People Counter Update: Many Obstacles, Much Learning

Way back in Feb­ru­ary of 2022, I wrote a Heli­um Foun­da­tion grant to deploy peo­ple coun­ters on a trail here in San Diego. The grant was approved, I used the first tranche to buy the devices, and then ran into a series of obsta­cles that are com­mon enough in this world of busi­ness, IoT, and inter­ac­tion with var­i­ous local gov­ern­ments that it’s worth shar­ing them.

If you want to go back in time and read about the ini­tial process, that post on the begin­nings of the peo­ple counter project is here.

As we wind up the year (2022), let’s run through the main issues along with the solu­tions (or lack there­of). We’ll kick it off with “inter­act­ing with local governments”.

The whole idea for the peo­ple counter came from doing a fair amount of hik­ing on one of San Diego’s more famous­ly dif­fi­cult trails, the El Cajon Moun­tain trail. If you do the whole thing it’s a lit­tle under an 11 mile round trip with a few thou­sand feet of gain. Almost none of it is flat, and almost all of it is out in the sun with no shade pro­tec­tion at all.

From 30,000 feet (thanks Google Earth!) it looks like this:

Here’s the ele­va­tion view, just to give you an idea of what hik­ers attempt on this. There’s 2,100′ ele­va­tion dif­fer­ent between the trail­head and the peak, and when you get to the top, well, you’re only halfway through!

Now, in 2022 I’ve watched 2 heli­copter res­cues and assist­ed in the evac­u­a­tion of one hik­er. I KNOW this trail is a chal­lenge both for hik­ers and for the coun­ty rangers who watch over it. Know­ing how many peo­ple attempt it, what the traf­fic load is on the trail, where most res­cues hap­pen vs how far most peo­ple get all seemed like valu­able infor­ma­tion to me. When I pro­posed the project to the local ranger, he agreed. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I did­n’t get that agree­ment in writing.

Of the mul­ti­ple chal­lenges I faced in get­ting these set up, the first one was what killed it: I only got a ver­bal con­fir­ma­tion from the rangers that they want­ed the project. While they were excit­ed about it, their super­vi­sors weren’t. I haven’t been able to sort out exact­ly what the prob­lem was, but it’s some­where between a recent coun­ty ban on all “sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy” (which these peo­ple coun­ters look like but are specif­i­cal­ly not as they use LIDAR, not cam­eras, so no iden­ti­fy­ing fea­tures are col­lect­ed) and them already hav­ing a plan to deploy peo­ple coun­ters. As of late Dec 2022, I’ve only seen one peo­ple counter on that trail, and it’s at mile mark­er 1, pic­tured below. There may be more that I’m missing.

Either way, not hav­ing per­mis­sion to deploy along the major­i­ty of the trail was the first big blow. I’ve writ­ten about sur­veil­lance tech and gov­ern­ments more over here but it left me with a bunch of trail coun­ters and only a few miles of trail (the pri­vate land part) to deploy. 

The trip into the pri­vate land adds about 100′ of gain and a mile to the round trip. Still, that does­n’t appear to stop inquis­i­tive folks from going down the trail clear­ly marked “No tres­pass­ing”. I see boot prints on the path there every time I vis­it. The own­ers of the land are still on board with deploy­ing peo­ple coun­ters, which gives me about a mile to work with to find out how far down the path peo­ple are going. Are they 30 sec­ond inquisi­tors, or are they hardier? How often does it hap­pen? Is it some­thing worth devel­op­ing a strat­e­gy for, or just worth it to keep an eye on?

So, that brings us up to speed on the first major obsta­cle, which is permission. 

The sec­ond obsta­cle was, fun­ni­ly enough, Heli­um cov­er­age. The places I’d select­ed for Hotspots have an incred­i­ble view of what is prob­a­bly hun­dreds of Hotspots across the greater San Diego area, but when I placed the very first peo­ple counter in a test run, the sig­nal strength its anten­na was pick­ing up was too weak to reli­ably trans­mit data!

That seemed odd to me, as I’d test­ed the loca­tion with a GLAMOS using the includ­ed 0 dBi anten­na and it seemed fine. What I had­n’t count­ed on was how weak the anten­na in the device would actu­al­ly be. While it’s rat­ed at 1.2 dBi, the Molex 105262 patch anten­na installed in the peo­ple counter was show­ing far worse per­for­mance in practice. 

