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Mister Beacon Episode #79

LTE Beacons

August 30, 2018

On the August 24th, Estimote launched a first for the IoT industry, an LTE beacon. It leverages cellular LTE, GPS, and Bluetooth Low Energy connectivity. This small device, fully programmable using JavaScript, was built on the idea of enabling asset tracking in both indoor and outdoor environments. Jakub Krzych, Estimote’s CEO, gives us a first look at this revolutionary product, how it works with the Estimote cloud, and their vision of empowering developers to “use the physical world as their canvas”.


  • Narration 0:07

    The Mr. Beacon podcast is sponsored by Wiliot, scaling IoT with battery free Bluetooth.

    Steve Statler 0:17

    Jakub, thanks very much for coming back on the Mr. Beacon podcast, I think this is our third conversation recorded. And we've had a few more that haven't been recorded, which had been pretty cool as well. But this is a special occasion, because this week, you guys have a new product out. And as a solution designer, I am really excited by it, because it just it's like the Swiss Army knife of, of beacon technology. So why don't you tell us a bit about at a high level? What is it that you guys are launching this week?

    Jakub Krzych 0:54

    Absolutely, you know, thanks, again, for having me. And, you know, I really enjoyed all the conversations we had about, you know, beat beacons and Bluetooth and, and IoT. And, you know, we've been into this business for the last, you know, five, six years, we've seen a lot of applications. And, you know, our main focus for them for that time was the technology in the software to locate people. So we we use standard beacons, and, and the kind of software that we embedded into mobile devices, so we could compute the position of people. And what we understood over time, is that, you know, the businesses in the physical world, they consist not only of smart location, and walls and ceilings and people, but they're also key assets, there are some vehicles, there are some objects there, you know, depending on what the businesses and, and and, you know, locating people was sort of simple because they had phones, and that phone could run software, and that phone was always connected to the cloud. But we sort of asked ourselves the question, you know, is that possible to design, sort of like a phone, but, you know, without the screen without the user interface elements, that would be, you know, similar price to beacons, and that could talk directly to the cloud. And also use the bigger infrastructure to locate these assets inside the buildings, but also use whatever is possible outside the building like GPS to, to report its position. And, and this is, you know, how we, you know, ended up with this device. All right, so it's, so it's, um, we call it an LTE beacon. It has three main radios, so it has it IoT LTE class radio, we can talk more, it's a, it's a category M one and narrowband radio it of course, it has Bluetooth. And it has also the GPS. So those three radios can be mixed together, using software. So we enable software developers to build what we call IoT apps. And through JavaScript, they can decide, you know how they want to use this device. So if they want to program the device, just to act as beacon, they can do it, this device can talk to the cloud, it can fetch the data, you know, advertise Eddystone, or iBeacon. That could be one of the use cases. But what we're excited the most is that, you know, this device can scan and can talk for the for the other Bluetooth beacons, it means that if you attach this to an asset, it can locate itself inside the building the same way we did that for phones and people. But because it has GPS, you know, it can also report the position of an asset when it's outdoor, and it can kind of automatically switch between indoor and outdoor. So so we are extremely excited. And you're absolutely right, this, this could be a Swiss army knife for the IoT. And we hope that the community will, will appreciate it.

    Steve Statler 4:08

    Yeah, I was just thinking about all of the first that this represents for our ecosystem. And there's, there's quite a few you touched on a few of them. And we should, we should look into this. You've got GPS on the weekend, you've got a essentially a 5g radio. So this can act as a gateway, you've got this level of programmability. And so this is more than just a very simple piece of hardware. I'm sure people are wondering about how much this is going to cost. So tell us how much this costs. And then let's talk about some of the use cases that you've been thinking about and where you think it's going to be applied. So first of all, how much does it cost?

    Jakub Krzych 4:57

    Yeah, so we will be distributed that that product as development kits, those the same way we used to distribute beacons, so anyone can order few dev kits and start playing, you know, immediately. So one dev kit will have two devices. And it's going to be priced at $129. For two devices. And you know, because this is a cloud device, so it can talk directly to the, to the, to the network. And, you know, we're using number of partners globally. So, you know, in the United States, we're using partners that have already rolled out their 5g Ready narrowband and LTM infrastructure, and in Europe, and Australia, Japan, and so on. So there will be also an addition subscription plan, which will be for that deaf get $2 per month, per device. And within and within that fee, there is there's the data plan, there's their cloud services, you know, everything that people would need to just start quickly prototype. And of course, this is the pricing for the development kits. And you know, depending on on the volume and the use case, we are always more than happy to talk to customers about the projects.

