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Review: The Iota – a tiny bike tracker with huge potential

Posted by on February 17th, 2017 at 7:54 am

Size is just one reason this product has potential.
(Photos: Bryan Hance/The Bike Index)

BikePortland subscriber and resident bike theft expert Bryan Hance from The Bike Index checked out the Iota Tracker with an eye towards bike tracking, DIY hacking, and more.

We field a lot of questions about ‘bike trackers’ at the Bike Index – everybody wants a small, affordable GPS tracker for their bike. Sounds like a simple request; but many people are surprised to learn a product like this doesn’t exist yet.

There are a few basic reasons why trackers aren’t as great as you think:

Size/hideability — It is hard to disguise a tracker so thieves can’t instantly find it. And having something that uses several antennas (GPS and cellular) means they aren’t easily hidden – nor are they very small.

Reliance on cellular — Most trackers use the cellular network to report their location, which means most trackers are 50% cell phone parts – and means paying for cell data, supporting a SIM card, having a hefty battery, etc.

Power — Because of #2, power is an issue. Nobody wants to constantly have to charge a tracker, but once you’ve gone with cellular there’s really no way around this. Talking to the cell network takes a fair amount of power, end of story.

For a while I was excited about the low-power bluetooth trackers – especially the ‘crowd tracking’ capabilities, but my own tests with these have been disappointing. And while there are a lot of smart people out there working in the bike-tracking space, most of them are just pending Kickstarters with no real product on the market.

The Iota Tracker – a totally different approach

The Iota Tracker really piqued my interest – yes, it’s a GPS tracker, but it doesn’t use the cellular network. Instead, Iota uses RF frequencies and a ‘community network’ of tiny base stations to report its position.

This completely upends the equation I listed above, eliminating problems #1 and #3 by getting rid of #2. The results is a small, versatile tracker with a significantly longer battery life.

Iota has been mostly focused on pet and child tracking, but there’s obviously a lot of potential here for tracking bikes. After a week of tests with my hands on an Iota, I see a whole lot of potential for bike tracking – and hackability.

The Iota Network

Current Iota coverage map for Portland. Not great, but it will improve as more trackers plug into the network.


Just to recap how Iota’s tracking works:

Iota users get a small ‘base station‘ to install for local coverage – Iota’s website base stations cover ‘up to 12 blocks from your home’ but as with all things RF-related, your mileage may vary – especially in dense urban environments. Think of it like the original cordless phones – remember how much range you could get with some of those? Same thing applies here.

San Francisco’s coverage map.

All the Iota base stations in a location form a patchwork ‘blanket’ of coverage, so when your Iota leaves your home station’s coverage it can still report in via someone else’s base station. It’s basically like a baby cellphone network – but dedicated to tracking.

You can see the current coverage map on Iota’s site – Iota is based in the Bay Area, so the San Francisco coverage map is very dense, while Portland is a little patchier. Yes, Iota’s coverage network is still being built – customer by customer – but you can see that it wouldn’t take many more to blanket a town like Portland.

Bluetooth backup: The Iota also does ‘crowdsourced Bluetooth tracking’, meaning that if someone near your Iota is running the Iota app, it’ll report its position that way – instead of using the base stations. This is how most of the small trackers already on the market operate, but it’s totally dependent on that nearby cellphone to be running the app, and typically only gets a few dozen feet of range under even the best of conditions.

The tracker

First impression? The Iota tracker is small. Really small, as you can see here. At 1.75in x .5 x 1in , the Iota looks and feels like a small domino. And it weight about as much as a AAA battery.

Speaking of batteries, I’ve had this tracker for over two weeks now and I’ve only used half the battery life. Iota promises ‘weeks’ of battery life, which, compared to everything else available in the tracking sphere, is a huge improvement.

There’s a small USB adapter provided for charging the Iota, via two small charging points on the back of the tracker. Some folks have already used an adaptor to provide perpetual power.

The app, tracking, and real-world tests

Iotas are tracked via an app, and there’s the usual set of tracking options you would expect, such as: current location; live tracking; location history; ‘ring’ – makes the Iota tracker emit a beep; geofencing – receive an alert it the tracker leaves a certain area; motion alerts – receive an alert it the tracker is moved/jostled; signal/gps/battery strength.

You can also ‘share’ your Iota’s location and data with another Iota user, and they can view, track, beep and operate a shared Iota just like it is their own.

