partners, Hippo, to be the first fully-integrated smart insurance product on the market. Every customer who buys Hippo insurance receives a Notion starter kit for free. Once the customer sets up their
Notion system, they get an exclusive discount on their premium. We’re driving insurance to make a change while adding thoughtful services to the Notion brand to help homeowners take care of and secure their home.
Recently, we had the opportunity to speak with Alex Rogers, Professor of Computer Science at Oxford University. One of his recent projects exploring technology and zoology resulted in the creation of a small, low-power acoustic device built to record the songs of a potentially extinct cicada. The project began a little more than two years ago and has since morphed into a start-up called Open Acoustic Devices spinning out of the university.
The Open Acoustic device, known as the AudioMoth, is already in the hands of many ecologists and conservation organizations that are using it to track and study hard-to-detect wildlife and/or potential threats to wildlife, such as gun shots by illegal poachers or chain saws in protected forests. Previously, if ecologists or wildlife enthusiasts needed a highly sensitive audio recorder for field research, they had to pay nearly $1,000 per audio recorder. Or they could opt for an open-source recorder built from a low-cost single-board computer, which required large battery packs -- sometimes even car batteries! The AudioMoth, on the other hand, is slightly larger than a smart phone (batteries included) and costs roughly $50.
Check out our conversation below about how a small university project scaled itself to commercialize a one-of-a-kind audio recorder for wildlife.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and how Open Acoustic Devices came about.
As a professor of computer science, my interest has been in deploying machine learning algorithms on devices constrained by computing power and battery power.
My interest in conservation technology stemmed from an event at the Zoology Dept. at Oxford, which was exploring new technology for biodiversity monitoring. The department was interested in using low-cost phones to change how people conduct environmental monitoring. With PhD student Davide Zilli, we set out to use smartphones to listen for a rare cicada insect in the U.K., which we still don’t know is extinct, hidden or just rare. The cicada sings at a very high frequency, at about 15 kilohertz, which most adults can’t hear, but smartphones can.
We didn’t find the cicada with the smartphones, but we started thinking about how we could design a small acoustic device to automatically detect the song of this insect. Two new PhD students, Andy Hill and Peter Prince, joined the project, and we ended up building a prototype device, and then made it available to others about a year ago.
We soon discovered a huge appetite for low-cost, open-source acoustic recorders. We are now working with ecologists who use our device to record bats, birds, insects and other wildlife. Until now, professional ecologists typically had been surveying wildlife with commercial equipment.
The cost advantage of AudioMoth completely changes the science people can do. It means ecologists can do research that would have been cost-prohibitive before. Previously, if an ecologist had a small budget, they could maybe only deploy three or four recorders. Now they can potentially deploy 100 recorders, meaning different types of wildlife surveys can be conducted.
Who is your buying audience?
It’s a big mix – it’s a split equally between university researchers (ecologists) and conservation organizations. We’ve done some large bat survey deployments with the Zoological Society of London and the Bat Conservation Trust. But then there’s a whole pool of individuals and enthusiasts recording birds and bats on their own.
Can you tell me about the performance of the device?
From the beginning, we were looking to create a minimal device we could run smart algorithms on to only record when hearing a sound of interest. In the first instance, this was the New Forest cicada.
We combined an inexpensive MEMS microphone, similar to what’s inside a smartphone, with an SD card and MCU to create a programmable and highly mobile device. Because of the small size, the microphones are extremely sensitive to high frequencies -- perfect for people interested in bats, where they are recording at 100 kilohertz.
We have a lot of deployments in remote jungles and forests with extremely limited Internet access, but we are still planning to add low-power wireless connectivity to new versions of the device for alerting, streaming and research purposes.
Did you have any design challenges?
The key challenge for a battery-powered device is power -- we knew we had to focus on low power from the beginning. Our users worry most about how much data they will end up recording. We used Silicon Labs’ Wonder Gecko microcontrollers because of their low power capabilities, which results in smaller batteries and longer life in the field.
The non-commercial, open-source recorder alternative is typically based on Raspberry Pi, which uses a much more capable processor running a Linux operating system, and as a result requires a much larger battery pack. In many wildlife applications, the devices have to be carried to the deployment sites in backpacks, making the size and weight of the batteries critical.
Can you give me some idea of the power gains experienced by using the Gecko MCU?
To give an example, right now we have a deployment in Belize that involves listening for gunshots to detect illegal hunting in tropical forests. With a small battery pack (a 6V lantern battery), we can deploy a sensor that lasts for 12 months and listens continuously for 12 hours a day, only making recordings if it thinks it detected a gun shot. With the Gecko MCU, we can do nearly all the listening while the processor sleeps, then it can wake up to run the detection algorithms across a 4-second sound buffer.