    Steve Statler 6:14

    Yeah. So this is a one stop shop in terms of the service element, you guys have increasingly you're building out your operating system for the physical world, your your cloud services, but you're also bundling in the connectivity. And I'm assuming that you have to work with you work with different carriers in different parts of the world. How does that work? If I'm, if I'm an organization in Europe, if I'm in Germany, say, and I'm in the US? How does that?

    Jakub Krzych 6:46

    Yeah, so so, you know, we want our developers and our customers to be, you know, laser focused on their domain specific application, you know, that is using different IoT elements, like we don't want them to spend time on, you know, negotiate, negotiating with vendors and carriers. So we do all of that, for them. So basically, they get the device from us and the device is talking to the cloud. That's, that's it, this is as simple as that. And, and again, this is, this is not like a standard 3g or LTE, sort of connectivity. This is like, like you mentioned, this is 5g ready, connectivity, that is, you know, slightly different. throughput, slightly different bandwidth, slightly different, you know, data plans, because we're not talking about like streaming, you know, gigabytes of data, we're talking about the device that is advertising its identifier and position, maybe some telemetric data. So, you know, what we're excited the most is that this is finally, the kind of cloud connected beacon that is wireless that can last multiple years. So you know, if you want to change something, if you want to, you know, reprogram it, you can always do that. And you always know where the where the device is, what's the battery status, you know, what is it? What is the environment around? So, so that is, you know, one one key important element of this architecture. And also, you know, we know, from our more than five years experience that it simply takes time to design, great IoT application and great mobile experience. So, you know, our objective was to simplify the process. And, you know, the first beacons we launched, you know, they were really nicely designed tools, you could configure the range and the transmit power and the iBeacon, and everything. But we're talking about the device that has three radios, right, so the UI would be too complex. So we decided to kind of create sort of like a visual machine that is, you know, running on top of the device. And then you can use JavaScript, right? So this is going to open, this is going to open the IoT world into a completely new community of developers, they don't need to know c plus class and embedded programming, they can just open the browser, you know, open Estimote cloud there is there isn't a, you know, development environment we have created, they can they can build their function, and they want, you know, they want the LTE beacon to execute. And they can they can flash that script. And now this device will perform the action. So, you know, it could be simple, like if this didn't that type of application, you know, so, you know, if my forklift has entered the range of that green beacon, I should receive a message about it right, or something shouldn't happen. So this is all built in JavaScript. And then it's executing on the on the device and also, you know, when the device is sending the data back to the cloud, we also wanted to accelerate the the data flow single part, you know, typically back end developer would be needed, he or she has to establish some endpoints and maybe run an instance on AWS or Heroku. But you know, for a quick prototyping, we just didn't didn't want them to kind of do all of that just to kind of validate some, some some simple concepts. So that's why we also part of this system, we have something that we call lambda expressions. So basically, it's a, it's a piece of a piece of JavaScript code that sits on our cloud. And it's like, listening for the events to be received from the device, and then executing them, right. So for example, you know, if you want to build like a panic button application, so if someone you know, touches the button, you know, the lambda expression application will, you know, listen for the event when the button was pressed. And as soon as it gets the event, it can connect, for example, to Twilio, or it can send you an email, or it can do something for you, without you hosting a back end application yet. And of course, for more complex projects, like there's always need for strong data processing, but for simple experiences, and a simple proof of concept, well, this should massively improve the velocity of the project development of the IoT projects.

    Steve Statler 11:32

    So I think what you were saying is that button is programmable. And so there's a lot of flexibility in terms of what that can be used for. And if I am doing that certain amount of back end and on device programming, then all of that is included in this, the service fee, I don't have to worry about setting up an AWS account or anything like that.

    Jakub Krzych 11:55

    Absolutely, concepts and simple applications.

    Steve Statler 11:59

    What about battery life, you've got a lot of variables there, it seems like it's almost impossible to give us a battery life. Because if I write an app that's kind of spinning away, that's gonna use up a lot of battery, if I'm constantly hammering away at the GPS that would use up a lot of battery. What? What's your sense? What are you seeing? What's the kind of range that you expect? Well, what are the key key variables? And what happens when you run out of battery?