The app also handles ‘out-of-range’ scenarios well: If your Iota’s out of range, you can set the app to alert you when it pops up again.

If you’re like me, your bike-tracking ‘spidey sense’ should be tingling by now …

I carried an Iota around for a week, testing it out its range and trackability – I’d walk various parts of Portland and test the locate, track, and beep functions, just to get an idea of how well the Iota worked in real-world scenarios.

The results? Pretty good – sometimes surprisingly good. Case in point: Even while sitting on the bus – surrounded by glass and metal, moving – my Iota was getting ‘hits’ on the network and was trackable.

There’s no coverage in downtown Portland at the moment, but again, judging from the Iota coverage map it looks like Portland could be covered with a fairly small number of new base station additions.

Let’s hack this thing

Speaking of potential … let’s talk hackability for a sec.

The street, as someone once said, finds its own use for things – and bike folks are natural tinkerers. So, I cracked my Iota open with the idea that I’d love to hack one into a more bike-friendly form – camouflaged? Better powered? Sure – let’s see what we have to work with first.

As you can see the Iota’s three tiny parts – circuit board, battery, antennas – are all super small, fairly modular (in the right hands), all begging for some hands-on hacking. That battery could be swapped out for a larger one fairly easily, for example, or powered off of a bike light. Or sandwiched inside a reflector. Those antennas could be worked into a stem cap. In short: Lots of potential here!

Just for the heck of it, and to provide a potential example here – I cannibalized an old bike light, and in about six seconds I had a nicely camouflaged Iota tracker — with lots of room left for spare batteries. Imagine the tracking life we could get out of two AAA’s already inside the light…

Final thoughts

After a week with an Iota, my head’s brimming with ideas: If I had a cargo bike, this would be a no-brainer. I want some hardware-centric friends to try and piggyback extra batteries on one. I’d like to camo one out in black, so it’s not super recognizable. I want to see if I can fit inside my handlebars, antennas fitted into an end cap. I have several acquaintances who have had tool trailers stolen here in Portland – I’d like to try and bake one into a tail light and power it that way. And I want to get some nerdy friends to help build out the network of base station ‘nodes’. The list goes on…

Honestly the Iota hardware is so small that it looks like it could be a huge boost to someone looking to add small, low-power tracking to … well, anything, really. And that’s pretty huge.

The Iota retails for $149 – that’s 1 base station and 1 tracker. Which, admittedly, is a little steep for most folks, but the lack of recurring payments (for phone data) should help smooth that out for people. They aren’t selling individual trackers yet, but I suspect it’s in the pipeline, which would likely drop the price significantly.

Thanks for reading my review. I’m looking forward to watching the Iota network grow both in Portland and across the U.S.

Post submitted through our Subscriber Post service. Also posted at BikeIndex.org.

— Bryan Hance: @stolenbikereg

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41 Comments
  • Curious Bystander February 17, 2017 at 9:06 am

    Do you have higher resolution photos of the internals and the teardown? I’m very curious about the tech that they are using.

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  • Spiffy February 17, 2017 at 9:37 am

    additional trackers are $69…

    http://iotatracker.myshopify.com/products/iota-tracker

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  • Jonathan R February 17, 2017 at 9:40 am

    Great way to keep the authorities informed on your comings and goings; the company maintains your information forever, and it’s subject to subpoena or court order.

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    • Ben Wild February 17, 2017 at 9:42 am

      Jonathan, we delete the information after a few weeks and don’t share it with anyone.
      Best,
      Ben, Iota Tracker

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      • Jonathan R February 17, 2017 at 10:43 am

        Ben, suggest updating your privacy policy to reflect this; when I checked earlier today I found this paragraph:

        If we believe that disclosure is reasonably necessary to comply with a law, regulation, valid legal process (e.g., subpoenas or warrants served on us), or governmental or regulatory request, to enforce or apply the Terms of Service or any terms of sale, to protect the security or integrity of the Service, and/or to protect the rights, property, or safety of Iotera, its employees, users, or others. If we are going to release your data, we will do our best to provide you with notice in advance by email, unless we are prohibited by law from doing so.

        and this:

        “How Long We Save Your Data
        We store your PII for as long as you maintain a Iotera account.”

