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Why the Helium Network Needs A Secure Concentrator

A Piece By Helium Foundation Grantee Paul Soucy

Helium Foundation Grantee Paul Soucy

Hi, my name is Paul (aka Dinocore on Discord). My background is in computer science and electrical engineering. I’ve been working in the embedded systems systems space for the past 10+ years. Back in the summer of 2021, I was awarded a Helium Foundation grant to develop a HIP-22 Secure Concentrator Card. Since then, I started NLighten Systems and began working on developing open-source hardware for the Helium ecosystem.

Understanding LoRa Concentrators

Imagine you could earn rewards for mapping realtime coverage of the Helium network just by carrying around a battery-powered radio the size of a credit card. Throw this small device in your car, strap it to your bike, or clip it to your backpack and the more places you go, the more HNT you earn. But you’re not just earning HNT, you’re providing a valuable service to the Helium network by mapping coverage areas and helping to combat Helium “gamers” who try to cheat the system.

This vision for the future of Helium is driving the development of NLighten System’s Secure Concentrator Card, a project recently funded by the Helium Foundation Grant Program.

In fact, this vision might not be that far off. There is already a thriving community of Mappers that are successfully mapping coverage of the Helium network. The Mappers project was an early recipient of grant funding from the Helium Foundation and has been growing strong. However, the individuals performing mapping today do not earn HNT for their work and the collected data is not used for anti-gaming efforts. These volunteers are motivated only by their love for the Helium network. To get to scale and fully realize this vision, Mappers need an incentive structure. To enable incentive structure, we need a Secure Concentrator card.

What is a Secure Concentrator Card? Before we get to that, we first need a little technical background. Helium uses a radio technology called LoRaWAN — a wireless protocol designed for low-power IoT devices operating at extremely long distances. LoRaWAN transceivers can typically achieve 15km or more of range under the right conditions; that’s a lot more than the WiFi chipset inside your laptop. Pretty amazing stuff. What makes this long range possible is a component called a concentrator card. A Concentrator Card is the industry term given to the circuit board with electronics that send and receive LoRaWAN signals. There is a Concentrator Card inside every Helium hotspot.

Concentrator Cards play a critical role in facilitating Helium’s Proof-of-Coverage reward systems. The economic model of the Helium Network is designed to give greater rewards to those hotspots that provide the most network coverage. Network coverage is directly proportional to the number of wireless LoRaWAN signals received by a Helium miner’s Concentrator Card. While this economic model has proven wildly successful at incentivising people to build history’s fastest growing wireless network, it has also attracted gamers who try to cheat the system and take an unfair share of rewards for coverage they’re not actually providing. Gristle King has a great article on common methods gamers use to cheat the system. Fundamentally, these methods involve maliciously manipulating the Helium hotspot to falsely report witnessing wireless signals that it did not actually receive (aka Witness Stuffing) and/or faking the hotspot’s physical location.

This is where the Secure Concentrator comes into the picture. Secure Concentrators are just like regular Concentrator Cards but with an additional microcontroller specifically designed to prevent both methods of gaming. The additional microcontroller allows the Secure Concentrator to verify the authenticity of every received wireless signal. The microcontroller uses asymmetric cryptography to digitally sign RF data, which serves as proof that it was received over-the-air. Additionally, Secure Concentrators have an on-board GPS receiver that provides the exact location and time of the received RF data. The NLighten Secure Concentrator I’m building with help from the Helium Foundation grant program will incorporate this technology so gamers will not be able to fake the location of the miner or be able to perform Witness Stuffing.

Building Secure Concentrators

HIP22

The idea for Secure Concentrators was first formally introduced in HIP-22. HIP-22 referred to them as “DIY Concentrator Cards” but has since evolved to become more general and thus renamed to Secure Concentrator. I was particularly excited about the ideas set forth in HIP-22 because it enables Makers to build their own hardware and add another layer of security for the network. At the time, myself and others on Discord were actively discussing details of how a DIY Concentrator would work. It is quite amazing to see the openness and community-driven nature of Helium; it truly is the “People’s Network.” When HIP-22 was first published, there was a need to design and build a hardware prototype, so I wrote a Helium Foundation Grant proposal.

