Burglars Stung by IoT Bees in Santa Clara

By Claire Swedberg

Technology startup Roambee helped police locate the company's own stolen goods with its Internet of Things devices used to track assets and shipments via GPS, cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy functionality.

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When burglars broke into the offices of Internet of Things asset-monitoring technology startup Roambee in Santa Clara, they helped themselves to laptops and some unfamiliar devices that looked like cell phone chargers. Those devices turned out to be Roambee’s Bees with built-in Wi-Fi, GSM, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and GPS functionalities, as well as sensors and cameras.

Roambee’s employees discovered the robbery the next morning, remotely commanded the missing Bees to identify themselves on a per-minute basis and began tracking the devices. Approximately eight hours later, says Santa Clara Police Lieutenant Dan Moreno, the suspects were in custody and the Roambee property had been found, along with goods stolen during previous burglaries. For Roambee, it was the perfect way to put their new technology to the test, says the company’s cofounder and VP, Vidya Subramanian.

Lieutenant Dan Moreno

The company’s founders, Subramanian and Sanjay Sharma, had originally come from RFID firm KeyTone Technologies. They found that their customers that employed radio frequency identification were interested in a solution offering greater mobility and sensor technology, so three years ago they formed Roambee. They developed the GPS-based tracker device, which is leased to customers, comes with a variety of built-in features to identify location and status, and can connect to sensors for the purpose of condition monitoring.

Thus far, several thousand devices are being used by pharmaceutical, logistics and consumer electronics companies to track goods as they move through the supply chain. The devices, measuring 5 inches by 3 inches by 1 inch, can be embedded in pallets or placed into boxes to track not only their location but also such conditions as light and shock, in order to identify when a door or box is opened unexpectedly, or to track such movement as the removal of a box from a truck at an unauthorized location. The built-in cameras can be programmed to take a picture if such an event occurs.

The Bee device comes with an active GPS antenna to enable it to capture longitude- and latitude-based location data, even within a covered truck. The BLE device built into it also enables users to employ a smartphone as a Geiger counter to identify how close they are to a specific device they seek.

Roambee offers its hosted software to manage the location data for users, as well as an app that they can download to their phone, enabling them to track the Bees from that phone. The device is powered with lithium rechargeable batteries that typically last for three months when transmitting every ten minutes or hour, or three years when transmitting less frequently. The bees can both send and receive transmissions via GSM cellular networks or a Bluetooth connection.

In the case of the office theft, which took place during Memorial Day weekend, the Bees were already powered up for transmission (they automatically transmit periodically as long as the battery is charged). Roambee’s staff were able to put them into recover mode—at which time they beaconed every minute—via a command in the app, which was transmitted to the Bees over the cellular connection.

Roambee’s Vidya Subramanian

Roambee was then able to ascertain where the devices were located; some were in neighboring Union City, while others moving toward the city of Alameda. The company could also determine whether they had been removed from boxes based on light sensor data—several had, and were in a vehicle being driven by two suspects.

When police arrived onsite, they called in their Special Enforcement Team to obtain a warrant for the stationary Bees in Union City, and to pursue the moving Bees. Because the devices had an accuracy of about 5 meters (16.4 feet), Moreno says, the police were able to determine in which self-storage unit the devices were located. They searched that particular storage unit and found not only the Bee, but also other stolen goods, including a World War II-era photo album that they were able to return to its owner.

Roambee reports that its technology is primarily being used in pallets and boxes by pharmaceutical companies and other businesses to identify where goods are located as they travel from one site to another, such as from a manufacturer or a distributor, and to issue an alert if the Bees detect light or shock, indicating they are being opened or removed from the truck. They can also send an alert if they diverge from the expected route.

Roambee leases the Bees to its customers rather than selling them. When a customer needs to track a shipment, it can order the device, which is then placed in that shipment and programmed to begin transmitting data at specific intervals. Customers pay about $1 a day for each device. Once it reaches its destination, the Bee can then be returned to Roambee.

Users can view location and historic data in the Roambee software, or have the information integrated with their own management software. “For pharmaceutical companies, the objective is security,” Subramanian explains. The companies do not want vehicles to make unauthorized stops, or for the containers to be opened, as pharmaceutical products could then be stolen or swapped with fraudulent versions.

By attaching a sensor for temperature or humidity, the company has enabled the devices to also provide cold-chain tracking. For instance, perishable products could be tracked while moving through the supply chain to ensure they are stored at the proper temperature.

The Bees also come with a secondary battery, in case the primary battery runs out before it can be recharged. In that case, the secondary battery beacons twice a day to enable users to view their location. The Bees have built-in altitude sensors, so they can understand when they are in an airplane and automatically switch off so as not to interfere with the flight’s communication technology. Additionally, the altitude sensor enables users to understand on which floor or shelf level the device is being stored.

“I almost felt sorry for the burglars,” Subramanian says. “As soon as they took the Bees, they didn’t stand a chance.”

Moreno says he has some experience with GPS tracking. The police department sometimes places baited items—such as bicycles or packages that are often stolen—to lure and then follow thieves. With GPS functionality, police can track down the burglars and often other stolen goods. These kinds of operations, he adds, could benefit from technology such as the Roambee solution.