Reports From The Field: Helium In The Wild – Lisbon

On Nov 2nd, my bride Lee & I set off to 4 cities in Europe to conduct a Helium Foundation project called “Helium In The Wild” with three goals.

First, to see how Helium was being used in the wild. Obviously sensor usage isn’t huge yet, and lots of b.s. has been thrown around the interwebz about what is and isn’t happening with it. My gut is that we’re totally and fine and about where I’d expect us to be for a very new and ambitious project, but…

I wanted to meet real people on the ground who are building with Helium and see for myself just how far along it actually is, who’s using it, and how.

Second, to rally local communities together so they could learn, network and grow the Helium ecosystem locally. One of the amazing strengths of all these decentralized projects is that they’re decentralized. Duh. It’s also a weakness, as it can be hard to find focus points where you actually meet other people in real life who are interested in the same things you are.

Third, to show with “boots on the ground” that the Helium Foundation is strongly supporting IoT projects outside of the US. I know, I know, there’s been a ton of news about 5G lately. For those of you A) outside the USA and B) into IoT, it has felt at times as if the Helium project has abandoned IoT. It hasn’t, and part of this project was to demonstrate that.

Our first stop was Lisbon, where Solana Breakpoint was kicking off. We did the flight in two steps; San Diego to London, and London to Lisbon. On the London to Lisbon flight, I’ll estimate about 60% of the passengers were there for Solana. That seemed exciting, as the reason I was starting in Lisbon was to see how much of the Solana ecosystem was building on, in, and around Helium.

As I asked around the airport gate waiting to board the flight to Lisbon (no, I don’t have a problem meeting strangers), what I found was that, while most people had *heard* of Helium, very few knew what it was, what it did, or had any idea of the size of it.

That trend continued throughout my Solana Breakpoint experience. It reinforces (to me) that we’re still super early in this whole thing, and while the move to Solana is a huge deal in the Helium community, it hasn’t really spread as “hot news” throughout the Solana developer community yet.

Now, it’s not the like the very first thing I did was go straight to Solana Breakpoint. I wanted to meet some Helium homies first, and Lisbon is the home base for Hotspotty OGs Daniel and Max. Daniel was the one who walked me through (on YouTube) building my very first Helium Hotspot, back when the DIY program was open. For the record, the DIY program is not open now, but it’s on the roadmap for the future. I’d expect mid to late 2023 at a guess. Ok, back to Lisbon!

Lee & I cruised over to the coffee shop that Daniel used to co-own (before he switched full time to Hotspotty) to meet up with a few other Helium peeps.

Max was at the shop as well, and while we were there, the mappers that RAK Wireless donated as part of support for the tour showed up. Daniel immediately started working to get them set up.

As Daniel started to tear into the mappers, I got to visit with Miroslav Marko, owner of Heliotics, and Charbel Matta, owner of CM7. Both of them are working on building businesses on Helium, and both were in Lisbon to check out Solana Breakpoint and catch up with the Helium community. Meeting these two was a great indication of the current state of building out the IoT side of Helium.

Both are deeply technical, already have a related business, and see the value in a global, permissionless, decentralized network. It was heartening to talk with both of ’em, and along with Max (Hotspotty) and Joey Hiller (Helium Foundation), we spent most of the rest of the day together walking around, sharing a meal, and talking about Helium.

This first day was super encouraging; we were meeting people who were building on and excited about Helium! We spent the next four days checking out Solana Breakpoint, where we definitely didn’t meet as many people who were so deeply involved in Helium. Still, we watched closely as both Nova and the Helium Foundation demonstrated a clear commitment to continue to grow Helium.

Amir spent about half the time talking about IoT, and the other half talking about the 5G plans as well as how the network is readying itself to take on more protocols. I’ve seen a fair amount of “Nova is abandoning IoT” FUD, but pretty clearly that’s not the case.

There were other excellent presentations there that I’ll go deeper into. Let’s start with Abhay Kumar’s. Abhay is the new CEO at the Helium Foundation , and he talked extensively about the move over to Solana.

Abhay spent time explaining what Helium is, which is something we (the community) need to remember is an unfinished task. I’ll skip forward quite a bit here to the lessons learned at the last stop on the tour, Barcelona, where I found that most people in the Smart Cities space have never heard of Helium.

Look, in growing the Helium IoT network to over 970k Hotspots in over 75,000 cities in the last three years, the Helium community has made a pretty good start towards achieving the long term goal, which is to “provide ubiquitous affordable connectivity to the Internet for all things and people.” We (community members, including myself) tend to think of Helium as a pretty big deal, and something “everyone” knows about. They don’t. Not even close. We have a ton of work to do when it comes to just letting people know we exist, let alone what Helium can do! Ok, back to Abhay’s talk.

Abhay talked about the IoT side and also introduced the MOBILE network. He didn’t go deep into either one. His talk wasn’t about explaining Helium in depth, it was about making sure the Solana community understood, at a high level, what Helium is bringing as far as an opportunity for Solana developers and the ecosystem.

He introduced the idea of HIP 51, the Helium DAO. Now, for those of us in the world of Helium, HIP 51 is old news, but for the crowd, a lot of this was new.