After the grant proposal was approved by the Helium Foundation team, I went to work taking the ideas from HIP-22 and turning them into requirements and then electrical schematic prototype design.

I have a background in electrical and computer engineering so this kind of stuff is right in my wheelhouse. After the electrical design was finished, I had a PCB manufacturer build five prototype boards.

I have been writing firmware and experimenting with the prototypes for almost three months now. I work from home in a small electronics lab I build for myself in my basement. At this point in May 2022, I am nearly complete with the proof of concept and excited to do some demos! At every step of the way, the Helium Foundation grant administrators have been there to help support me and the project. They have been advocates for the project from the beginning, unblocked roadblocks, and ensuring success.

I believe that it is critically important to have both the hardware and software design for a Secure Concentrator be completely open-source for several reasons. First, by developing open source, I’m hoping several manufacturers will be interested in developing productized Secure Concentrators and drive down the price for the consumer. This is a great way to get to scale and drive massive adoption. Secondly, I believe that a well-resourced open-source project will always produce a higher-quality and more secure design. This may seem counterintuitive to some people because we often assume that to be secure, it needs to be kept a secret. This is a fallacy. The best way to design a secure product is to ensure it is high-quality. Openness enables collaboration. The type of people who volunteer their time to work on open-source projects do it because they love it. It’s simple, when you enable dedicated people to contribute to a project, the better it will be. Finally, and probably most importantly, a project like this just needs to be open because that is the only way to build trust from the community. For these reasons, the Secure Concentrator design is being developed as an open-source project and can be found at https://gitlab.com/nlighten-systems.

Deploying Secure Concentrators

There are lots of ideas on how to employ Secure Concentrator Cards to incentivise behavior that adds value to the network while discouraging network users from obtaining fraudulent rewards. Firstly, new Helium Miners can be built with Secure Concentrators. Or, it may be possible to upgrade existing Helium Hotspot or even convert an off-the-shelf LoRaWAN gateway to a Helium Hotspot by installing a Secure Concentrator. If the community wants to support this direction, the economic reward system could be tweaked to allocate more HNT reward to secure concentrators than regular concentrators. The justification being that Secure Concentrators provide more value because they are ”game proof.”

Another way Secure Concentrator Cards can be used to strengthen the network involves creating PoC-earning Mapper devices (a.k.a. Secure Mappers). That, of course, is the idea hinted at the top of this blog post. In fact, there already exists a community of Helium enthusiasts that volunteer their time mapping coverage. However, these volunteers do not earn HNT rewards, mainly because of security concerns. Until now, mapping has been considered too easy to game but Secure Concentrators could change all that!

It is important to note that all the ideas for how we can use Secure Concentrator Cards highlighted here are just that — ideas. Before they can become reality, they first need to be formalized in a Helium Improvement Proposal (HIP), debated in the community, and ultimately voted on. The HIP process is one that makes Helium truly unique in the blockchain world. The best part about it is that anyone can propose a new HIP. I’m excited to see how the community builds on my grant project and can’t wait to see a related HIP. If you have a great idea for an improvement, write a HIP and let’s make it happen!

NLighten’s Secure Concentrator Card unlocks many possibilities. Right now, Secure Concentrator Cards are in the prototyping phase with development being funded by a DeWi grant. As mentioned, the hardware and software is being developed fully open source. I want to encourage community members to get involved in any way you can. Nlighten will be releasing a DIY kit for prototyping your own hardware ideas using our Secure Concentrator Card. I’m excited to see what you will build.

For the latest project updates and to find out more visit https://nlighten-systems.com

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The Helium Foundation is a global not-for-profit dedicated to the proliferation of a secure, cost-effective Internet of Things.

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