How did the Gecko get on your radar?
We originally used an NXP processor and the Arm Mbed development platform in our prototype. We really liked the development platform, but the processor used too much power. Silicon Labs ended up being a better option because of the integrated tool chain, allowing us to directly measure and optimize energy consumption. We can also distribute the code, knowing that the development tools are free and are available on all operating systems, which is a critical benefit.
As a university project, how did you manufacture these devices?
To keep costs low, we started exploring alternative manufacturing routes. With Alasdair Davies of the Arribada Initiative (an organization promoting open, affordable conservation technology), we started running group purchasing campaigns through GroupGets, a low-cost assembly company that facilitates group purchasing. After testing the market with some relatively small orders, GroupGets enabled us to run off a batch of 1,500 devices from a PCB assembler, providing real economy of scale.
This model allows designers the ability to offer various types of devices, yet manufacture at a low risk. We’ve manufactured close to 4,000 devices so far and have a live campaign running at the moment that will likely result in another 1,500 orders. As a small university project, there is no way we would have been able to do without this model.
We also used CircuitHub, which enabled us to post our hardware design and bill of materials on its website. The concept essentially hacks low volume manufacturing. Suddenly, people can share and distribute hardware in the same way people have been able to share and distribute software.
Where do you see IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
Computation on devices is always more energy efficient than storing or transmitting data, meaning devices will continue to become smarter and handle more processing on their own. Many of the deep learning algorithms that researchers are exploring at the moment are still too complex to run on very low-power small devices, but there’s already a huge amount of interest in figuring out how to push these algorithms down to small, low-power devices.
Recently, we had the chance to talk to Jim Stratigos, founder and CTO of Cognosos, an IoT start-up that has solved a big problem for automotive car dealers and auction operators. Fleet lots such as these – along with vehicle processing centers - can span hundreds of acres, across multiple locations, and can hold anywhere from 1,000-25,000 cars on-site at any given moment, creating significant challenges in locating and tracking these valuable assets. Cars are moved regularly for reconditioning, repairs, test drives, or to get ready for auctioning. Up until now, lot operators used expensive and often unreliable asset tracking technology such as RFID or Wi-Fi, or spent hours trying to manually locate cars throughout the day. Cognosos has completely changed the experience by creating an IoT wireless inventory tracking solution, allowing users to do quick searches online or on smartphones and see in real time the location and movement history of any car on the lot.
Jim explains below how the idea came about, what his team has learned since launching 18 months ago, and shares new solutions the company plans to tackle in the near future.
How did Cognosos get started?
In 2012, in the days before IoT, my two co-founders and I were looking at wireless sensor networks. We saw a lot of academic research in this area, yet few commercial deployments. We had some ideas to make the transition from the lab to the real-world happen. One of the research areas of interest to us was software defined radio (SDR), which has been used in radio astronomy for decades. We realized we could apply the same technology to real-world problems, such as extending the range and battery life of wireless networks. With this idea in mind, we reached out to Georgia Tech (Jim is an alumni and has mentored university start-ups). We started working with the Smart Antenna Research Lab within the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech. We helped the group raise some grant funding to research how to use SDR and cloud-based signal processing to make wireless networks go further and have longer battery life.
Tell me a little bit about SDR – how does this solve range issues?
The nice thing about SDR is that it allows the physical layer of a wireless communications channel to be totally determined by software; therefore, it provides engineers with a clean slate without being constrained by silicon. That’s why this approach was attractive, we were able to pick frequencies, for example, with superior outdoor propagation, we could design our own modulation and coding formats, etc. with the intent to optimize all aspects of the performance. Basically, it gives you a platform to write your way into a physical wireless layer without having to develop custom chips. At the same time, an SDR-based wireless network can be very robust to interference and achieve an order of magnitude higher channel utilization than common wireless technologies.
Did you have a business solution in mind for the technology? Was there a specific problem you saw in a particular market, or did the application come later?
It came later. We were aware of a general class of problems facing agriculture, energy management, waste management, and water management, which all seemed to be a fit for low-cost wireless sensor networks. But it wasn’t clear five years ago which one would be commercially viable. We had the good fortune of having some really smart people, yet not much money, but we were able to rapidly prototype potential applications and show them to potential investors and customers. We were told over and over again that it looked interesting, but it was not really important. So we eventually pivoted and discovered there was a real need in the automotive industry to use wireless sensor networks to actually find cars. As you know, it’s normal for early stage companies to pivot, and we certainly did. We moved away from a broad “we can do anything wireless business model,” and went after a specific problem in a specific industry.
