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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Helium uses sub-GHz 802.15.4 for secure IoT connections

By Nick Flaherty

US startup Helium has launched a suite of products to provide a comprehensive low-power, long-range solution for IoT devices.

The system uses a long range star network protocol built on the 802.15.4 standard physical layer used by Zigbee and Thread to provide data rates up to 250kbit/s dynamically switching between two frequency bands in the sub-GHz 915MHz and 868MHz bands. Running on a low power ARM Cortex-M4 processor, and sub-GHz RF front end, this gives a range of up to 10 miles and a battery life of up to 3 years on two AA cells.

Securely capturing and transmitting data from the hardware to the application layer is highly problematic for most organisations, who are faced with the challenges of configuring, securing and managing massive numbers of devices. Helium hides this complexity and offers this as a service by including the links to the encryption chips in the MAC layer as an integral part of the wireless module design. Dust Network, now part of Linear Technology and Analog Devices, did pretty much the same thing, and is currently being used for Advantech's IoT rollout.

The Helium Atom wireless modules are available as surface mount for production use, or in a small XBee form-factor for prototyping with Raspberry Pi, mBed, Arduino and many more. The company is also releasing an open source C/C++ client library to simplify sending and receive encrypted sensor data wirelessly .

The company changed direction in May to focus on this technology, dropping its own cloud-based service and using public providers instead. 

"Connectivity is extraordinarily complicated when dealing with resource-constrained embedded devices," said Amir Haleem, CEO of Helium. "Helium has taken a process that normally takes months of labour-intensive work from a large team and simplified it to a process that can be achieved in minutes with minimal staff, and provides the visibility and control needed to manage at scale going forward."

Helium's main offering is a central console, the Helium Dashboard, that eliminating the need to visit every sensor in the field, which is a common challenge of remote field monitoring. Helium Dashboard also serves as a central point for Helium Channels, the setup and integration of the cloud applications and data stores used to assess and take action on these physical data.

"Although there has been great progress made in the areas of IoT hardware and cloud software, there are still major technical and economic challenges in getting connectivity to the edge point to gather and deliver data," said Rob Bamforth, Principal Analyst at Quocirca. "Simplifying and lowering costs of connectivity deployment would remove a significant barrier to mass IoT adoption in several industries."

The new products work out of the box with all existing sensor hardware and a wide range of IoT cloud applications with little-to-no configuration. The atom modules can cost as little as $19, with $29 per Element Access Point, and a simple $1.99 per month per installed Atom with no usage or data fees, Helium eliminates upcharges and most add-on costs that are increasingly a challenge for IoT roll outs. Helium says using 802.15.4 ensures that it can support IoT hardware and software regardless of the changes in IoT technology.

The key features include most of the things we cover on the Embedded blog regularly:
  • Zero configuration for simple installation and setup at scale
  • Compatibility across hundreds of hardware providers
  • Extremely long range connectivity, on the order of many city-blocks in dense urban applications and hundreds of square miles in sparse rural settings
  • IEEE standards-based hardware provides maximum flexibility for changing business demands with no proprietary lock-in
  • Hardware-based security to ensure data is encrypted and devices authenticated, end to end
  • Over-the-air updating and bi-directional communication to provide future-proofing, up-to-date software and further protection from security risks
  • Helium Channels provide interoperability with all major cloud providers such as Microsoft Azure, Amazon AWS IoT, and Google Cloud Platform IoT Core
  • Full visibility and management enabled by Helium Dashboard
Having control of the whole protocol stack allows for an integrated security implementation. All the Helium devices are automatically authenticated to the network using a unique hardware-stored key, and the Device-to-cloud and cloud-to-device communication is encrypted end to end via AES256. 

A securely authenticated and authorized control-plane allows users to confirm that control instructions are between trusted devices and third party Channel connections, with appropriate permissions (turn on valves, set off alarms, turn off machinery, etc.) and  X509 certificates used on AWS, Azure, Google and others are signed by a different set of unique per-device private keys in hardware.

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