Abhay also talked about HIP 70, which is the one that proposed a new architecture for core parts of the blockchain. Dig more into HIP 70 here, but the short version relevant here is that it allows Helium to move to a new L1, taking the burden of building a blockchain off the Helium community. It means we, whether “we” means Nova, or the Helium Foundation, or you, can do the thing we’re the best at, which is deploy coverage and build businesses related to that coverage.

One of the first exciting things that happens with the move to Solana is the minting of almost a million NFTs, one for each Hotspot. The implications of this aren’t yet understood, but what I think we’ll see is an explosion in flexibility on ownership splits, enabling better incentives for healthier network growth, and some very interesting smart contract applications.

Until I re-watched Abhay’s talk, I missed one of the key parts; Helium Foundation has acquired the Strata Protocol. Strata is a protocol to launch tokens on Solana, so this makes sense. This makes it reasonably likely for the Foundation to hit its goal of getting Helium on Solana mainnet by Q1 2023.

Noah Prince from Strata joined Abhay on stage to go through a demo of Hotspots earning MOBILE tokens and interacting with HNT. He touched on security aspects, including circuit breakers. As an example, if more than, say 20% of the MOBILE tokens leave the treasury in some configurable window, say 24 hours, there’s an automatic shut down.

Noah also demo’d the Backpack wallet to show how you’d claim rewards. With about a million hotspots, if all rewards were released all the time, it would spam the chain with transactions. The way they’ve set it up is that a Hotspot NFT will be like a piñata; it’ll hold all your rewards until you hit it, at which point it’ll release ’em to you. Simple. He also showed how you can redeem MOBILE for HNT, which is a one-way operation; you can’t buy MOBILE, you can only earn it or redeem it for HNT. With that HNT you can buy Data Credits and then use the Network.

What’s left is the integration with Helium’s cloud. That is a system of Oracles counting all the packets that are used by all the Hotspots and provide Proof of Coverage rewards and figure out the lifetime rewards for all entities. Challenges include taking all the current Hotspots and rewards and bringing them into the Solana system. Minting a million Hotspot NFTs at $.40/mint is an enormous cost which they may try and solve with NFT compression. With many technical problems still to be solved, the core functionality of how the DAOs and subDAOs work appears to be sorted out.

Next, Joey Hiller, Jose Marcelino, and Carrie Kellar presented on how some of the use cases that start to occur with Helium on Solana.

Joey’s demonstration referenced his IKEA air quality sensor build, internet connected chicken coops and supply chain tracking for small coffee shops; it’s always fun to listen to his talks. Jose Marcelino from RAK Wireless joined Joey to go through a demo with Trackpac, which is BFGNeil’s company that uses Browan Tabs and other trackers to provide a super easy experience with using Helium.

Now, one of the things we hear all the time from the FUDpatrol is how no one is using Helium, which is (fairly obviously to those of us using it) bullshit. Still, it was nice to see Jose put numbers to just one customer’s use; 1,200,000 check ins from Trackpac trackers since early 2022, all on the Helium network.

Getting a Trackpac tracker to work is simple; download an app, scan a QR code, and you’re tracking whatever it is you want. RAK Wireless & Trackpac worked together to track buses and shuttles for Solana participants to move between the 3 main venues during Solana Breakpoint. Proving that the Helium IoT network is super cheap to use, tracking 26 vehicles across the city for 3 days cost 46.8 cents in total. (26 trackers x 1.8 cents per tracker for the 3 days).

Carrie Kellar, the CTO and co-founder of Baxus, shared the stage and talked about how Baxus is creating infrastructure for tangible assets, starting with whiskey and wine. Baxus has created a pipeline for collectors to authenticate, store, and insure their wine and whiskey. They allow you to mint an NFT that acts as proof of ownership and authentication which users can trade or use as collateral for loans.

Baxus is using Helium to provide proof of presence as well as temperature and other sensor data to show the environment of a specific cask or barrel throughout its lifetime. This gives a collector the ability to audit, in real time, the location, state, and history of a specific unit. Casks are outfitted with temperature and humidity sensors, and will soon have trackers attached. Now, I’m not a wine or whiskey collector, but I do like nice things and, like many of us, I’ve got a Gollum-like obsession with seeing the state of something I own whenever I want to. Watching Carrie talk, I could see the power in layering the ability to get all this data cheaply on top of an NFT.

The upshot of the Baxus presentation is that we’ve got yet another industry being born on the back of Helium and unlocking the potential present in a different L1. Before Helium, there wasn’t the cheap and ubiquitous coverage across rural areas and down in wine cellars that you need in order to track barrels of wine and casks of whiskey. Now there is. Yes, the world is changing, and if you’re reading this, you’re witnessing history. You can expect to see something like this happening for every type of ingredient and collectible thing that exists.

This was all super exciting to see. From the broad perspectives of Amir and Abhay down to the use cases that Jose, Joey, and Carrie demo’d, this was evidence of Nova and Helium Foundation’s efforts at growing the Helium ecosystem and ensuring the transition to a new blockchain unlocks a ton of new value (not just a faster chain that works better.)

What’s next in the Helium In The Wild series? Why, the Helium Train Hackathon, of course. My post on that will come out in the next few days. In the meantime, rest assured that the Helium ecosystem is alive and kicking, and though it may still be a baby, it has all the hallmarks of growing up to be a giant. Rock on!

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