Why did you select the automotive industry?
It was a need articulated by our first customer, Manheim Auctions, a division of Cox Automotive. They came to us with the problem of losing cars. We assumed people were stealing them, but they explained it was the sheer amount of cars in one place combined with the fact that they had to be moved regularly for repairs, auction lane placement, etc. Most of the larger companies like Manheim have been trying all kinds of technologies to solve this problem, such as bar codes, RFIDs and even Wi-FI tracking and cellular systems, yet none of them were cost-effective or could scale. Here was a problem we didn’t even know existed.
What type of business impact feedback are you hearing from customers?
One customer told us recently that the typical 3-4 hours it took to locate a set of cars was reduced to 30 minutes. We have a lot of great data saying its reducing costs and improving the customers’ experience. We are also branching out into other markets where knowing the location of high valued assets is critical to driving customer satisfaction and reducing costs.
When you were developing the platform, were there any unforeseen design challenges?
One of the things that stood out to me is our use of GPS to find the location of the car. Everyone knows GPS receivers demand a lot of power, and we are dealing with battery powered devices, so you don’t want to leave the receiver on any longer than you have to. We naively thought early on that all we had to do was turn the receiver on, get the location, and you’re done. It’s actually much, much more complicated than that. Because of this issue, we ended up writing sophisticated algorithms to take the GPS data from the receiver and determine when it was accurate enough to turn off the receiver.
Tell me about the device itself. How simple is it for the operator to get up and running, and what’s the day-to-day interaction with the equipment?
We put a lot of effort into making it as simple as possible because our customers are not engineers. The user simply scans or types in the VIN number of the car, SKU/unit number, or description into a smart phone, and the car will show up on a map with instructions on how to get to it. Our RadioTrax device is placed on the visor of every car on the lot. It sends a sub-GHz radio message using our patented wireless technology that includes the GPS location of the car any time the car moves by using an accelerometer to detect motion. The devices are also upgradeable over-the-air – we have a unique OTA firmware update technology that simplifies the challenge of updating the firmware. We can do thousands of devices at once.
From an installation standpoint its very simple – our gateways are as easy to install as a router and connect to a simple roof-mounted antenna . We either use our own staff or contract third-party installation groups – some of our customers have even done the installation themselves.
We have both web and mobile applications, which is paramount because the interface is all the customer is going to see.
What’s your experience with Silicon Labs’ Flex Gecko?
In the early days, all of our prototypes were conventional wireless devices with a separate MCU, separate transceiver, drivers, etc. Then we became aware of the Silicon Labs Leopard Gecko, which has a transceiver and an MCU in the same package. When you’re in this business, anything you can do to reduce the number of components and the cost of device, you jump on. Certainly following the introduction of the Flex Gecko product line was an opportunity for us to further reduce the size, cost and complexity of our devices.
Silicon Labs’ level of support has been excellent. It’s important when you’re a small shop like us to work with a vendor like Silicon Labs who is willing to give you the support that you need - answer questions, jump in when there is a problem identified, get the samples you need quickly - that’s critical.
What are some other applications you are interested in pursuing?
When it comes to tracking assets outdoors, there are a number of other sub-verticals similar to automotive. For example, imagine any large outdoor area on hundreds or thousands of acres maintaining valuable things with wheels on them, such as construction sites, airports, ports, etc. We also see plenty of opportunities for our technology to be deployed indoors, such as buildings, retails, sports arenas and healthcare facilities.
What do you think IoT holds for companies managing large amounts of assets? Do you think IoT could manage large scale equipment as a subscription service?
It’s definitely coming. One of the trends we see emerging is the IoT industry encroaching on what was traditionally the RFID market. For example, RFID technologies scan equipment into a job site, but it can’t tell the operator where the tool is actually located on the site. The IoT curve is heading in the right direction, thanks to Moore’s Law and efforts from companies like Silicon Labs who integrate more and more functions onto a single silicon die.
Several years ago, we had the chance to talk to Rich Morris, the founder of Broodminder, a start-up company based in Madison, Wisconsin. Rich created a rugged IoT device to help backyard beekeepers raise more healthy bee hives.
As evidenced by numerous studies over recent years, bee populations have been on the decline for the past two decades. As pollinators of numerous crops, honeybees are averaging more than 33 percent population loss per year. Most experts conclude the loss is caused by a variety of factors, including pesticides, habitat loss, and disease.
