Brandon Satrom, Vice President of Experience Engineering for Blues Wireless, sits down with Ryan Chacon to discuss accelerating IoT solutions on this episode of the IoT For All Podcast. Brandon begins by introducing himself, Blues Wireless, and specific use cases and verticals of Blues. He then discusses where companies should put their focus to accelerate the progress of their solution. Ryan and Brandon then talk about roadblocks in connectivity and LoRa based applications. They wrap up the podcast with a high-level conversation around the biggest challenges in the industry for 2022.
Brandon Satrom is the VP of Experience Engineering at Blues Wireless. He is an unabashed lover of IoT, the web, mobile, and an avid tinkerer. Brandon loves to talk about sensors and circuits, microcontrollers, open source, robots, and whatever new shiny tool or technology has distracted him from that other thing he was working on. Before Blues Wireless, Brandon worked as Head of Developer Relations for Particle. He also has a BBA and MIS from Baylor University.
Interested in connecting with Brandon? Reach out on Linkedin!
About Blues Wireless
Blues Wireless exists to be a vital enabler of the 4th industrial revolution. They’re an Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) company that makes embeddable, wireless smart sensor infrastructure and software to enable the mass digitization of commercial products. Blues serve product developers across diverse industries and use cases with a broad range of smart asset tracking and remote monitoring applications. In 2022 they launched the Wi-Fi Notecard to extend the reach of their product into areas where cellular doesn’t fit and are simplifying LoRa with Sparrow, a set of hardware, firmware, and software for building device cluster applications.
Key Questions and Topics from this Episode:
(01:44) Introduction to Brandon and Blues Wireless
(04:43) Use cases/verticals of Blues Wireless
(06:44) Areas of focus to accelerate solutions
(13:08) Roadblocks in connectivity
(16:27) LoRa based applications
(20:16) Biggest IoT Challenges in 2022
– [Voice Over] You are listening to the IoT For All Media Network.
– [Ryan] Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of the IoT For All Podcast, the number one publication and resource for the internet of things. I’m your host, Ryan Chacon and on today’s episode, we have a fantastic guest, we have the VP of Experience Engineering at Blues Wireless, Brandon Satrom, here to talk about a lot of very exciting things. To give you a little background on Blues Wireless, for those of you who may be not familiar, they are an Industrial Internet of Things company, focused on making embeddable wireless, smart sensor infrastructure and software, who enable the mass digitalization of commercial products. They serve product developers across a number of industries and number of use cases with a broad range of smart asset tracking and remote monitoring applications. This conversation’s fantastic. We talk about the importance of helping companies accelerate their IoT solution and their adoption to make things more of a reality now than ever before. Talk about cellular versus Wi-Fi. We talk about LoRa and LoRaWAN and kind of what they are, what the difference is. We talk about roadblocks for developers when it comes to different connectivity technologies. And we also talked just at a high level, different challenges that Blues Wireless is seeing, kind of in different areas of IoT, as it connects a lot to more of the connectivity side of things, but in a general sense, we talk about some really good points there. So I think you’ll find a lot of value out of this episode, but before we get into it, if any of you out there are looking to enter the fast growing and profitable IoT market, but don’t know where to start, check out our sponsor Leverege. Leverege’s IoT solutions development platform provides everything you need to create turnkey IoT products that you can white label and resell under your own brand. To learn more, go to iotchangeseverything.com. That’s iotchangeseverything.com. And without further ado, please enjoy this episode of the IoT For All Podcast. Welcome Brandon to the IoT For All Podcast. Thanks for being here this week.
– [Brandon] Yeah, thanks for having me, Ryan.
– [Ryan] Yeah, looking forward to this conversation. Let’s kick it off by having you give a quick introduction about yourself to our audience.
– [Brandon] Okay. So my name is Brandon Satrom and I’m the Vice President of Experience Engineering at Blues Wireless and Blues is a Industrial Internet of Things company that makes embeddable wireless, smart sensor infrastructure services and software to enable the mass digitization of commercial products and so we have been in existence since 2018 and are primarily focused on helping accelerate developers and companies that are looking at bringing some of the ever future promise of IoT into reality.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. And how long has the company been around for? What’s the backstory about it?
