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The Internet of Things, Unplugged and Untethered

A startup called Iotera wants to let you track your pets, your kids, or your belongings without relying on commercial wireless networks.
November 22, 2013

The iPhone wouldn’t stop chirping. On a recent morning I was riding in a car through Silicon Valley with three people from a startup called Iotera. A small tracking tag was attached to the passenger-side sun visor. Our mission was to see how far we could drive from Iotera’s office building before the tag would stop transmitting its location to a small base station on the building’s roof—which meant the location-logging app on the phone would go silent.

On track: Iotera’s tags—shown here with and without a protective case—can send location data to a base station several miles away and work for months on one charge.

It took several miles. That’s good news for Iotera, which is developing tracking technology that can work throughout cities without requiring access to a commercial wireless network or even a short-range wireless protocol like Bluetooth. The system uses GPS-embedded tags that can last for months on a single charge, occasionally sending their coordinates over unlicensed wireless spectrum to small base stations with a range of several miles.

Iotera expects businesses to use its technology to track everything from tools on construction sites to workers in dangerous places like oil rigs. Or people might use it to keep an eye on their pets. Iotera’s founders say two companies (which it won’t name) are trying it out. One is using it to help parents monitor their children’s whereabouts, and the other is tracking company-owned devices.

Iotera is taking a risk by trying to sell its own wireless base stations. But the market for the Internet of Things—wherein normally unconnected devices are connected to the Internet so they can be tracked or made more functional—is growing fast. Networking equipment maker Cisco Systems estimates that there are 10.9 billion “people, processes, data, and things” connected to the Internet, and the company expects this to rise to as high as 50 billion by 2020.

Iotera grew out of an idea cofounder Ben Wild had for a long-range wireless tracking network. He thought such a network would be perfect for keeping tabs on animals, even though he doesn’t have any himself. “I just thought it would be cool to track pets,” he says. “And I thought this cool new wireless technology that I had an idea of how to build could really enable this market.”

On screen: Location data is relayed to an Iotera app.

Wild has been working on wireless tech for years. Before Iotera he founded Wirama, a maker of RFID product-locating technology that Checkpoint Systems bought in 2009. When I visited Iotera’s Redwood City office—a small suite in a startup-filled building with desks covered in prototypes of sensing tags and base stations—Wild, along with cofounder Robert Barton and software engineer Esther Rasche, demonstrated how their new technology works.

Wild handed me a sensor tag in a 3-D-printed case about the size of a small matchbox. If you clipped one to your dog’s collar, it would occasionally log Fido’s location and report it back to a small access point connected to the Internet. From there, it would be punted to Iotera’s servers, and then to a website or mobile app. Under what Wild calls “typical operating conditions,” the tag’s battery would last up to five months.

Fido’s location data could be transferred over as many as four miles in a suburban area, or two miles in a dense urban one, where more things can interfere with the signals.

To get a sense of the tracking in action, we jumped into Barton’s car, which was set up with a tag. We wound around hills, listening to a steady stream of chirps emanating from an iPhone app, which gathered location data from the access point and showed us the car’s movement on a map. The noise petered out as we hit Interstate 280 near a community college about four miles from Iotera’s office.

A cellular chip would eliminate the need for a base station and still let the tags work over a broader area, but Wild says it would require too big of a trade-off in battery life and sensor size. Not to mention, it would cost a lot more, given the monthly fee to use a wireless carrier’s network. Given that each of its base stations is a few hundred dollars, under a foot tall, and has a range of several miles, Iotera’s founders believe they can cover a whole city with just a handful of them.

However, each station can support only a certain number of tags, depending on the application it’s being used for. For an application that requires infrequent data transfers, like monitoring water meters each hour, an access point could handle 10,000 or more tags. But if you want to track a lost pet and transmit its GPS location every 30 seconds, Barton says, a station could support just hundreds.

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