Three years ago, Rich took matters into his own hands and raised nearly $30,000 to start his company with an Indiegogo campaign. An avid beekeeper and electrical engineer for more than three decades, Rich created a temperature and humidity measuring system using the Silicon Labs BLE113 Bluetooth Smart Module to measure the overall health of a hive. The following year they added a smart hive scale to the mix.
Hive temperature is critical – a healthy hive where bees are brooding generally maintains a temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit. If the temperature variates much in either direction, it typically signifies there is something wrong with the queen. Monitoring bee hives using Broodminder’s IoT technology makes it possible for beekeepers to keep tabs on the bees without disrupting brooding (larvae and bee development) or honey production. If the temperature data reflects problems, the beekeeper can intervene by replacing the queen, add more bees, or whatever else is required to maintain a healthy hive. The device also alerts beekeepers when the honey-flow process starts, creating a mechanism where they can begin servicing the hives for honey at the appropriate time.
Up until this point, if a beekeeper needed to obtain this data, they had to open and/or take apart the hive, which disrupted the brooding and honey-making process, and posed a risk to the hives’ bee and honey yields.
New Hive Monitor, Half the Cost
Broodminder has sold close to 6,000, $65 internal temperature hive monitors and 3,000, $179 hive scales, enabling thousands of beekeepers to improve the brooding process without dismantling the hive.
This month, Broodminder is launching a new version of the product focused exclusively on temperature measurement at half the price of the original. Broodminder built the new product using the Silicon Labs Blue Gecko BGM11S SiP Bluetooth module, which Rich explained was crucial in allowing the product to be built more cost-effectively thanks to the SiP’s size, price point, and ease of use. Cost is especially important because Broodminder’s manufacturing is entirely local and the company only uses components from the Madison area.
Beekeepers Unite in the Cloud
One of the key benefits of the Broodminder device is it connects to smart devices via Bluetooth, so users can quickly acquire data from their hives and publish the data to the cloud, creating a public database of hive diagnostics. Data is sent to the cloud by either the beekeeper’s cell phone or a dedicated hub created using the Silicon Labs Bluegiga BLE121 module, helping beekeepers track, maintain, and improve the health of bee populations.
Rich said his team is now just starting to find important data patterns among hive owners in the cloud, and he’s optimistic about the future. He says citizen scientist backyard beekeepers are generating and sharing increasing amounts of data at their public domain site BeeCounted.org, and he believes the next step for beekeeping cloud data will be applying AI technology to improve hive outcomes.
Regardless of the future, Broodminder has already made an impact in improving hive habitats, and it’s exciting for Silicon Labs to see our technology applied to environmental conservation.
We recently had the chance to speak with Jean-Noel PAILLARD, advanced studies manager at Hager Group, a 62-year-old German-based company providing solutions and services for electrical installations in residential, commercial, and industrial buildings.
With an extensive history of making electronics work seamlessly within buildings, the family-owned Hager Group has a unique perspective to modern today connectivity issues. Hager Group solves multi-protocol and inoperability issues regularly for its global client base, and recently released a new smart home platform for building automation. Jean-Noel shared his insight on why the company developed the new platform, and explained some of the current challenges associated with connectivity standards.
Tell me about the importance of multiprotocol connectivity and why it’s important to your customer base.
New applications and devices are coming out so quickly, making interoperability a key challenge in today’s technology landscape. There are numerous wireless protocols on the market, and each has its own connectivity strengths and weaknesses, depending on the application. So instead of building new connectivity protocols for each application, we use existing standards and figure out the best ones for each application. We work hard to find the right connections and build the bridge to create the right technology for each of our services and solutions.
Sometimes it seems as if the market sees existing wireless standards as a “standards battle” vs. everyone trying to work together. Do you think eventually one standard will emerge as the winner?
In my opinion, no connectivity protocol has emerged as the winner yet, and it’ll be an extremely long time before that happens - if it does at all. In the meantime, you have to be agile and willing to work with numerous technologies and standards. Hager Group has the right tools and technology on board to do this effectively, and it is one of the core values we provide to our customers.
Can you tell me about your new smart home platform and smart RF module? What was the impetus for creating the technology?
The first driver for us to create the platform was the size and growth potential of the smart home market in the future. We built the platform to ensure we could serve our customers as successfully as possible as IoT adoption in buildings continues to grow. Depending on the country or region we are serving, the technologies and standards vary greatly, creating inoperability and wireless challenges. By building a new platform, we could overcome this challenge and address all kinds of services and solutions, regardless of region. But in order to do this, we needed a platform that could handle multiple frequencies and protocols.