– [Brandon] Yeah, so the company was started in 2018 and it was started actually by Ray Ozzie and so Ray is a longtime software entrepreneur and has done, you know, stints in Lotus, created Lotus Notes back in the eighties, worked at Microsoft as Chief Scientist and Chief Technology Officer in the early 2000s. And after he left Microsoft, he joined the nonprofit Safecast that was formed in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in April of 2011. And as a result of working with that team, I mean he joined primarily to help them on the cloud side ’cause it was just sort of on the, at the end of his time working, incubating the Azure project, but he also got really deep into the hardware side of things as well, and really learned firsthand how painful bringing an IoT product to market can be. The ultimate goal of the team was to build a radiation detection system that you could drop into the exclusion zone in Fukushima and only have access to once a year. And so they were trying to deal with situations like what their connectivity would be, they explored LoRa and LoRaWAN, they looked at cellular infrastructure, they looked at low power, Wi-Fi, and it really, you know, as many of us have experienced firsthand, it was a very meandering journey to really experience sort of the pain and thorny parts of the IoT space, before he finally helped them incubate a few of their first products and then decided to form a company out of it and we were really, Blues was started with this idea that a cellular IoT did not need to be as developer hostile as it was in those days. And so, you know, Ray really worked to build our first product, the Notecard, and the Notecard is built around this idea that you can purchase a cellular IoT device that isn’t priced like a mini cell phone plan, like a lot of the products were previously. It’s priced as a device that the hardware includes everything that you need. It’s got the connectivity baked in, you’re not paying monthly fees and any of that kind of stuff, and so that was really the genesis of how we came to be.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. So I know you kind of alluded to this when we were giving the intro about the company, but any particular verticals or industries that you focus on, any use cases you’re happy, you’d be more comfortable sharing, kind of with our audience to talk about kind of how you all are working with organizations?
– [Brandon] Yeah. Yeah. I think the biggest ones would be asset tracking and condition monitoring. And those are kind of generic terms, but we have a lot of customers that are using this because the design center of the Notecard is not just cellular developer friendly cellular, but a low power cellular device, which I think can still be seen as a bit of a misnomer. But we have a product that draws as few as eight micro amps when it is idle and when it’s active, when it’s on, you’ve got both cellular and GPS access from the device and so we have a lot of customers that have taken that and taken some of the boards that we build around that as complimentary pieces, and have deployed not only mobile asset trackers, but fixed asset trackers for anti-theft use cases. As well as those that have taken, that is the baseline when doing condition monitoring applications. And one of the things that we really like about our model is that because we try to be, what we refer to the device, the hardware device in our cloud services, a device to cloud data pump, you can use any sensors, any microcontrollers that you wish, and you can route your data to any cloud service and so we really just try to be this secure middle to your application. So if a customer has an existing application or existing unit in a fridge or in an industrial machine, it’s really easy to tie us into that ecosystem, without having to re-spin everything about that machine or everything about the technology behind it. And then on the other side, if you’re a customer that’s already working with Azure or AWS or whatever it may be, we can very easily plug into that infrastructure and so, we really just wanted to sit in that middle piece of the puzzle and allow customers to actually be able to get things online quickly.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. So you’re really helping companies accelerate their IoT solutions and I think that’s an important thing that maybe we can kind of talk about here for a second, is why that matters so much if, as an industry, were to reach these projections that the analysts have been putting on the IoT space for so many years and that’s actually one of the reasons we started IoT For All, which is to help educate people on what IoT is and we felt that in order for adoption to increase, to reach that potential, people needed to understand what IoT was and how it would benefit the business, right? So where do you see the biggest areas of focus that are needed by organizations to help people accelerate their solutions? Whether it’s talking about, from a developer side, talking about the different ways they can adopt, and how to kind of navigate that or how to get out of, you know, the pilot purgatory people talk about into scale? Like what are some of the areas that you are consistently thinking about and focusing your efforts on and think they’re just important for people to really be conscious of?