    Jakub Krzych 12:28

    Um, yeah, so So the way we would like, the community to sort of conceptualize the battery usage of this device is that we should think about, like a certain number of like, pings, and the ping can be either like a scan, like a radio scan, or like sending some data, right? And that device, for example, could support like 2000 pings, right? So now, it's, it's the developer to decide, do you want to send coordinates of your vehicle, just once a day, because if you do it once a day, then you're going to use 360 pings a year? And that device can last multiple years? Yes. But maybe you want to send those pings every 15 minutes. And of course, then the device will run out of juice. But the good news is there is a USB C slot, so we can charge the device again. So this is this is the difference between the ordinary beacons that you couldn't charge. So so we don't know yet. What will be the applications for this device, we envision some like, you know, asset tracking proof of delivery. You know, we see people using these as beacon gateways, maybe as beacons themselves, but but, you know, we will be supporting our developers with the estimations of how their application will consume the battery, because we have built a very simple battery usage profiler, part of our cloud. So when you are writing your code, you will be able very quickly to sort of estimate and predict if the power consumption is high, or it's low, and, and also, to kind of explain it a little bit more, you know, programming this device to act as a beacon. Well, yeah, that's, that's simple. And it's inexpensive, because the broadcasting the signals, as you guys know, from Wilier, you know, that's the least expensive part of the energy, right? Scanning, you know, scanning for the Bluetooth signal that's a little bit more expensive. Then we have the GPS, you know, processing the GPS satellite data. It's a little bit more expensive than Bluetooth scanning. And finally, we have the LTE connectivity, which is, you know, the most expensive activity of the device, but it's still a fraction of the energy that you need for the classic 3G or LTE, right, because we're talking about completely new protocol, completely new technology that has been rollout in United States, you know, Western Europe and you know, most of our regions that is going to support all of those IoT applications.

    Steve Statler 15:16

    Can you explain a bit more about those low power wide area network protocols? Because this is this is really interesting. What What Why did you choose the ones that you did? And what do we need to be aware of in terms of the, the benefits and the constraints of those protocols that you've chosen?

    Jakub Krzych 15:37

    Yes. So you know, five years ago, when we have launched Bluetooth beacons, it wasn't standard Bluetooth, it was Bluetooth low energy, it was a slightly modified version of the Bluetooth that enabled the communication. But also, it was architected to last much longer on, you know, small battery, the way they did that was handling the intervals and the cycle, when the device is talking, you know, the phone to the to the beacon, so it doesn't talk all the time, it doesn't transmit the data all the time, there are specific cycles, this can be done. And for some of the applications like like, you know, indoor positioning or proximity, this was just enough to have very responsive system, at the same time, very scalable system, because if you don't have to power something, well, you can manufacture 10s of 1000s of these, just, you know, distribute them to your locations and just deploy quickly at scale without, you know, installing wires and calibration and so on. So, this Bluetooth low energy to the classical Bluetooth, this is a very similar analogy to the LTE M, and narrowband IoT, these are two different standards to the classical, LTE or 3g. So we're talking about completely new protocols that have been, you know, couple years ago, ratified by a special group that the same way Bluetooth has the mobile and cellular world has, and that in these protocols, they just define how the base station that is not in your neighborhood, can listen and talk to those small devices, and what should be the cycles, which should be the data packets. And again, we're talking about small packets, containing you know, not that much information. And also the packets that that, you know, the the base station and the device, they agree before what would be the cycle of when they communicate. So so it's um, you know, these the two versions of that new technology, the LTE M and narrowband IoT, there are slight differences in the physics and the frequencies of these technologies. But they're kind of high level, LTE M is more designed for the, you know, the wearables and the IoT devices that will move, right, so they can move from one station to another, so one base station, another base station. So this could be attached to a track and that track will change the state change the region, change the district, and the device will hand off will switch to another base station will continue the transmission. And, and again, you know, the devices can last in multiple years on using this technology. And then the narrowband IoT, it is more designed for stationary IoT devices, for example, Park meter, smart water meter, could be a beacon that is installed and doesn't move. So so so that technology is even even, even lower power. And it can, it also does support them more kind of harsh range environment. So for example, if you put this beacon into your basement, where you typically don't have coverage, it's gonna work, right. So underground parking lot, and those type of places would be supported by the narrowband and in in, there are slight differences, different regions, different countries the support, either one it is second, or both those technologies. So we working with the partners to make sure that there's the right coverage for the right application. And so typically is the going to the big wireless carriers that providing these networks and how how mature is the is the coverage? What should we be expecting in terms of coverage? Yeah, so So you remember like five years ago, we asked exactly the same question. We asked a question, you know, how popular phones with Bluetooth low energy, right? And are they already there? Because they created the platform and of course initially, not all of them supported it and we kind of had to wait a little bit. But of course today, nobody asked the question, you know, every phone we expect and every other device to support BLE. So So So, you know, our job at Estimote is to kind of search for those emerging technologies and kind of, you know, you know, integrate them when the time when the time is ripe, and, and we are happy to announce that those LTE M and narrowband technologies, the United States, there's like a 95% of coverage 95%, they almost the entire nation, and most of the Europe is also covered, and countries and regions such as, you know, Japan, and Asia and China and Australia. So, you know, we would expect that within the next 18 months, most of the countries will be covered with either one or the second technology. So we really looking forward to see how these type of products will also accelerate the innovation, the use cases and the demand from the carriers to turn on the new protocol. The good news is that this new LTE M and narrowband protocols, they don't require the infrastructure change. So they don't require the base station to be, you know, replace living new hardware, in most cases, especially LTM. This is a software upgrade. So you know, if those base stations if they have the existing Nokia Ericsson, who away or some other vendors, you know, infrastructure, you know, they push a button, and the base station can be upgraded to support that new type of IoT connectivity.

