Pets & Animals

A dog-tracking gizmo with a novel networking technology

May 29, 2014 at 12:15 PM ET

Image: Whistle dog tracker
The next-gen Whistle dog tracker will be among the first products to tap into an emerging low-power cellular network.

The next-gen Whistle dog tracker will be among the first products to tap into an emerging low-power cellular network.

Wi-Fi blankets our homes; speedy cell networks keep us connected everywhere else. Bluetooth Low Energy is poised to bring an unprecedented degree of locational awareness to our devices. Still, no single technology will be adequate for powering the whole of the internet of things.

Tomorrow’s smart devices will need to be wirelessly multilingual, able to communicate not just many different networks but many different kinds of networks. They’ll need to be selective in their connectivity, tapping different technologies for different tasks to balance performance and battery life. In other words, they’ll need to be as clever as this doggie activity tracker.

The Whistle, released last Fall, is a small metal disc about the size of a silver dollar that attaches to your dog’s collar. It communicates with a smartphone app so you can track your pup’s fitness over time and check on his activity throughout the day (and make sure that the dog walker isn’t just watching HBO GO on your couch when he’s supposed to be out with your furry friend.) The new version of the device, slated for a release in the summer of 2015, is the WhistleGPS, which adds location tracking to the mix. The novelty is in how it’ll do that tracking–by tapping a brand-new, low-power, ultra-narrowband wireless network that will cover American cities starting later this year.

Location tracking is something Steve Eidelman and Ben Jacobs, the former Bain consultants who founded Whistle, wanted to include from the start. The upside is obvious; dogs get lost, people freak out. The problem, however, was power. The battery-hungry cellular technologies found in existing trackers inevitability make for bulky devices. “They’re four times the size of the current Whistle tag, because they’re on Verizon,” Jacobs says. “That’s why Whistle didn’t launch with GPS.”
Image: Whistle app.
Whistle app.

It helps to think of spectrum like a spectrum. On one end, there are cellular networks, which are great with high rates of data but hugely power intensive. At their other, there are technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth: low-cost, low-energy, and physically small, but limited to very short distances. “In the middle is this enormous gap,” Jacobs says.

An entirely new type of wireless network

SigFox is one of the players hoping to fill that empty air. For the last several years, the French company has quietly been building a cellular network dedicated exclusively to connected devices and the internet of things. It’s based on sub-gigahertz band wireless–the type of tech that powered your cordless phone circa 2002–with base stations currently deployed in the UK, France, Spain and elsewhere in European. Construction on a San Francisco network is slated to start this summer. More U.S. cities will follow later this year.

Whistle, one of the first consumer products slated to use the SigFox infrastructure, will be judicious in its use the network. When the dog leaves a predetermined area around its home, Whistle will t ping the SigFox base stations, each with a range between one to three miles, to triangulate the device’s longitude and latitude. When your pup’s safely at home, Whistle will revert back to faster networks, like Wi-Fi, for transmitting data.

The connectivity will add a $5 a month subscription fee to WhistleGPS’s price when it arrives next year (you can preorder one this week for $49; after that it’s $129). But the novel wireless solution will allow device itself to remain small and lightweight–the same size, in fact, as the original, non-location tracking version. That’s big deal, especially for small dogs. According to the Jacobs, WhistleGPS is the smallest pet monitoring device on the market, while still offering around twice the battery life of bulkier location-tracking competitors.

The greater opportunity

SigFox’s sub-GHz network is seemingly a perfect solution for Whistle’s location-tracking ambitions. But it’s not hard to see greater potential for these emerging sub-gig networks. There are opportunities in asset tracking, for example, where existing logistics systems still rely on an aging, soon-to-be-sunset 2G. You could use this type of wireless in security systems, for homeowners who didn’t want to rely entirely on Wi-Fi for fire and theft prevention. Generally speaking, these sub-gig networks–far slower than today’s 4G cell networks, but requiring far less power, too–could be useful for anything thatoccasionally needs to check in with the internet.

Whether or not you feel compelled to track your pup with military efficiency, WhistleGPS is a harbinger of devices to come. It’s a reminder that, in terms of connectivity, there’s no silver bullet for the internet of things. Emerging networks like SigFox will fill in some crucial gaps, but as designers and engineers plan for tomorrow, building up a noiselessly chaotic world in which everything is constantly chattering with everything else, they’d do well to consider the entire spectrum of possibilities.

-- Kyle Vanhemert, Wired

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