SANTA CLARA, Calif. — A startup is now in trials with a novel design for Internet of Things nodes targeting industrial uses. Filament wrote its own mesh networking protocol to significantly expand the range of LoRa networks and tapped the Bitcoin blockchain as part of its approach to security.
The company started four years ago as a crowdfunded maker of Arduino mesh networking boards. About two-and-a-half years ago, the now 35-person company started getting calls from potential Fortune 100 customers.
“They said they had problems building their own [in-house IoT] networks, but got ours working and wanted to do joint development projects,” said founder and chief executive Eric Jennings. “They wanted to link trillions of dollars in assets but not have to own the end-node devices that they could use anywhere in the world on- or off-line,” he said.
Filament’s engineers faced several probes figuring out how to keep track of end nodes that might sometimes be off-line. After several investigations, “we found we could solve it with aspects of blockchain, so we used the Bitcoin blockchain to establish trust — it was a practical solution,” he said.
Blockchain, often described as a kind of distributed write-only database, is seeing expanding use for a variety of applications beyond the Bitcoin currency where it got its start. They range across industries seeking an element of shared trust.
Separately, Filament embeds a hardware root-of-trust in every node. The simple controller can encrypt and store keys and decrypt digital signatures. “You can’t have any security without a secure element, and the one we use only costs 48 cents at scale,” he said.
Tap nodes embed five sensors, BLE, USB and a LoRa radio. (Images: Filament)
The other novel part of Filament’s design is a mesh protocol for LoRa that supports as many as ten hops with reasonable latency and distances of up to nine miles between line-of-sight hops. LoRa’s native protocol supports a star network topology with one hop and distances of about a mile between hops.
The net result is a network that could cover the equivalent of a large city with a handful of devices. The so-called Tap nodes are being tested for applications such as securely connecting residential solar panels to a utility.
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