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29 October 2015

Helium is latest IoT platform, with homegrown sensors and 802.15.4

As the internet of things (IoT) gets closer to commercial reality, the solutions flooding into the market are increasingly targeted at a real world use case. Some of these are extremely specific – smart meters and smart streetlights are commonplace now, but start-up Helium Systems says its initial focus is on smart refrigeration.

Helium does not mean the over-quoted ‘smart refrigerator’ which automatically replaces the milk, but a far more significant application aimed at the lucrative industrial side of the IoT – at the food, drink and healthcare sectors, specifically. More broadly, though, this application will be a proof of concept for its ambition to create a full IoT software platform with underlying wireless network.

That is a very common ambition these days, and one pursued by far larger players, and industry consortia, than Helium, but the firm does have a heavy hitting president, Rob Chandhok, who previously headed up Qualcomm’s IoT and open source software initiatives. His deep industry connections will be needed to add win credibility for the Helium platform, which will use the firm’s own take on the 802.15.4 protocol (also the basis of ZigBee, Thread and 6LoWPAN). This will connect huge numbers of Helium’s simple own-design sensors to analytics in the cloud.

Founded in 2013 and with $16m in venture capital funding under its belt, the company is now poised for commercial launch. The politics of its platform may well focus on the 802.15.4 implementation, but Chandhok insists the real crown jewel is the sensors, which can be deployed within minutes yet have fairly sophisticated capabilities.

The sensor nodes sit on a star network, communicating through an access point which acts as a bridge and does not contain a processor.

They support multiple sensing inputs – one sensor can measure both temperature and door open/closed for a refrigeration unit, for instance – plus security, connectivity, and a dose of localized processing power (they are powered by a Freescale processor running on an ARM Cortex-M4 microcontroller core, not a low end 16-bit chip).

Most importantly, they can be reprogrammed and updated over the air, which allows users to change criteria such as frequency of transmissions; to alter what is being measured (humidity rather than temperature, perhaps; or upgrade security, without replacing the devices. Sensor owners can reprogram them though an interface which accesses the Helium code.

“We are trying to solve the problems of making highly configurable distributed systems that move as fast on the edge as you do these days in the cloud,” said Chandhok in an interview. “If you can reach end nodes with software easily and quickly it’s a competitive advantage.”

Helium promises more than a year of life from two AA batteries because the software optimizes the frequency of data transmissions from the sensors, to reduce energy consumption.

Chandhok told FierceWireless Helium will “let you paint your world with sensors and make sense of that”.

Meanwhile, the accompanying cloud platform takes data from the sensors in near-real time and analyzes it on the fly rather than doing batch operations of big data. As well as expanding into other target vertical industries, Helium also envisages possible extension of its business model into ‘sensor-as-a-service’ offerings with a monthly subscription service which would include the sensors themselves for free.

Helium took the decision to develop its own MAC layer and software stack on top of the 802.15.4 PHY (chips from Atmel), rather than go with ZigBee or another standard stack. It has added its own sauce to enable various differentiators such as dynamic switching between 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz bands, and hardware-based security. It also increases distance by avoiding mesh networking and increasing power levels, with Chandhok claiming Helium achieves better coverage without mesh.

This highlights the perennial dilemma when technologies are just evolving – whether to push for unique capabilities but with proprietary implementations, or go for volume with standards and risk being lost in the crowd. Geoff Mulligan, chair of the LoRa Alliance, which backs the LPWA (low power wide area) network in the 900 MHz band, told EETimes: “I don’t know of anyone else switching between bands. It would be completely proprietary and therefore limit the end devices that could talk to their network. I doubt that they are going to get the world to accept this non-standard band hopping.”

Two potential customers are trialling the refrigeration monitoring system. “Ultimately our platform is a B2B sale, so we target big consulting firms and insurance and health care providers,” said Chandhok.

He added: “Through smart managed systems, any industry can better adhere to compliance and regulation guidelines by monitoring storage conditions to ensure adherence to health and safety standards and avoid spoilage or lost inventory. Helium enables reduced risk and improved safety, particularly for hospitals, including inventory monitoring of refrigerated items such as blood bags and vaccines, to prevent loss of samples and to ensure compliance. Finally, Helium can reduce parts, maintenance and operating costs by predicting machine failures or outages before they occur.”

Helium’s initial funding round was led by Khosla Ventures, with participation from, among others,’s CEO Marc Benioff. It was founded by Shawn Fanning, who also founded Napster, and Joi Ito, director of MIT’s influential Media Lab.