Remote sensing shouldn’t be expensive

  • February 3, 2021
  • William Payne

An IoT project that began in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukishima nuclear disaster in Japan, and spear-headed by the man responsible for the development of Lotus Notes and the Microsoft Azure platform, has created a new model for environmental and industrial IoT devices. Blues Wireless, founded by Ray Ozzie, aims to transform both the business model and the ease of creating low power IoT based monitoring and control applications.

To take its project forward, Blues Wireless has released an IoT System on a Module (SoM), the Notecard. This is designed to allow a low power IoT device to communicate from anywhere through cellular, without any running cellular costs. The Notecard is also designed to be easy to program, using standard programming libraries, and to communicate through JSON-based dataflows.

The strapline for Blues Wireless can be summed up as: “Remote sensing and control shouldn’t be expensive or complicated. With just a few lines of code, anything can be cloud-connected.”

Ozzie founded an organisation called Safecast following the Fukishima nuclear plant disaster in 2011. With three nuclear cores at the plant melted, and sixteen separate radioactive plumes generated by the meltdowns, there was great public uncertainty about safety, not only in Japan but across a much wider area. The Japanese government and the energy company withheld all data on the unfolding situation, and scientists around the world were left with no information on what was happening.

Safecast is an effort to collect data from across Japan on the Fukishima radioactive legacy, and began collecting data and monitoring the environment in April 2011, just a few weeks after the incident at the plant. Initially data was collected by cars, but the team began to establish a low power environmental monitoring network throughout Japan.

Over 10 years the Safecast project built a network of more than two thousand sensors, and more than ten thousand volunteers worked to gather a rapidly growing dataset and map of hundreds of millions of data points. During that time, the team used commercial IoT technology to create ten generations of sensors – some fixed, some mobile. Some measuring radiation, some air quality. Some hard-wired, some solar powered.

But according to Ozzie, “gathering that data was far, far too difficult. If we’re to benefit from a world of devices that are cloud-connected from birth, IoT needs a new soul”.

The answer for such low power, IoT monitoring networks was to eliminate cellular running costs, and simplify the IoT device: “I came to believe that the only viable business model for large-scale cellular IoT is the Kindle’s Whispernet model, where the lifetime cost of cellular is simply embedded into the cost of the product. Low data-rate applications don’t need the complexity of Linux, containers, or edge computing. For these solutions, AI/ML is best done in the cloud, with microcontroller-based device design focused on simplicity, reliability, low power, and low cost,” writes Ozzie in a blog.

The Notecard is designed to allow customers to deploy and scale cellular IoT projects with pre-paid data. Blues Wireless says the Notecard is 10X cheaper, and 10X simpler, than other cellular IoT solutions in the market. Customers pay for Notecard one-time with embedded global connectivity, and then use the companion Notehub service to route to any cloud application.

Features of the Blues Wireless Notecard include:

  • JSON in – JSON out: Send data over cellular with just 2 lines of code, and route data to servers, including AWS IoT, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud.
  • Cellular data included: in North America and in 130 countries around the world, all prepaid and included.
  • Low Power: Developers can configure the Notecard for mostly-offline data sync for low power, or an always-online mode for low latency.
  • Works with any device: From 8-bit microcontrollers to the latest microprocessors and single-board computers.