Node-ify Brings IoT to Homes at Low Cost

By Claire Swedberg

Palo Alto Innovation intends to release its product later this year, using BLE and LoRa technologies to capture sensor data, ranging from water leak detection to an opened door or refrigerator temperature, in the cloud.

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California-based technology startup Palo Alto Innovation is launching a low-cost Internet of Things (IoT) solution known as Node-ify that employs Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and long-range (LoRa) technologies to allow consumers to manage products around their home.

The system includes a gateway known as the Node-ify Core, as well as Axon sensors, which are currently in prototype only, and the company plans to launch the solution later this year for preorders. The products are expected to be made commercially available by early next year, the firm predicts. The system is designed to make “dumb” products smart via a single universal device, the company explains. The firm offers an easy, modular installation with sensors that can be used for a wide variety of functions throughout the house.

Node-ify Axon sensors

Palo Alto Innovation was founded in 2015 as a consumer gadgets designer aimed at solving everyday problems. Its products include a smart clock known as the Sandman Doppler. The Node-ify technology was envisioned by Alex Tramiel, the company’s co-founder and CEO, as a solution for simple household problems. Tramiel says he was struck by how difficult it was to remember tasks like brushing his teeth when he was younger.

“I had terrible dental hygiene as kid,” Tramiel recalls. “My issue was remembering to brush.” Instead of requiring a parent to check a child’s toothbrush to find out if he or she has used it, Tramiel conjectured that technology could solve the problem if it could track the toothbrush’s movements. To that end, he developed the idea of a weight sensor built into a cup in which the toothbrush would be stored, with a wireless connection to capture data about the brush’s use.

However, Tramiel thought, a solution of value would need to do more. “I wanted a product that was ubiquitous,” he explains, “so I decided to make the expansion board to allow other sensors to be used on the same software platform.” The result is the Node-ify system, which comes with Axon sensors that can capture a variety of measurements.

Traditionally, Tramiel notes, smart-home or IoT solutions have been fragmented into specialize sensor systems. “You get one sensor for your door, one sensor for your fridge, one for your windows,” he says. By contrast, Palo Alto Innovation offers a single device that can be used for any use case, while being customizable and configurable.

The solution comes with add-on boards enabling users to add sensors, for instance. If a person requires specialized measurements, such as PH levels, he or she can unscrew the Axon sensor and attach an expansion board, along with other sensors, to expand the product and give it a different use. The Axon comes with a BLE device and a LoRa radio, as well as standard sensors for measuring temperature, water, humidity, light, sound, touch and motion levels.

Alex Tramiel

Users would need to purchase at least one Core gateway to receive the LoRa-transmitted data from the Axon, and to then forward that information to a server via a Wi-Fi connection or an Ethernet cable. Although the system could use other LoRa network devices, the company recommends the Core gateway as part of the starter pack. The pack includes a BLE component that provisions the Axon and the Core.

First, a user would download the Node-ify app on his or her Android- or iOS-based device. The system would then employ BLE to locate the gateway. The individual would utilize the app to set up the gateway—which, in turn, would transmit data to the Axons within range, according to that person’s intended use case. The user would select the room in which the sensors would be deployed, such as the kitchen or living room.

The user could then pick a “recipe” (application) for each one, such as collecting refrigerator temperatures, identifying when a dog’s water bowl needs refilling or monitoring when a child has come home from school (based on when the front door opens). He or she could also indicate how often to provide an update (every hour, for example), as well as whether any alerting is required (such as having a text message sent each time the child opens the door).

The Axon’s firmware stores the recipe for each device, and the system turns off the BLE radio on the Axon to conserve battery life. Once in use, the Axon begins capturing sensor data, filtering that information before transmitting it at the specified frequency. For instance, the Axon could be used as a weight sensor on which a dog’s bowl could be placed. As the animal drank water, the sensor would detect a reduction in weight. Then, at a predetermined level, it could issue an alert to the gateway, indicating that a refill was needed. Similarly, the Axon could track the opening of a door based on movement or light, or monitor toothbrush use based on a change in weight applied to the sensor.

According to Tramiel, the company opted to use LoRa technology for the long-range transmissions it can accomplish (up to a mile) and the long battery life enabled by the low power consumption (about six months). The solution can be integrated into other systems, he says—for instance, it could turn off a router for eight hours at night in order to save power.

Each Axon could also be used for multiple functions, since there are several sensors built into the device. For instance, it could be mounted behind a washing machine to detect water leaks, while also monitoring for a change in vibration, thereby enabling it to notify a user when the machine’s cycle is finished. The device will be powered by either AA lithium or rechargeable batteries, or simply by being plugged into an outlet. Since the Axon comes with capacitive touch on its top surface, it can also be used as a smart button to turn the Core off and on.

The key point for Palo Alto Innovation, Tramiel says, is to make the solution inexpensive and easy to deploy. The firm may opt to sell the sensors and gateways at cost, he adds—less than $30 each for an Axon sensor and less than $100 apiece for a gateway. A user would then pay a monthly subscription fee of $5, plus $1 for each Axon. Some potential customers might not want subscriptions, so the firm will offer a model by which sensors can be purchased outright at a higher price, with data made available at no cost.

The company still has work ahead in creating the software and app, Tramiel notes. It plans to offer 20 to 30 room options, with five to 10 recipes appropriate to those rooms. The device could also be used outside—for example, to track when a mailbox is opened, signifying mail has been delivered. Some business owners are considering use cases for the technology as well. For example, a beer company is interested in using the device to track the weight of each of its beer kegs, in order to predict when those kegs require refilling in its server room.