Robbie Paul, Director of IoT Business Development, started his career at Digi-Key Electronics in 2011 after many years of experience in sales and marketing roles with companies like TE Connectivity and Black & Decker. Here, he discusses what Helium is, and how it works.
I got my Helium miner up and running! This is exciting, but I need to start at the beginning. I’m a big crypto fan. I have been following the growth of Bitcoin and Ethereum for a couple of years. In that time, I also learned about the underlying blockchain technology. So, when I started hearing about a new LoRaWAN network that uses blockchain technology, I was intrigued.
As a quick refresher, LoRaWAN is a Low Power, Wide Area (LPWA) networking protocol designed to wirelessly connect IoT devices to the internet. It is an alternative to cellular technology (Cat-M and NB-IoT). It is gaining traction in agricultural, industrial, and other commercial IoT applications. The LoRa Alliance website is a great reference to learn more about LoRaWAN technology.
LoRaWAN has been around for a while; so, what’s different now and what does Helium bring to the party? According to the Helium website, “Helium is a global, distributed network of hotspots that create public, long-range wireless coverage for LoRaWAN-enabled IoT devices. Hotspots produce and are compensated in HNT, the native cryptocurrency of the Helium blockchain.”
Let’s break this down. One of the main challenges LoRaWAN operators face is the physical build-out of their public network infrastructure. This requires capital, which investors will only provide if they see an appropriate return on investment (ROI). The network build-out also requires time and effort to obtain the permits and approvals to locate the hotspots on buildings and street poles.
The Helium blockchain is an open-source, public blockchain that was developed to incentivize the creation of a physical, decentralised wireless network. Instead of building out the network themselves, Helium is paying individuals in cryptocurrency to operate the LoRaWAN hotspots.
Genius! Hotspot hosts are paid in Helium Network Tokens (HNT). By having individuals across the globe build and run their network, Helium has eliminated the growth pain points mentioned above. This is a very creative way to use blockchain technology to support a global wireless network. And the business model is working! As of this writing, there are 55,000 hotspots around the world and growing rapidly at more than 1,000 additions per day.
I figured the best way to learn more was to jump in with both feet and purchase a Helium miner. I will be mining HNT (earning crypto) by providing LoRaWAN coverage in the local area where I live.
Digi-Key has several Nebra HNT miners from Pi Supply. Unfortunately for me, there was no stock available. Digi-Key has a note on the product pages indicating that, “Due to temporary constrained supply, Digi-Key is unable to accept backorders at this time.” Hopefully, that will change soon. Digi-Key is also in talks with other Helium miner manufacturers to resell their products.
I looked around the Helium website for approved miners, and the best value (price and lead-time) seemed to be with Bobcat Miner 300. The way I think about a Helium miner is like it’s a souped-up home WiFi router. One part consists of a LoRa radio that creates a hotspot around your house, several miles wide; the other part is a computer. In the case of the Bobcat, a quad-core ARM processor (Rockchip PX30) along with 64 GB of flash storage.
This is for processing transactions, syncing with the blockchain, and maintaining my crypto wallet. I also found the low power usage, approximately 5W, attractive. Be aware, there is approximately a 200K unit backlog for Helium miners. OEMs typically have a lead time of 8-10 weeks for shipment. I purchased a Bobcat Miner on March 23 and it was delivered on June 7.
The setup was straightforward, and I won’t pain you with the details. Many YouTube videos are detailing the process and providing troubleshooting tips. However, one issue I encountered is worth mentioning. Early on in my setup, I saw a message saying my hotspot was being “relayed”. This means the miner is connected to the Internet, but not to the Helium network.
This turned out to be a firewall issue with my Verizon Fios router. I was able to follow instructions from the Helium website and my router manufacturer and enable/open TCP port 44158. This port forwarding did the trick. The miner took two days to sync with the Helium blockchain. This was a bit longer than I expected since I used a wired Ethernet connection. I later switched to Wi-Fi to give me the flexibility to move the miner around the house and find the optimal spot. It’s currently on the windowsill in my first-floor home office.
My miner, Crazy Currant Mallard, now shows up active on the Helium Explorer. I’m excited to start mining and earning HNT. I’m curious about how quickly I can make back the cost of the miner. I will provide an update in a few weeks on how mining is going.
My miner has been up and running flawlessly for over a month. While it’s great the miner is working 24/7, I have only been earning $1 a day. At this rate, it will take me well over a year to break even and make back what I paid for the miner. I read in various blogs that upgrading my antenna could make a difference.
I live in a suburban area outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I’m a couple of miles from retail stores and commercial businesses. Looking at the Helium network explorer, I noticed that there weren’t too many hotspots near me. I realised that I would have to upgrade to a more powerful, outdoor antenna to provide proof of coverage.
Fortunately, there are several good articles for selecting the best antenna around a particular set of circumstances. Ira Sharp, from Phoenix Contact, has a really good white paper that captures the basics of antenna theory and selection. There are also a number of YouTube videos that focus on antennas specifically designed for LoRaWAN and Helium miners.
I ended up choosing a 10dBi antenna that I was able to mount at about 20 feet above ground. I found a spot on the side of the house, close to the roofline, where I could mount the antenna. Here’s a list of available LoRaWAN antennas at Digi-Key. Make sure you select the proper frequency: 915MHz for the US or 868MHz for Europe. With the new antenna, my earnings have gone up to approximately 0.5 HNT per day. This equates to about $12 at the current exchange rate. Not bad for a $50 upgrade!
On a related topic, I’m excited to announce that Digi-Key will be selling the SenseCAP M1 miners from Seeed Technologies. Product is expected to start rolling in at the beginning of September 2021. You are able to pre-order on the Digi-Key site. Note, your credit card will only be charged when the product is ready to be shipped. For the latest information, we have a SenseCAP M1 thread running on the TechForum.
Digi-Key also carries the SenseCAP IoT sensors that are fully compatible with the Helium network. Click here to learn more.
Happy HNT mining till next time!