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        • Ben Wild February 17, 2017 at 10:49 am

          Thanks Jonathan for letting me know about this. I haven’t looked at this in over a year, this definitely needs to be changed.

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    • Spiffy February 17, 2017 at 11:58 am

      most smartphones already allow this type of tracking…

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  • Spiffy February 17, 2017 at 9:44 am

    this looks really cool, especially since it has a GPS… that’s the one thing that most of the low power bluetooth ones don’t have… this way it’ll work even at the edge of a signal…

    doesn’t look like you can set up a fence around your current location though, only around your base… it’d be handy if you could go to a park and designate the tag on your dog to go off if they go over 50′ away…

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  • Glenn February 17, 2017 at 10:24 am

    Looks pretty nice..hack this and put it in Auto’s would be nice too…No cellular fees is a big plus…
    think i might buy a few

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  • momoko saunders February 17, 2017 at 11:13 am

    Someone should tell the manufacturers to give bike shops in town a free base station. That would be a quick way to fill out the mesh network. Also, I’m surprised they don’t make the mobile app itself into a base while the app is in use.

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    • Bryan Hance (The Bike Index)
      Bryan Hance (The Bike Index) February 17, 2017 at 12:32 pm

      They actually do this – ie. while the app’s running, it is looking for local Iota’s and reporting – but over bluetooth. So the range is limited. (A phone can’t be an RF base station for an Iota because of hardware differences, but it can do bluetooth)

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      • Allan Folz February 17, 2017 at 1:24 pm

        That’s pretty cool. Good Samaritan types could ride by homeless camps to see if there are any hits.

        So the trackers are dual-band? 2.4 GHz & 900MHz? A mobile base station that hit the 900MHz band while tethering to one’s phone for an internet uplink sounds cool. Imagine if Trimet outfitted buses with base stations. That would be sweet.

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        • Middle of the Road Guy February 17, 2017 at 2:09 pm

          Why would there be any hits there? 😉

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  • Patrick February 17, 2017 at 11:29 am

    I was one of the Kickstarter backers and have had my Iota for probably close to two years now. I dig it, but I do wish it was the network was more robust here in Portland. I’m about to move apartments and I know exactly what base station is mine on that coverage map, and I can say coverage in Portland is about to get worse when I move (yikes!). If anyone has an office in downtown Portland with, say, an east-facing window and a relatively open wifi network, get in touch… I’d be happy to help get some extra coverage downtown since my base station is about to become pretty redundant.

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  • Ben Wild February 17, 2017 at 11:40 am

    I really want to help get the Portland metro area covered with the network. If anyone lives or knows anyone who lives in one of these tallest buildings in the city:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_tallest_buildings_in_Portland,_Oregon
    I would be happy to work with Bryan Hance at Bike Index to provide deep discounts on the starter kits. From 10th story or higher locations each home base can typically provide more than 3 miles of range.

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  • Scott February 17, 2017 at 11:59 am

    I have been running an iota for several months and it does work well when there is coverage. I’m one of the Mt. Tabor base stations.
    As others have noted, the coverage isn’t great yet. I second the suggestion that Portland bike shops run base stations. That would get downtown covered. It would be nice to get the bike theft hot spots better covered.
    I do wonder whether these will become less useful if they become ubiquitous. The sophisticated thief could quickly find and toss it. You can’t hide them very well and unfortunately can’t put them in seat posts or tubes without killing their range.

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    • Bryan Hance (The Bike Index)
      Bryan Hance (The Bike Index) February 17, 2017 at 12:55 pm

      Your comments re: thieves detecting these is why I tried to go into camouflage and hackability, as the default iota package isn’t super bike centric. But there’s a lot of potential to rework the innards into something more bike-specific, i.e. bike lights etc. or a stem cap

      ps Hello fellow Tabor base station btw 🙂

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  • Lester Burnham February 17, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    I love this. Could really help find those rogue homeless camp/chop shops if your bike ends up in one.

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    • Middle of the Road Guy February 17, 2017 at 2:10 pm

      Lester, I think we all know that the homeless camps just happen to house a greater percentage of cycling aficionados and collectors.

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      • Mossby Pomegranate February 19, 2017 at 5:07 pm

        Sounds like Wheeler is already falling down on the job with the camps. To his credit, who has the answers?