– [Brandon] Yeah, it’s a great question. And acceleration is a word that we use a ton, so I’m glad that you used it as well. I mean, we recognize that, you know, in best cases, projections of most IoT projects taking between two to five years to go from concept to reality. And that’s just those of the, you know, even with that 75% tend to take twice as long as planned. And so we recognize that there’s a lot of steps along the way where projects end up getting bogged down and the more a project gets bogged down early, the more likely it is that someone that owns the budget is gonna look at it and say, well, maybe this actually wasn’t worth it after all. And a lot of that tends to get- the slowdown tends to happen early on, when developers are working with a product. And a couple of the reasons for that, are just things like how difficult it is to acquire a device, or if you have to prototype on a different technology stack and then ultimately switch over to cellular, to LoRa, to LoRaWAN, something along those lines. And so we’ve really focused on trying to make our core product as easy as possible for a developer to get started with. A lot of the prior state of the art, with cellular IoT especially, was that you had to understand AT commands and do a lot of very manual work in, you know, pulling out your old Hayes command set manual from the eighties and doing all the manual work of talking to the cellular module to get it online. And so we really wanted to abstract a lot of that away into a developer friendly API that anyone could use and so our product, the Notecard, the way that developers speak to it is with JSON commands. It takes JSON requests and sends JSON responses. The advantage that that gives developers is that you can pick up the product easier, use it, it’s much more understandable to get started with. And then when it comes to working with an SDK it’s language agnostic, right? Anything that can actually print strings can work with the Notecard. And so- Everything from an 8-bit Arduino to some of the beefiest, single board computers out there, if you’re building your first prototype for IoT, really it’s, use your microcontroller of choice, using the SB32, using Arduino, use a Raspberry Pi. You can get started with any of those and use that module. But beyond that, one of the things that we have observed, and this is where the acceleration piece really comes in is that many hardware centric companies, ourselves included, tend to get very fixated on the products that we create. We tend to love to bandy about our hardware, our cords, how great those things are. And when a developer or when a product owner comes to, you know, our site or another company’s site, they’re really trying to solve a problem, they wanna see a solution. They don’t have the same fixation on hardware that we tend to. And so what we’ve been trying to do is really think through, you know, you give a customer a vanilla dev kit and they’ll say, “Oh, this is great. What, you know, what can this thing do?” And we’ll say, “Anything you want.” And then they’ll turn around and say, “Okay, can I use it to monitor shipping containers?” And we’ll say, “Yeah, absolutely. You can.” And they’ll say, “Okay, well, how do I do that?” And we’ll say, “Well go to our docs.” And we don’t say anything about monitoring shipping containers, we have very generic terminology that anyone can use, right? So what we are trying to do is really think more about how we can work with customers that have a use case in mind, right? Whether it’s asset tracking, like I mentioned already. So we have a ton of resources on our site, focused on building asset trackers and we have even versions of our product that you can use without putting on a host and deploy a low power cellular asset tracker in minutes. And we have other examples of it as well, but really going closer to a customer’s actual solution, so thinking about things like device cluster applications, condition monitoring, and what have you, and really showing customers, showing developers, showing product owners that the IoT is not just about this generic hardware fixation, but like you said, Ryan, that it’s closer to actually what it means, how it can help you solve a problem, all the way from the hardware on the cloud services side. And that I think’s another important piece. I think one of the undervalued pieces of our space is that when a customer is trying to solve a problem, really what they’re thinking about is how they’re monitoring that device on the other end, whether it’s the web dashboard or remote control command center. They want that in their cloud app, they want it in some web app or some mobile app that then allows them to make a decision or to take action. And the hardware is so distantly removed, it’s an essential starting point, but that’s not the ultimate end goal. And so when we talk about acceleration, a lot of it is about not just on that starting point, but helping customers really envision all the way to the end of what they’re ultimately deploying and what that product looks like when it goes live.
– [Ryan] Yeah. I think it’s interesting to think about what companies are providing, kind of out of the box, if you will, what does that look like? Right? What’s all included in that? And then how does it differentiate between kind of a dev kit type feel, to an actual solution and- What I’ve found a lot of success in, through talking with companies, is working from the use case backwards. Through the conversation, because to your point, yes, these are developers who understand technology, get excited by technology, but oftentimes they need something that works. They care about the technology to a point, but they don’t care enough as, or say, they don’t care as much as potentially the people creating it. They care more about, do I have the right technology to solve my problem, to apply to this use case and attain the ROI that we’re looking for and not, you know, overkill connectivity, which then over kills price and things like that. So when you do talk with companies and let’s say we get into the connectivity conversation for a second, and they’re talking about, let’s say cellular versus Wi-Fi versus other types of connectivity, what are those kind of, from a developer standpoint at least, what are the common roadblocks they come across when you have these different connectivity options and what do those conversations kinda look like?