We built the platform with our OEM customers in mind, as they have specific requirements and really need a platform addressing a variety of protocols. In addition to being multi-protocol, we knew the platform had to be as small as possible, require low-power, and be able to address numerous applications.
Is that how Silicon Labs’ Wireless Gecko became involved - size and energy consumption were important?
Yes, exactly. The Gecko is tiny and great in terms of RF transmitting and receiving, plus the security and encryption elements on the SoC are ready to implement and best in class.
What was the technology evaluation process like?
We began the project in 2015 and we were originally looking at three companies, with Silicon Labs being one of them. We ended up rejecting one company early on based on its proposal specs, and the other two competing technologies were directly benchmarked on technical design and technical experimentation. We conducted a good amount of measurement and tests, and finally, after a 4-6-month process, we selected Silicon Labs as the best and the most evolutionary solution.
Tell me a little bit about the 2-year development process for the platform. What were your obstacles and/or surprises?
From a timing standpoint, we wanted to be aggressive, so we worked together with Silicon Labs in a tight partnership to build the optimum design together. We provided the right specification needs to enable your team to adapt the design for our requirements. Technically speaking, the big challenge on our side was understanding the capabilities of your platform because it’s a comprehensive platform. That’s why a solid partnership was so important in this design process - both of the teams at our companies reacted fast to changes and development hurdles and always figured out the right answer at the right moment. The multiprotocol management was difficult because each time we modified one protocol, we had to verify that the other protocol wasn’t affected. Therefore, we were constantly checking to make sure the protocols were not compromising the performance of the other protocol and/or platform.
I know it was just released in January, but what has response been like so far?
Yes, we have implemented the platform for the first time on the hager solution that was introduced in January , making residential distribution boards connected, serviceable and safe : “Hello”.
Hager Group has been protecting homes and families for many years thanks to its reliable and safe electrical installations. As an innovative industrial company, we constantly extend beyond our technological foundations to face the growing demand for connected devices and smart solutions. An example of this is the breakthrough solution is “hello” , A connected plug-in device for an existing electrical installation. It provides real-time alerts in case of electrical issues to guarantee peace of mind for end-users. Away for the weekend? Got some special wines in the fridge? Meat or specific dishes in the freezer?
hello ensures the power availability on important circuits/appliances and will let you know in case of any electrical issue. Your wine cellar can therefore stay at the right temperature. We are currently working on new implementations that will come on the market soon.
Where do you see IoT and connectivity heading over the next 5-10 years?
Two big current trends requiring a lot of IoT connectivity are robotics and artificial intelligence. These new technologies will change IoT from being an obedient system to a mindless system, where you don’t have to care about your system – it works on its own. Today you still have to ask your system to do something, and I think tomorrow you won’t need to.
Moreover , I see IoT solutions, services, and applications being used more for mobility in the future, especially when we speak about transportation, such as electrical vehicles. The challenge will be to connect the electrical cars and the smart home together in a secured, efficient and eco-friendly way.
Silicon Labs recently had the opportunity to speak with Larry Poon, chief operating officer of IMONT, a start-up software company taking a radical approach to connecting IoT devices by circumventing the cloud. Larry shared how IMONT’s interoperable software connects any type of device to other devices, regardless of the manufacturer. Graham Nice from Skelmir, one of IMONT’s key integration partners, joined our conversation to explain how companies are reacting to IMONT’s new IoT option for connectivity – and how he sees a potential move in the future away from the cloud.
So tell me about IMONT – what exactly do you offer?
We develop device connectivity software. If a company wants software to connect their devices to other devices, we can help them do so in a unique way.
We lower the barrier to entry and the ongoing operational costs of scaling out – we do this by being cloudless and hubless. We’re also much more secure, and we’re interoperable. For example, if a utility company wants to offer a smart home solution that includes devices from other manufacturers - they can connect them all using our software. Otherwise, they would have to use different apps to connect the different manufactured products. By not using the cloud, we save a lot of money for certain customers, such as smart home operators. And obviously, if you don’t use the cloud, it’s more secure.
Can you tell me how your platform avoids using the cloud? And why is it more secure?
The software is mesh-based, and we do everything locally. So if we have to do any transaction or use analytics, we use the edge. That is a big advantage of our system - we never have to connect the device to the cloud. Also, when I say we have no hub, I mean any device in the configuration can be the hub – we don’t require a separate hub. All of the data is within each device itself; therefore, you don’t have to move anything to the cloud. But the cloud option is there because we have made it flexible enough with MQTT for cloud transmission, if a customer wants it.