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  • Allan Rudwick February 17, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    Purchase made. Considering trying to store the base @ my brother’s house to increase the coverage in town

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  • Allan Folz February 17, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    Assuming the implementation is solid, I have to say my reservations are around the economics. To my mind you should be selling the trackers for $20 a pop and have given away a bunch of the base stations to strategically located bike shops.

    Partnering with grocery stores and coffee shops would be cool too. You need to land a Kroger or Safeway or Starbucks account!

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    • Allan Folz February 17, 2017 at 1:03 pm

      Spit-balling ideas, but how about unpackaged — circuit board & battery — trackers for $20?

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      • In Trump We Trust February 17, 2017 at 11:08 pm

        Wonder how much it cost to comply with government regulations from the FCC, consumer product safety organizations, etc, so they could legally sell it in the USA?

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  • Kyle Banerjee February 17, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    I like the concept, but if it really takes off, the logical thing for bike thieves to do is disable the devices with taser, jamming, or some other method.

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  • Pete February 17, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    It’s too bad power-hungry Bluetooth has become such a de-facto standard, as there are better wireless mesh technologies with not so expensive a software stack (and certification process), such as https://www.linkedin.com/company/sigfox.

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    • Ben Wild February 17, 2017 at 4:08 pm

      Sigfox unfortunately is not optimized for tracking applications. The battery life will be terrible for a low latency application such as GPS tracking. It also does not support firmware upgrades so if your device ever needs a firmware update you’re in trouble.

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      • Pete February 19, 2017 at 12:35 am

        Thanks Ben. Tempted to get one as there’s lots of coverage here in silly valley.

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  • rsk February 17, 2017 at 6:53 pm

    Wow, I guess nobody in my neck of the suburbs is in on this. Which, since we were burgled, I am convinced the burbs are a paradise for bike thieves.

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    • In Trump We Trust February 22, 2017 at 12:47 pm

      I think it’s a problem everywhere. U-locks and security cameras probably a good solution; better yet keep bike inside house. Security cameras are reasonably priced today – they’ll alert your phone, save video to the internet, etc.

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  • In Trump We Trust February 17, 2017 at 11:16 pm

    Bryan,
    If it’s not confidential, can you give us some idea of development costs plus costs to comply with government regulations, plus cost for IP protection (assuming you have that)? Just curious in case anyone is thinking of inventing & selling a product some day.

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  • Lee March 8, 2017 at 5:30 am

    I contacted Iota (via Facebook Messenger) and asked about a group buy. A 20% discount kicks in with orders of ten or more. Is anyone already working in that direction? If not, is there any interest? I’d be willing to help organise something if nobody else steps up.

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  • Nima March 8, 2017 at 11:17 pm

    Use code ‘homeagain’ and get a $20 discount. Just worked for me. : )

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  • Allan Rudwick March 15, 2017 at 4:51 pm

    If you want to use my referral link and find me I’ll give you $20 after I get creditted http://iotatracker.refr.cc/allanr — comes with $15 off as well

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    • Allan Rudwick March 15, 2017 at 10:14 pm

      Ok nevermind this nonsense. I sent up my link for $55 off — I’m not sure if it comes as $15 and $40 seperately after you purchase or $55 together.

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  • Lee Rimar March 16, 2017 at 4:19 am

    Allen – that link still shows up as $15 off. Nima gave me a “homeagain” code for $20 off. While I appreciate these and do want to get one for myself, I’d really like to improve the network of base stations locally by getting lots of people interested (hence the group buy) offer. I’ll look you up on – Facebook? Nextdoor? LinkedIn? – and maybe we can brainstorm that.

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    • Allan Rudwick March 16, 2017 at 10:06 am

      Hi Lee-

      I set up the thing so that it should credit you $40 after the purchase (i guess)… No one has clicked through after I set it up so I can’t prove that it works. you can find me on FB or twitter @arudwick to chat more

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      • Lee Rimar March 16, 2017 at 11:38 am

        I’ll use your referral link. Jocelyn at Iotera explained how that’s supposed to work when I was asking her about bulk purchases. I left a note on your Facebook page but haven’t been able to get back to you there yet.

        Thanks.

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  • Jean June 26, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    I bought this it worked for less then a week now it can no longer find the base it was a huge waist of money

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    • Ben Wild June 26, 2017 at 2:15 pm

      Hi Jean, really sorry to hear about this. Please email our support team at support@iotera.com and we will get you a replacement or refund.

      Thank you,
      Ben

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