– [Brandon] One of the roadblocks I think tends to be what, some of it is developer perception in terms of what they have available or what they need to use in order to get started. You know, I mentioned previously, one of the prior roadblocks that we saw in the cellular space, was that when you were pricing cellular IoT devices, like many cell phone data plans, many developers would be resistant to even building an initial prototype on something, knowing that you’re starting the clock on a $5 a month payment. You know, many developers that are starting in this space are either doing so on their own time, they’re doing it because their company asked them to, they may have a very limited budget in terms of what they’re first trying to prototype. And so they would tend to choose other options, whether it’s Wi-Fi, an ESP32 or a different dev kit from the same company or something along those lines. But that always created this problem in the future where you know you’re gonna have to switch connectivity and you can think, well, if you’re working with the same base technology, maybe it’s not a big deal. But the reality is that any of us that have done this before know that when you’re switching, there’s different considerations, right? When you’re going from Wi-Fi to cellular, you have to have considerations about what your, you know, network latency looks like, what it takes like, what it looks like to find that first cell tower connection once you deploy that product in the field. Your expectations around when the device shows up in the cloud are different for Wi-Fi versus cellular and so a lot of it for developers is just making sure that when they’re choosing that option, and a lot of times where, where we’re very, you know, we’re a wireless company, we focus on cellular, now we have a Wi-Fi product, but we really believe that wireless connectivity across the board is what matters most. The developers should be and companies should be able to choose the technology that fits the use case. If it’s Wi-Fi, because of where you’re located versus cellular in a rural case or versus LoRa and LoRaWAN given, you know, given the penetration of LoRaWAN nodes in a certain geo or location or something along those lines, we believe, you know, rather than perpetuating topology war is we really believe that choosing the right tool for the job is the important piece and so that’s the starting point, you know, is for developers to understand or to think through, am I gonna bet everything on cellular for this application? Or do I need to have a mix of cellular and Wi-Fi? You know, we launched a Wi-Fi product a couple of months ago, a Wi-Fi version of our Notecard, because we wanted customers to have the choice on the same, you know, the same ultimate application for deployment that you could have nodes that are on cellular in a project and nodes that are on Wi-Fi. It was really based on what the unique needs were for that application at that point in time. And so- I think that’s a big piece. Really thinking through connectivity and not just picking a solution because we’re enamored with it, but picking it because it actually fits. The deployment use case, you know, the data requirements, the security requirements, all those different pieces.
– [Ryan] Yeah, the ROI, everything that kind of plays into their decision and ability to scale this efficiently. So, you mentioned LoRa a little bit there, so I’d be curious to get your thoughts on kind of LoRa, LoRaWAN applications or LoRa based applications, if you will, how have you kinda seen those evolve? Like, are there, I imagine there’s some kind of complexity when it comes to that, we are talking about cellular Wi-Fi here, but you mentioned LoRa, so I wanted to dig in there a little bit more.
– [Brandon] Yeah. LoRa is really fascinating. It’s a technology that we of course have paid a ton of attention to and, you know, we’re big fans and proponents of folks like The Things Network and other companies that are working in that space and we, and I’ve done some playing with LoRa and LoRaWAN as well and I think one of the biggest challenges that many developers see, and this is definitely something that Ray saw in the early days of working with the Safecast team is that, you know, if you are in a place where you have LoRaWAN penetration, because of gateways that exist in a geography, LoRa is a really low cost solution for you to jump into, right? But if you’re in a place where you don’t already have that penetration, your startup cost is not only the nodes, but also the gateway itself. It is that ultimate device for backhaul that you’re building and so it adds to the cost and complexity. Now in places like a lot of mainland Europe, that’s becoming less of a concern because there is better network penetration there than there is in places like the United States where the cell networks, the mobile operator cell networks are still sort of the best, regardless of where you are in the US and it varies from one provider to the next, but that’s still sort of the best network coverage to get something online and cloud connected, in the near term. But one of the things that we have looked at, is, again, because it’s about sort of choosing the right tool for the job, is there are lots of use cases where LoRa actually compliments Wi-Fi and cellular quite well. And you’ll see this in many cases, most LoRa gateways have some sort of backhaul to Wi-Fi, ethernet or cellular, of course. That’s the thing that gets the ultimate, gets the ultimate application online. And so we’re actually doing this, and I mentioned earlier about accelerating based on use cases and