    Steve Statler 21:38

    Well, back onto the regular Bluetooth front. What, what's the standard that you're supporting? What kind of signal strength can we get out of the beacon?

    Jakub Krzych 21:48

    Yeah, so we have decided to put into this new device, the latest one of the best Bluetooth chips. So we are fully support Bluetooth five, with all the features such as mesh networking, you know, long range, high high throughput, low data, so that it does include the Bluetooth mesh networking. That is something in addition to the kind of low power mesh we had at Estimote. And also, we're going to put plus 20 DBM amplifier. So we also expect that the device will be able to either burst the energy to power, you know, for example, with your devices, if that's needed, but also broadcast long range packets for some of the applications as well.

    Steve Statler 22:41

    That's fantastic. So let's wrap up, but just end with say, what's the top three kind of sweetspot? Use Cases? You've you've referenced a few, but where are you seeing the most interest, the biggest opportunities?

    Jakub Krzych 22:57

    Um, you know, we we encouraged to do developers to think about as this new device as a sort of prototyping tool for further further, you know, IoT applications, the same way that when we launched these beacons, we knew that the smaller, you know, less expensive beacons, and eventually, you know, passive beacons will come right. And that is the kind of idea behind this this device that whatever the software is that the developers will create for this device, it is going to it is going to work on much smaller versions that will come in the future. And you know, the applications we've seen from the standard asset tracking applications we're excited a lot is the sort of panic button application. So it's an application where, where people can have similar device with them indoors, and whenever they push the button, the device will scan for the nearby beacons will consume and calculate the indoor position, and then using the LTE network will send that interposition to the cloud. So we expect that this will have a lot of applications in hospitality and some other sectors. But as we as we talked before, you know, we're beacons there were some applications we didn't expect. And we've seen everything we've seen beacons attached chickens, and quadcopters precise landing and, you know, beacons and the oil platforms and so on. So we're extremely excited to see what kind of applications developers will will create with this new device.

    Steve Statler 24:44

    And I think you're gonna see a bunch of it seems like the, and I think it's in your, in your blog post that's coming out around about now, this tracking of very high value assets where you have to have a multimodal situation where you can be switching from tracking it outdoors tracking it indoors seems the ability to be using GPS on the road and then using beacons inside see where that aircraft engine is or some high value item like that. That seems great. I love the fact that this can be a gateway for other tags, seeing it in in vans and trucks and then monitoring what's in the van in the truck and cold chain. I think the possibilities are endless. So it's going to be really exciting to see what people come up with. Jakub thanks so much for sharing this with us. It's great to be the one of the first getting the lowdown on your device. I think it's super exciting. I congratulate you always really enjoyed these conversations.

    Jakub Krzych 25:44

    Thank you so much and you know looking forward to connect more and and see you know, where the industry is going.

    Steve Statler 25:51

    Very good. All the best.

    Jakub Krzych 25:53

    Thank you so much. Take care.