There’s a big business in knowing where essential stuff is. Maybe you’re a hospital administrator who wants to track crash carts, or perhaps you’re managing FedEx shipments at an airport. Either way, if your business involves moving stuff or using stuff, the internet of things holds a lot of promise.
The latest company to make this promise is Shoof, a startup based in Sunnyvale, Calif., that was founded in January of 2016. The company offers a network of tags, base stations, and cloud services that allow customers to understand where their tagged items are in relative real time.
Shoof joins startups like Samsara, which are also going after asset tracking, as well as large companies such as Zebra Technologies. But what makes Shoof unique is the radio network it uses and the security elements embedded throughout the system. Shoof’s network is comprised of tags that talk to each other and a cellular base station. It also includes a cloud component.
Shoof tags are low-power sensors that communicate via Bluetooth and a low-power mesh network built on top of commodity 802.15.4 radios. While these radios are the same ones used for ZigBee and Thread networks, they run a different software layer on top of them. This software layer is what Shoof has built to optimize for power consumption and give it the ability to add compelling features.
A particularly compelling feature is that when one tag passes another tag it can send data about the asset up the cloud. It can also do that using a smartphone that runs the Shoof app. In this way the tags can share data even when a device can’t reach the cellular base station. It’s similar to how Tile tracks devices on the consumer side using Bluetooth.
The radios can share data at ranges of up to 20 kilometers if there are no walls or interfering objects, but a more realistic scenario is a one-kilometer range. So tags within that range of the base station share their data and then the base station uses cellular signals to get the data to the cloud. The Shoof cloud runs on Amazon’s Web Services; data rates range from one megabit per second to a few kilobits per second, depending on distance. Higher data rates are designed for firmware updates and would require the asset to move closer to the base station.
Other than the network, the tags also contain their own cryptographic engine and can handle AES 256 encryption. George Flammer, one of the founders of the startup, explains that the security elements are designed to make the tags “blockchain ready.” In this case, it’s not just a way to use the hottest tech buzzword.
Flammer envisions that devices will have to be able to tell other devices where they are in a trusted and scalable manner. The blockchain is perfect for that. And Flammer isn’t alone in this assertion. IBM and shipping giant Maersk just announced a joint venture to track shipped assets using a form of blockchain technology.
But to ensure that a blockchain isn’t compromised, a device has to be trusted. Flammer’s bet is that trust has to be encoded in the hardware. Hence tags that contain trusted execution environments and cryptographic engines to handle the math required by encryption.
As far as solutions go, the Shoof guys have addressed a lot of the industry’s big concerns. It’s operating several paid pilots Flammer couldn’t talk about, so we’ll have to wait and see how the technology handles the challenges of the real world, where water, people, and harsh environments can wreak havoc with a startup’s best laid plans.