Iota offers no-fee GPS tracking, thanks to long-range RF and your neighbors' Wi-Fi

iota phone scene pet
Credit: Iotera

Locating devices to keep track of your stuff (or even your pets or kids) sure are handy, but they have their limits. Trackers that rely on Bluetooth, like Tile and Proximo, have a relatively small range, so once they’re more than 150 feet from your cell phone, you can’t see them until they’re back in range. GPS trackers, like Tagg for pets and HereO and Filip for kids, can be tracked anywhere, but you also need to pay a monthly fee for a cellular connection to send the data from the GPS chip up to the cloud before it can get back down to your phone.

Bay Area startup Iotera wants to combine the long range of a GPS tracker to the no-fee model of a Bluetooth tracker with Iota, which is on Kickstarter now. The small Iota tags use long-range RF signals to transmit data from a tiny onboard GPS back to the Iota Home Base. The Home Base is connected to your home Wi-Fi network, so it forwards that GPS data to Iotera’s cloud, letting you locate the Iota tag using the companion app for iOS and Android.

iota home base window Iotera

The Home Base picks up RF signals from any Iota tag within range and relays them to the cloud over Wi-Fi.  

While the Iota tag can transmit to the Home Base unit from up to 4 miles away, it doesn’t have to be your Home Base. The Iota tags send encrypted data to any and all Home Bases in range, so a city could be blanketed by a mesh network of sorts if enough people put Home Base units in their windows. It’s a small amount of data too, only 5Kbps of bandwidth says Iotera, so even people with capped Internet plans shouldn’t notice much of a dent.

More sensors

iota white quarter Iotera

The Iota tags are small enough to mount almost anywhere, and come with attachments for a pet collar and a keychain.

Iota tags can do more than just track something’s location. They also have a temperature sensor, accelerometer, emergency alert button, and speaker. If you attach an Iota to your keys, for example, you can use the app to sound an alarm that can help you find your keys in the couch cushions or under the front seat.

The temperature sensor and accelerometer allow the Iota app to send you alerts. If you use the included pet collar accessory to attach an Iota to your dog’s collar, you could get an alert if it gets too hot where your pooch is. You could also stick an Iota to a window or door and get an alert if it’s opened—the app includes setting for common use cases like this to help you configure alerts that make sense for what you're tracking.

iota geofence app Iotera

The app for iOS and Android lets you set geofences for things you're tracking, so you're notified if they enter or leave that space.

The app lets you set up geofenced areas for tracking, so if your dog manages to escape your backyard, you’d get a push notification right away and then be able to track him with the GPS. Bicycle monitoring will work the same way, sending you a push notification if the accelerometer detects that someone’s messing with your ride. Pet monitoring will include not just your best friend’s location but also his activity level.

Powering up

Both the Home Base and the Iota tags need power. The tags are rechargeable over USB, but Iotera says they can last months between charges, and the app should remind you when it’s time to hunt them down and plug them in. The Home Base doesn’t have batteries, so you’ll need to keep that plugged in all the time. Iotera recommends you stick it to a window to get the most range, but needing to be tethered to a free power outlet is going to limit where I can place it in my house.

iota phone scene bike Iotera

Among Iota's suggested use cases is tracking your bike, including an alert if someone tampers with the Iota itself.

Iotera is about halfway through its Kickstarter campaign, and a little over halfway to its $250,000 goal as of this writing. People who have preordered the Iota system can add themselves to this coverage map so you can see how strong the Home Base network will be in your area. Over in tech-happy San Francisco, virtually the whole city is covered, but in my smaller East Bay hamlet, there currently isn’t another Iota backer for miles. (Unless they haven't registered—adding yourself to the coverage map is voluntary, and so far only 62 percent of the preorders have bothered.) Still, I like how the more units Iotera can sell in an area, the better coverage everyone will have.

The company expects to ship the Iota system in January of 2015. We’ll follow up with a review when we can.

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