Helium is introducing an open-source blockchain machine network that promises to unleash a new IoT era.
Internet of things devices can be expensive, bulky, and power hungry – all things that need to change. More, they’re often limited in range and controlled by a handful of providers.
At longer ranges, several low-power, wide-area network (LPWAN) technologies are available, such as LoRa and RPMA. But while these have proved successful, with a broad range of commercial products available, there’s an argument for a decentralised machine network that uses open-source technology to enable greater adoption and more widespread coverage.
Enter Helium, founded in 2013 with the mission to make it easier to build connected devices. Its newly announced Helium Decentralised Machine Network is scheduled to launch later this year (and is explained in this detailed white paper).
The company’s first-generation devices relied on the open-standard IEEE 802.15.4, but this failed to meet the long-range, low-power needs of its vision – necessitating a new wireless protocol: WHIP.
Helium, the company says, is a very different kind of network. It’s built by users, who together create a decentralised IoT economy – an ecosystem of networks, devices, and applications that everyone can use.
The Helium blockchain that underpins it acts as a distributed ledger to provide a cost-effective means of running application logic, securing data, and enabling the transaction system.
The Helium gateway
The Helium network is linked via gateways; any organisation or individual can install a gateway that will provide coverage for WHIP low-power devices. The devices communicate with the gateways, which link them to the internet – in exchange for newly minted cryptocurrency.
This is secured not by ‘proof of work’, like many digital currencies (which is computationally expensive), but through ‘proof of location’, ‘proof of coverage’, and ‘proof of serialisation’ (to verify that miners are accurately representing time). In this sense, the technology is allied to similar ‘light’ versions of blockchain.
Essentially, technologies such as Tangle / Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG) seek to minimise the block and chain aspects of distributed ledger systems, which some industry figures believe is holding them back from being more widely adopted.
Helium founder and CEO Amir Haleem is confident his company’s own system will motivate early adopters. He said:
We think this unique approach to network consensus combined with token rewards helps keep the earliest providers of the network incentivised and solves the cold-start problem that plagues traditional crowdsourced projects.
The result is the potential for an open, decentralised, low-power, wide-scale machine network that could help unlock the Internet of Things era, as it was first imagined. An environment in which it’s possible, both economically and technically, to connect and monitor individual goods, tools, devices, and other smart objects in near real time.
“We know what we’re doing is ambitious, has never been done before, and that’s what excites us, our partners, and customers,” added Haleem.
Helium will sell its own hardware for the network, but the devices are built using non-proprietary technology and the specs will be widely available. Helium’s use of open-source technology is vital to its prospects as an IoT network, and opens the door to shared innovation and future-proofed services.
WHIP, Helium’s open-source network LPWAN protocol, will link the network’s gateways with compatible devices. The secure, long-range, low-power, bi-directional wireless protocol is compatible with a range of existing radio transceivers operating in the sub-GHz unlicensed frequency spectrum. Meanwhile, authentication is provided by public keys for all participants, stored in the blockchain.
Internet of Business says
MIT reports that Helium is working with a pharmaceutical company that wants to track individual medicine bottles and their temperature in near real time. This would require network coverage wherever it went. This is just one example of the kind of granular use cases that exist across healthcare, agriculture, manufacturing, and supply chains.
Established wireless carriers lack the incentives to build networks geared for devices that might transmit less than a dollar’s worth of data per year. There is therefore a critical gap for widespread wireless coverage that is secure, reliable, and super-cheap.
If Helium can fulfil the promise of its technology, incentivise adoption, and build trust in its tokens, then it can fill the void. Its capable open-source technology, WHIP protocol, and secure blockchain offer solid cornerstones on which to build.
The fundamental weakness of many cryptocurrencies is their use of ‘proof-of-work’ workloads to mine coins and secure the blockchain. This requires huge computational resources, and so consumes unsustainable amounts of energy in a world that needs to move away from fossil-fuel-generated electricity.
With literally thousands of blockchain startups hoping to cash in on the technology, some may be wary of yet another crypto-token. However, Helium is an established company with real wireless networking nous, and the investment it has received to date reinforces this point.
Once the dust settles in the blockchain Wild West, the survivors will be held to higher standards, and Helium stands a good chance of being among them.