You can offer this because of your software expertise, whereas a hardware company needs a hub, unless they write software for the edge?
That’s right. Let’s say Samsung, a device manufacturer, wants its products to connect to other devices in a smart home. Everyone wants choices, so it’s hard to find a home with all Samsung devices. In order for all of those devices to be connected, Samsung would typically create a hub, then use their cloud service to interoperate with the other manufacturers’ cloud services, which is not the most efficient way of doing it. But with our system, we’re already there, we’ve already written the code to connect manufacturers; therefore, we are able to avoid using the cloud and a hub.
How do you approach customers with your value proposition?
We’ve been around since August 2016 – so awareness is key right now. We’re a young company, small and lean. We’re knocking on the doors of anyone offering IoT systems, but we partner with companies like Silicon Labs to offer this solution to your customers, who could be looking for this type of solution. We also partner with implementation partners who can get this done for them.
Have you seen people searching for your type of solution, or are you educating people about the option?
It’s a little of both. Every time we talk to someone about it, they say exactly what you say – “oh, this is kind of novel, I never thought about it that way.” But then there’s a certain group of people who are beginning to say, “we don’t really need the cloud.” New articles are starting to crop up about cloudless approaches, but it’s just starting to get noticed. Anyone we end up talking to likes the idea once they hear it – but to go so far as say people are actively looking for a cloudless solution, we’re slowly getting there.
Is data an issue if you’re not using the cloud?
No, our customers can collect all of the data they want – we give them that flexibility, and they can move it to the cloud if they want.
So there’s no real drawback to moving away from the cloud?
No, we don’t think there is. People have no option but to move away from the cloud, data is too expensive.
Graham, tell me about the Java integration and how your companies work together?
Our company is turning 20 years-old this year. We started out providing our virtual machine for running Java on set top boxes in the German-speaking European Pay-TV market. Since then, our customers have deployed over 120 million devices using various iterations of that core virtual machine. We have a history of deploying predominantly in the digital TV space around the world.
In the past six years, we’ve worked in the IoT market, supporting Java-based IoT industry standards and proprietary solutions. In the case of IMONT, we had worked with one of the founders previously and he reached out to us to use our VM to host his new solution.
Since IMONT’s software runs on Java, our role is to help IMONT’s customers get up and running extremely quickly on various platforms and devices.
As a close partner, what is your impression of the market reaction to IMONT?
IMONT has a disruptive approach to deploying IoT. Everybody is all about the cloud, but the cloud has some significant downfalls. For one, it’s horrendously expensive, and you have vast amounts of data constantly feeding up to the cloud, chewing up bandwidth. You also still have privacy concerns - a lot of consumers have an issue with their personal data being moved to the cloud. All of that data incurs costs to operators. The reaction IMONT is getting from service providers is – first, that can’t be done. But then IMONT proves them wrong. Yes, it can be done, and when operators see the cost benefits, it becomes a very compelling proposition. There are a lot of people realizing that the cloud isn’t the way forward and edge computing makes more sense. IMONT provides the framework for edge computing, and hopefully we provide the vehicle to get their technology running on low-end devices, bringing the cost point down for service providers in the home. But it’s not just the home, industrial IoT deployment applications is a market for IMONT, as well.
Larry, how did you start using Silicon Labs’ products?
Our partnership with D-Link strengthened our ties with Silicon Labs. D-Link offers a lot of devices built with Silicon Labs’ technology, so we started making our software work with Silicon Labs.
Where do you see IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
From our perspective, we see devices getting smarter than they already are, yielding greater power efficiency and eventually operating independently of the cloud. We also expect the number and types of IoT device deployments to continue to explode, but consumers are pushing for greater security and seamless connectivity, so we will see significant improvements in those areas, as well.
Play Impossible has reinvented the ball by connecting it to phones and tablets. They’ve managed to do this while maintaining the look and feel like a ball found on any gymnasium floor. Launched in October of last year, Play Impossible won first place at the Last Gadget Standing competition at CES in December. With rave reviews from USA Today, CNN, and Mashable, Play Impossible’s Gameball is capturing the hands and minds of kids as it provides another way to play ball with the modern insight of today’s connected devices. Silicon Labs had the opportunity to sit down with cofounder and CTO Kevin Langdon to hear how the company got its start and what he sees for the future.
How did Play Impossible come about?
