Former BlackBerry employees launch new hardware startup that lets you see wireless spectrum

A new startup in Waterloo, Ont. is exiting stealth mode and marketing its new product that can not only give you the power to detect intrusion into your wireless networks, but also grants x-ray vision to see through walls in your home or office to notice intruders.

Cognitive Systems Corp. has quietly been developing its solution for the past 18 months. Now with 50 employees on board, it’s ready to start talking about its offering: a patented silicon chip, an algorithm that can detect distortion in wireless RF signals with high sensitivity, and a cloud service to support the backend.

“There’s nothing like this product out there,” says Taj Manku, vice-president of business development at Cognitive Systems. “That’s one of the reasons why we’ve been in stealth for such a long time.”

At the heart of Cognitive Systems business is a piece of silicon. Its R10 chip runs the platform that enable its various applications, all of which are rooted in the ability to sense distortions to wireless spectrum created by anomalies such as a person’s movement, or a rogue signal entering the mix. It promises to help businesses and homeowners alike secure their wireless networks and provide a less intrusive alternative to video surveillance, among other applications.

The R10 chip powers Cognitive System’s hardware. There’s the amera device – that’s pronounced like “camera” without the “c” – that serves as a central hub to monitor a physical space. Amera is powered by its own CPU and provides Power-over-Ethernet and connectivity to communicate back to your network. Supporting it are plug-and-play Fyrefly devices that assist its monitoring in a master-slave relationship.

The R10 chip is embedded in the hardware offered by Cognitive Systems.
The R10 chip is embedded in the hardware offered by Cognitive Systems.

“It’s able to look at what the wireless spectrum looks like at a high level in a city, or as small as a house as well, and see what is happening with that spectrum,” Manku says. “It’s a flexible chip that can run all these different applications.”

Acting as the hub of the wireless spectrum surveillance network is the amera device.
Acting as the hub of the wireless spectrum surveillance network is the amera device.

At launch, the firm will offer six applications: motion detection, device identification, crowd flow/monitoring, wireless cyber security, device health, and spectrum analysis. Manku says the services can be customized based on client needs and the platform could support more applications in the future.

But how effective is the system at actually replacing video cameras for surveillance? Manku shares his experience from using it at home.

“I have a dog and three cats and I can distinguish between the dog and the cats,” he says. “It’s pretty accurate.”

To support those services, Cognitive Systems is also offering its Myst network as a cloud service. Based in a data centre in their Waterloo location, the service is available for its consumer clients and businesses that opt for it. Manku says that enterprises requiring that operations remain on-premises will be able to set up an internal Myst network.

While the company is exiting stealth mode in terms of its product and services, there’s still a lot we don’t know about this business. It’s been funded by Mike Lazaridis’ Quantum Valley Investments, but the amount hasn’t been disclosed. It has partners that it’s working with in the security services sector, but we don’t know who they are. How the product will be sold and priced also remains a mystery at this point.

The Fyrefly device is a plug-and-play piece that extends the network and communicates with amera.
The Fyrefly device is a plug-and-play piece that extends the network and communicates with amera.

What we do know is that Manku and his team are no strangers to building hardware businesses out of Waterloo. Several key members of the team are former BlackBerry employees, including Manku himself. Manku also previously founded Sirific Wireless, a semiconductor maker that specialized in CMOS RF transceivers. That company was acquired by Icera in May 2009, and Nvidia later bought Icera for $367 million USD.

Other members of Cognitive Systems’ team include CEO Hugh Hind, the former vice-president of wireless technology for BlackBerry. Oleksiy Kravets is the firm’s CTO and also a former BlackBerry employee, having founded and then directed the advanced radio systems group there.

“Some of us have been together for a long period of time,” Manku says. “We have always stuck together, even working at different organizations.”

Cognitive Systems plans to launch its services to the market by mid-2016.

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Former editorial director of IT World Canada. Current research director at Info-Tech

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