one of the things that we’ve been working on in the last couple of months, and we’ve just are in the early phases of a customer beta on, is a product that we call Sparrow, which is a device cluster application product. It’s based around the Notecard, but it’s actually a set of LoRa devices that can actually operate as nodes and ultimately a gateway when connected to the Notecard. It’s not a LoRaWAN solution. It’s very specifically LoRa solution where we re-implemented the Mac on the firmware side and then use the Notecard for backhaul. But the ultimate idea is to give a customer the answer to the problem of, you know, if I’m trying to put a, if I need to put a module in every device, whether it’s cellular or Wi-Fi, now my bomb cost has gotten crazy and I’m just trying to connect smoke detectors. And for those types of customers that, you know, adding $50 or $25 to their bomb, is ridiculous. It’s not something that’s gonna be tenable. And so we’ve had customers that we’re working with along the space of building device cluster applications, where ultimately they wanna have a number of low-cost sensors, but not every single one of those things needs to have a radio. It can, you know, those things can all use LoRa to talk to a single gateway device that then handles the backhaul. And that’s actually something that we’re working on now, and it’s again, built around that idea of LoRa is a great solution for those customers because the chips are so cheap because it’s very easy to build a nice, you know, add that into your smoke detector, into another low cost device without completely blowing the bomb cost out of the water. And that’s where, so we think about technologies like LoRa, for us, it’s, you know, not about solution-ism, but about looking to that place of like, this is a great technology that fits this use case perfectly, and that’s where we can help sort of steer our products and steer helping customers accelerate their own solutions.
– [Ryan] Yeah. Makes total sense. Before we wrap up here, I wanted to ask you just kinda one kind of higher level question, as far as the, as we look at the industry as a whole in 2022, where do you think the biggest challenges lie for us as an industry, or if you wanna take a particular kind of angle to it, that’s totally fine. But just talk about some of the challenges you’re seeing in how we can approach on overcoming them, or our listeners can be thinking about how to overcome them or advice for kind of working through it.
– [Brandon] We have to speed up. I mean, the biggest thing, especially within the first 90 days of a solution, I’m a big believer that the more success that you can help customers have with their first 90 days of an IoT effort, the more likely they are to succeed. And so a lot of that is, I mentioned already, talking about things like accelerating through, you know, something beyond the dev kit or through resources, but it’s gonna be different for every company. But I think we all, we’re all working in this space because we still believe in the 50 billion or more devices. We still want Masa Son to be right about a trillion devices in the cam brain explosion in the next 20 years. Like we want those things to be true. We believe in the potential of connecting everything and a lot of that comes down to just focusing on helping unblock developers, helping unblock product owners early on in that process. For some companies, it may be helping sell the business case. For some like us, it may be just removing that complexity and focusing on simplicity in the early part of the application process. And I think that the more that we can all collectively focus on that, the more we’ll start to see these use cases unlock and billions upon billions of devices start to come online.
– [Ryan] Yeah, definitely an exciting time.
– [Brandon] Yeah.
– [Ryan] I think, there are a lot of things we’ve been working through and we’ve found, you know, better solutions for, and the use cases are growing. We’re seeing more companies adopt and I think all that combined will just start to really ramp up the belief that IoT can do what it was promised to do for a lot of these companies who have been holding out. So- So this has been a fantastic conversation. Brandon, thanks so much for taking the time. For our audience out there listening, who wants to learn a bit more, kind of get a sense of what’s going on over at the company, as well as stay in touch with anything new coming out, what’s the best way to do that?
– [Brandon] Check us out at blues.io. You can check out our developer portal at dev.blues.io, but, you know, check that as well and of course, we’re also, you know, we love being partners and supporters of IoT For All, so we have a ton of resources on IoT For All website as well.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. And anything exciting new coming out in the near future we should be on the lookout for?
– [Brandon] The big one is Sparrow, like I mentioned already, if you check out our website, by the time this episode comes out, we should have more information about that product and there’ll be lots to learn about there.
– [Ryan] Awesome. Well, Brandon, thanks again for your time, we really appreciate it.
– [Brandon] Thanks, Ryan. Appreciate it.
– [Ryan] All right, everyone. Thanks again for watching that episode of the IoT For All Podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please click the thumbs up button, subscribe to our channel and be sure to hit the bell notifications so you get the latest episodes as soon as they become available. Other than that, thanks again for watching and we’ll see you next time.