the Helium Bridge, a DIY unit to bridge wireless protocols over to the Helium LoRaWAN

The Helium Bridge — A Thousand New Sensors



Once you’ve built the world’s largest LoRaWAN net­work, the next step is clear­ly to use it. Still, it can be hard to use a net­work that does­n’t yet have an absolute boat­load of sen­sors ready for it. 

Part of this is the hard­ware lag cycle. It takes time to build hard­ware, and we’re just now get­ting to the point where new hard­ware that’s cus­tom built for Heli­um (or any LoRaWAN) is start­ing to real­ly pop into the mar­ket. I know, I know, there are a ton of shiny brochures with all kinds of fan­cy sen­sors that are ready right now. 

I’ve bought a cou­ple of those. With two excep­tions (well done Weath­erXM and DIMO!), LoRaWAN devices are usu­al­ly expen­sive, have unre­li­able sup­port, and gen­er­al­ly don’t work out of the box. 

Where does that leave us in the Heli­um net­work? Firm­ly on the build­ing side, but with an awful lot of light com­ing up on the horizon. 

If we look at cur­rent (ear­ly Octo­ber 2023) data usage over on the Dune OUI track­er, you’ll see that between the top IoT data users, we’re using about 88 mil­lion DC (1 DC = 24 bytes) per day, with the Meteo­Sci­en­tif­ic Con­sole (my pub­licly avail­able con­sole) going through ~71,000 DCs in 24 hours.

Now, 88,000,000 data cred­its SEEMS like a lot, but com­pared to what it can be? We’re prob­a­bly 2 orders of mag­ni­tude off. How do we get from here to there? We add sensors.

That brings us back to our orig­i­nal prob­lem: Where do those sen­sors come from, and how do we get a TON of them cheaply?

While there are LoRaWAN sen­sors that’ll work on Heli­um, the vast major­i­ty of IoT devices today weren’t built for a LoRaWAN. What do you do?

Pret­ty obvi­ous­ly, you build some­thing to allow any IoT sen­sor to con­nect to Heli­um. You build a bridge. 

Back in April of 2023 I got a grant from the Heli­um Foun­da­tion to do just that. Dirk Beer and I worked on the thing over the sum­mer, occa­sion­al­ly drop­ping updates as we got var­i­ous parts of it work­ing, and end­ed up with a rad lit­tle PCB design that any­one can order and then build.

This adds the poten­tial for thou­sands of sen­sors to come on board. They could be weath­er sta­tions, soil mois­ture sen­sors, air qual­i­ty mon­i­tors, tire pres­sure sen­sors, peo­ple coun­ters, traf­fic coun­ters, park­ing sen­sors, or any num­ber of dif­fer­ent sen­sors. Here’s a list of rtl_433 sen­sors that it’s ready for now.

Even­tu­al­ly, the Bridge will receive any non-LoRaWAN radio pro­to­col (rtl_433, Blue­tooth, ANT+, WiFi, etc) then retrans­mit that data, either raw or processed, back out over Helium.

Let’s think through a cou­ple of sce­nar­i­ous just to get your mind running.


First, you might (like me) have an obses­sion with remote weath­er sta­tions. By “remote” I mean those weath­er sta­tions that are beyond the range of short range wire­less pro­to­cols that reach out to 100 meters at most. Almost by def­i­n­i­tion, they end up also need­ing to be remote from pow­er, so they get ener­gy from a solar pan­el and bat­tery. Most of the time, remote weath­er sta­tions price points are over $1,000. The Kestrel­Met 6000 I won at a CES raf­fle STARTS at $1,299!

Now, there are excep­tions, like the Weath­erXM Heli­um sta­tion that runs $400. For a com­mer­cial prod­uct, that’s pret­ty amaz­ing, and prob­a­bly about as low as you’ll get. 

If, how­ev­er, you were will­ing to do a lit­tle DIY and you had a Bridge that would receive the sig­nals from a sta­tion that was near­by and had a short range, then re-trans­mit them over a much longer range, you’d be able to buy a much cheap­er weath­er sta­tion like the $109 EcoWitt WS80.

Add the Heli­um Bridge, a device that costs ~$60 in parts (less if you buy in bulk) and takes about an hour to put togeth­er with the right tools and prob­a­bly anoth­er hour of fid­dling around the first time to pro­gram. By the time you’re done with ship­ping for the WS80, you’ve spent just over $200 for a remote weath­er sta­tion you can cus­tomize any way you want (and that coin­ci­den­tal­ly, could be send­ing a ton of data!)

Now I’ll grant that it’s a DIY solu­tion, and those will almost always be cheap­er and more finicky than com­mer­cial solu­tions, but…pretty cool exam­ple of adding sen­sors to Helium!

It’s the same thing with an air qual­i­ty mon­i­tor like the WH-45 from EcoWitt; $125 for the sen­sor, anoth­er $60 for the bridge, call it $20 for the ship­ping and you’re just over $200 for a total­ly remote capa­ble sen­sor. You’ll still need pow­er, but a small solar pan­el and bat­tery will be total­ly fine. Not that there’s any­thing on the mar­ket that’s an exact match, but just as an exam­ple, the Omni­Science G‑7 Wire­less starts at $499.


Ok, so the ben­e­fits of a Bridge are obvi­ous; what are the down­sides and limitations?

First, the cur­rent Bridge is still pret­ty DIY. Unless you’re will­ing to do a lit­tle sol­der­ing and fol­low pro­gram­ming direc­tions, this isn’t yet a solu­tion at scale. 

Sec­ond, IoT in gen­er­al isn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly easy, and adding in a sec­ond device that con­nects your IoT device to the wider world is anoth­er complication.

Still, the Bridge that cur­rent­ly exists is open source, mean­ing any­one, from you the read­er to your favorite man­u­fac­tur­er, can read the direc­tions then build and deploy your own, for WHATEVER sen­sor you want!

The Future

So, where does that leave us? At begin­ning of an amaz­ing new world with still so much to be done! The rtl_433 list is a long one, but that’s just one protocol. 

There’s ANT+ (com­mon­ly used for heart mon­i­tors and oth­er bio­met­ric devices), Blue­tooth (every­where), WiFi, and the list goes on. If it can con­nect wire­less­ly, we can get it to con­nect through the Bridge. Whether you’re retrans­mit­ting data from your bike com­put­er or heart rate mon­i­tor or even a sen­sor that mon­i­tors your oxy­gen con­sumed as you work out (ahem, upcom­ing project!), the abil­i­ty to bridge over infor­ma­tion adds a ton of poten­tial val­ue to the Heli­um ecosystem.

I’d love to see what you do with it; if you have a spe­cif­ic sen­sor you’re work­ing on, please let me know in the com­ments and if you’ve got geek chops we’d LOVE to have you con­tribute over at the Heli­um Bridge Git repo.



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