All of the founders of the company are dads. And as parents, we have all struggled with the amount of time our kids spend on devices. This particular problem was the impetus for the company - how do we get our kids up off the couch in active play and doing what we call active play. Active play is physical and involves movement, but it’s also social and creative in nature. These are important things that many kids today aren’t getting enough of, and there are plenty of studies saying this is only getting worse. Getting kids to move and play is what Play Impossible is all about.
The quality of Gameball is amazing - it’s a real ball.
Yes. If you couldn’t see the charging part, most people would not know there are electronics inside of the ball. The quality of the ball was important to us, but that aspect of the product definitely was not in our wheelhouse, and we didn’t want to reinvent the process. So we partnered with Baden Sports, which specializes in sports equipment, to build the ball.
What were some of the original design requirements when you set out to create the ball?
We really wanted to create something with a reasonable price point, especially when it’s sitting on a shelf next to $5 balls in a retail setting. The connection range of the device was critical as well. We needed a Bluetooth to stay connected as far as you could throw the ball. Silicon Labs played a big role in helping us do this. Power was another issue – creating a solution that didn’t get in the way in terms of charging.
What was Silicon Labs’ value proposition in the beginning?
I first started looking at Blue Gecko when I was working on another product for SkyGolf. And then with Gameball, we looked at a lot of modules and realized the range and low-power functions were two pieces that we knew Silicon Labs could help with.
Were there any unforeseen challenges that you came across, such as weight, size, etc.
The hardest part for us was getting the durability right with all of the electronics inside. We also came up with a unique solution for the power. There is no battery in the ball, it runs entirely on super capacitors. We needed to do that for both cost reasons and to maintain the durability. I’m pretty happy with the solution we came up with - it’s a real jaw dropper when people see our ball charge up in 20 seconds.
What was the Last Gadget Standing competition at CES like?
There were hundreds of applicants and they narrowed it down to 10 gadgets on stage. I had no expectations of being selected, but when we were, we were honored. One of the gadgets was a Star Wars VR gadget, and it was two months after Star Wars had hit movie theaters. But it went really well and was a lot of fun. The host, David Pogue, was tough and asked a bunch of questions, but he loved the product.
What types of pressures are you under to be innovative – is it developing new games, cost of goods, talent? It’s definitely creating new games. It’s a combination of making the ball new again. Anyone who has a kid knows kids typically like a new toy for a few days, but then on the fourth day, the toy tends to be thrown into the closet. We want to make sure our product is played with a long time beyond those four days. The new games we create make the ball new again and give the kid a reason to get the Gameball back. We are driven to create hit games that are what everyone is talking about.
Is all of the production for Gameball done in house?
When we first started, we hired an experienced gaming designer to build the game, as it’s definitely not a traditional game. We had to do a lot of heavy prototyping and understand the software and hardware capabilities. We had to figure out what the product would be capable of doing socially and with Bluetooth and power. We definitely pushed the limits in terms of what we could do with those functionalities. For example, with a lot of IoT products, real time doesn’t matter. Of course it’s always important to be quick, but real time isn’t critical. With us, if you look at other playables on the market with Bluetooth, I don’t think there are any products as fast as Gameball. The game requires feedback from your fingers on the ball as quickly as possible to get the gestures from the beginning with the ball.
Where do you see the future of IoT going? And where do you see it expanding for the everyday person?
Right now, expectations are low among the average consumer of what IoT is all about. When our product is sitting on a shelf at a retail location, no matter how much we put on that box, there is little a consumer can understand about the product until they actually play with it. It’s going to take years for consumers to change and expect connectivity in everything. The nice thing is it’ll be much easier at that point for businesses such as ours. But today, it’s a critical issue for us in terms of marketing and sales. We see ourselves as a software platform that can interact with many different devices. Gameball is just the first of many devices and accessories that will change how we play in the future.
IoT Hero DeviceRadio Levels Playing Field for IoT Innovation
Just before the holidays, Silicon Labs had the chance to sit down with Christian Klemetsson, the founder of Swedish-based start-up DeviceRadio. The company has created a horizontal connectivity layer of technology that sits on top of various protocols supporting IoT products, such as Wi-Fi, LoRa, Bluetooth, etc. The seamless layer removes the need for specific IoT design expertise, giving companies and designers of all backgrounds immediate ability to build IoT products from the ground up, regardless of designer expertise.
Tell me about DeviceRadio – how did it come about?