So, les­son num­ber two: Make sure you test your loca­tion with the same anten­na your device will use. Seems obvi­ous in hind­sight, right?

This brings us to the last obsta­cle, which is get­ting the thing to actu­al­ly work. In broad strokes, any use­ful LoRa sys­tem includes a device that sends its data some­where, decodes that data, and then dis­plays that data some­where in a use­ful man­ner. Con­cep­tu­al­ly it’s pret­ty easy to under­stand, but the details can be tricky. Every net­work, from Senet to TTN (The Things Net­work) to Actil­i­ty to ones you’ve nev­er heard of like Ven­tia or Axa­tel, all have a way of doing this.

Those meth­ods are all pret­ty sim­i­lar, but in the case of the Para­met­ric devices there were two fac­tors mak­ing for a chal­leng­ing obsta­cle. First, Para­met­ric is based out of Switzer­land and focused (as far as I can tell) only on Europe. This means they don’t real­ly have sup­port or inter­est in devices in the US. Sec­ond, they seem to only work on TTN devices. This is fine if you’re in Europe and using TTN, but… I’m in Amer­i­ca. And I’m using Helium. 🙂

Now, this is not to say that no sup­port has been pro­vid­ed by Para­met­ric. Sascha Jäck­le, a man­ag­ing part­ner and head of busi­ness devel­op­ment, has helped out over email with pro­vid­ing some guid­ance on how to get these thing work­ing. It looks like they launched the Peo­ple Counter as a prod­uct in late 2019, worked on it through 2020, then more or less for­got about it until I ordered them. Then they did 40% of all firmware updates in the last 9 months of 2022.

It’s safe to say Para­met­ric is now aware of Heli­um and acknowl­edges that the mar­ket for devices that eas­i­ly work on the Heli­um net­work is big­ger than they ini­tial­ly thought. Still, it took a group of US based IoT enthu­si­asts in a chan­nel I host on the GK Dis­cord to actu­al­ly bang their heads against the thing long enough to get the whole flow to actu­al­ly work. The final piece on our end, a ful­ly oper­a­tional decoder, took until late Decem­ber of 2022 to solve.

Now, it’s not like this group was work­ing 40 hours a week on it; this was a vol­un­teer effort at odd hours of the day, when they had time, by folks like @grayhatguy, @tteague, @nickytheblade, @rw4k, @falconpunch, and @.eddie E on Discord. 

There are still a last few issues to solve with these things. The new 4.0 ver­sion of firmware released by Para­met­ric in Sep­tem­ber of 2022 has a few bugs yet. All but one of the devices are delet­ing their own APPEUI and APPKEY, mak­ing them unuse­able until that’s fixed. Still, we’ve made progress, and I’m look­ing for­ward to get­ting these deployed and test­ing in the field by the end of the first quar­ter in 2023.

That should catch you up to speed on the Peo­ple Counter project. The big take­aways for me were:
-If you’re doing any­thing with a bureaucracy/government, get it in writ­ing.
-run­ning a LoRa based project with­out an engi­neer­ing back­ground is still too big of a lift to be prac­ti­cal
-the best of this entire IoT sys­tem is yet to come. I think we’ll mas­sive gains in 2023 as all of the var­i­ous devel­op­ment efforts begin to bear fruit, but it might not be until the third or fourth quarter.

In the mean­time, I’ll keep plug­ging away at this grant project until I’ve com­plet­ed it to the best of my abil­i­ty. I’ve sent off 3 peo­ple coun­ters to tech­ni­cal experts in my “IoT Sup­port Group”. Four will be deployed onto the trail, and 1 remains at my home test site. That leaves me with a few more to place any­where in the US915 area, so…if you’re read­ing this and want to par­tic­i­pate in a Peo­ple Counter project that helps spread the word about Heli­um and use­ful­ly con­tributes to solv­ing a peo­ple counter prob­lem, let’s take every­thing I’ve learned so far and put it to work for you!

As always, the goal here is to help as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble learn from our shared expe­ri­ence and con­tin­u­al­ly devel­op a bet­ter under­stand­ing of our world.

Rock on!


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