Tech within the wild: Seattle-area startup Thingy will take a look at Amazon Sidewalk to attach distant sensors

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Thingy AQ provides information to first responders in wildfires. (Thingy Photo via Amazon)

Scott Waller is a former Cisco and Microsoft systems engineer and network architect who was inspired by his experience as a volunteer firefighter and avalanche instructor to launch an Internet of Things startup.

Thingy LLC, based in Bellevue, Wash., develops and integrates systems of environmental sensors that assess different aspects of air quality to provide vital information to farmers, firefighters and others.

Waller and Thingy co-founder Andrew Smallridge knew they were onto something when they were awarded $25,000 in the EPA’s Wildland Fire Sensors Challenge in 2018. Working out of a garage for six months, they came in second only to a Carnegie Mellon University team that had been developing its technology for years.

After leaving Cisco in 2019, Waller now runs Thingy as CEO. The startup generates funding from research grants, and revenue from building and integrating systems of sensors for a variety of customers. The settings range from vineyards to mountainsides, but there’s one challenge that’s common to almost all of them.

“Connectivity is hard when you’re in the middle of nowhere,” Waller said.

That’s one reason Waller is interested in Amazon’s expansion of its Sidewalk network. Thingy was one of two partners highlighted by the tech giant in its announcement last week of the new Sidewalk Bridge Pro by Ring, a commercial hub designed to extend the Sidewalk network beyond neighborhoods into more urban and remote settings. (Arizona State University was the other.)

Scott Waller with a Thingy system at a vineyard, one of the common applications for the company’s technology. (Photo courtesy of Scott Waller)

Thingy’s proof-of-concept will use the Sidewalk Bridge Pro to provide connectivity to its air quality monitoring devices that can predict wildland and bush fires, and provide data to first responders.

“Given the limitations of Wi-Fi and cellular data in these areas, Thingy will begin testing with Amazon Sidewalk Bridge Pro using LoRa (Long Range) telemetry to transmit data to and from Thingy AQ,” Amazon said in its announcement. “This effort is expected to significantly increase connectivity for Thingy AQ and help protect public lands, homes, vineyards, and farms from catastrophic damage.”

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Amazon’s larger goal is to use Sidewalk Bridge Pro to extend the neighborhood network that the company created with the launch of Sidewalk last year.

In its current neighborhood incarnation, Sidewalk uses Amazon customers’ Echo devices as connection points to create a neighborhood network for devices such as outdoor lights and pet trackers. Ring and Echo devices are opted-in to the network by default, which has been a subject of some controversy. (Here’s how to opt out.)

Sidewalk Bridge Pro promises not only to expand the network for the commercial users who deploy it, but also for individual users taking advantage of those consumer applications and devices. For example, if a dog wearing a Sidewalk-compatible tracker gets lost in a park or a forest where the Bridge Pro has been deployed, the network would allow the dog to be located in those settings, as well.

Why not just use a cellular network? Even in places where reliable cell service is available, the cost can be prohibitive, Waller explained.

“When you’re dealing with scientists, and environmental monitoring, or you’re dealing with agriculture, and farmers that just want simple technology to gather some insights, they don’t want to spend a ton of money on a platform. They just want you to solve their problem,” Waller said.

For potential commercial users, another advantage with Sidewalk is its connection to Amazon Web Services IoT and other widely used cloud services from the Seattle tech company, he explained.

Amazon’s new Sidewalk Bridge Pro by Ring. (Amazon Photo)

However, the proprietary nature of Amazon’s implementation is a potential hurdle to widespread adoption. Amazon went with a private version of LoRa for Sidewalk rather than the collaborative LoRaWAN specification.

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Another wild card will be the cost of the Sidewalk Bridge Pro, which Amazon has not yet announced. The device has yet to receive FCC approval, and it’s not yet for sale.

This is not a solution for rural broadband. IoT devices commonly send and receive small packets of data, not high-resolution images, videos or other large files associated with traditional home or work Internet usage.

One intriguing possibility would be for Amazon to deploy the Sidewalk Bridge Pro or some variation at its fulfillment centers and distribution hubs, extending the network for others in the process. The company hasn’t given any public indication that it plans to do this, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine.

Even as he partners with Amazon on the proof-of-concept, Waller is keeping his eyes and his options open, knowing that there ultimately won’t be only one way to connect devices.

“Sustainability, environmental monitoring, and solving connectivity is hard,” he said. “Sidewalk’s just one method. Tomorrow I’m talking with satellite folks.”

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