The company started out as a hobby project. At the time, I was killing all of my houseplants and it was getting expensive to replace them. I have an electronics background, so I wanted to build some sort of solution to monitor the plants with an application on my phone. I quickly realized that building something cheap, simple, and with long battery life wasn’t available. The solutions I found were based on technology built for other purposes. For example, Bluetooth, at least at the time a few years ago, wasn’t built for IoT, only wireless peripherals. So I created my own radio protocol specifically for IoT and added encryption and plug and play along with additional features. Two and a half years ago, I found the Silicon Labs/Digi-Key competition and entered the device I had just built. I ended up being one of the winners and received $10,000 worth of components from Silicon Labs. I also received media attention in Sweden from the electronics press, and the overall feedback was that I was on the right track – there was a possible missing piece in IoT. From that starting point, I started DeviceRadio.
Was your IoT radio protocol the first one you’ve seen on the market?
At that point, (2014) there wasn’t anything specifically for IoT. There were protocols for low-power communications, such as Z-Wave and peripheral protocols, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, but nothing for IoT.
What I did was transform the protocol into something that could be placed on top of existing protocols, which would provide encryption, plug and play, abstraction, etc. Regardless if you’re using Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 4G, etc., it would all be the same. Our layer goes on top of whatever protocols you’re using, making everything seamless and consistent.
The product is sort of like the Internet, but specifically for devices and their sensor data and signals. We create the mechanism to move sensor data between each other and provide the integration to cloud platforms and services.
You call this horizontal connectivity, right? How would you explain the value of this concept to a non-developer?
I think it’s easier to talk about the value of Internet connected devices to help non-developers understand the value of our product. When working with today’s technologies to build connected devices, a lot of custom development and expertise is required. You need to know about security, servers, scaling, protocols, etc., and hook everything up to an IoT platform. This process becomes limiting and IoT development ends up being only available to a select few companies with this level of expertise.
What we’re trying to do is democratize and hide the complexity of IoT by placing a horizontal layer on top of everything. This means if you’re a product company, your developers can create an IoT product without relying on exclusive and hard-to-find talent.
Think about it from a macro perspective – western countries are all trying to increase efficiency, reduce environmental impact, and care for a large aging population. But developed countries are still the minority - the rest of the world doesn’t have basic services or our standard of living. Our resources are limited if we want to bring the entire world up to our living standards. The only way to solve these big problems is with technology. I think IoT can grow core technologies to do so much more. But in order for this to happen, IoT needs to be available to all companies, not just experts.
What exactly does the horizontal layer include?
We host an infrastructure for customers that can be replicated and takes care of access control and gets data to the right place. Our vertical communication layer is a software library that designers place on top of their protocol layers and hardware. By using our software library, designers don’t have to think about cloud APIs, Internet connectivity, etc.
We are giving designers the opportunity to create something fast without thinking much about what technology to use. Designers can create a prototype on their hardware and focus entirely on the benefit and business value of the device up front, worrying about technology and scaling requirements much later on in the process. Designers have the freedom to stretch the product further without having to rewrite the apps and alter the code.
Have you started selling the product?
Right now we’re doing small pilot and proof of concept projects. We also have additional funding from angel investors and government grants. We’re still in the development phase and we want to make sure we’re building the right product. Our pilot projects are giving us critical insights. Our goal is to increase the number of devices using DeviceRadio by 10-fold every six months.
What are some of the design challenges you have run into while building the product?
From a technical standpoint, there were plenty of challenges. But the biggest challenge I have seen is an awareness problem - getting the right awareness and feedback circulating among companies about IoT. There is so much hype and confusion because everyone wants to be a part of IoT. But the companies that can benefit the most don’t really know it exists and what the benefits are – I think that’s a big challenge.
So they don’t understand what’s possible?
Exactly, a lot of the IoT media attention is around must-have killer applications solving luxury problems, such as connecting a water bottle or something. One of the companies I spoke with recently is building drones that work with emergency services to deliver heart defibrillators in a fraction of the time they were previously delivered, using IoT to save lives.
What Silicon Labs products are you using?
Where do you see the future of IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
Even though there are some cool IoT start-ups and things happening, it’s really going to be about existing companies discovering how to leverage IoT in a way that’s seamless. If you’re building connected washing machines, it should work as a normal washing machine, but then have additional connected features or benefits. It needs to be a gradient, where we move from unconnected to a connected world, and eventually an interconnected one. Right now it’s vertical. The same company that builds the IoT product owns the servers, apps, etc., making everything isolated. In 5-10 years, you’ll have multiple companies building the hardware, IoT enablement technologies, and software services and apps, allowing people to utilize products from multiple companies in ways we can’t even imagine at the moment.