Bringing the IoT to every corner of the globe comes down to two things: network availability and cost. Many companies now promise to lower IoT satellite costs by leveraging mass production and using constellations of low-cost low-flying nanosatellites. These companies are creating new possibilities for the IoT, enabling data driven applications in areas where ground-based network coverage is poor or non-existent. Early use cases are collecting data from ships, farms deep in Africa or vehicles in Antarctica. Two characteristics unite emerging satellite IoT firms around the world. They all build low-bandwidth, low-cost data collection networks. Smaller satellites and few bytes moved around translate to substantially lower service and ground hardware costs to connect things. Hiber subscriptions, for example, start at 6 euros per year. The other discussion point is spectrum: who has global licenses to it and who doesn’t.
Other than that, technical approaches diverge substantially. Most have launched nanosatellites into orbit a few hundred miles above the planet, ranging from shoebox-size hardware flown by Hiber all the way down to Swarm Technologies’ SpaceBEE coming in at a tight 2.5 x 10 x 10 centimetres. Satellite IoT start-ups often launch one or two small satellites to get initial customers on board and revenues rolling in, then add more as demand increases. Astrocast and Myriota will control their IoT network ecosystem from end-to-end, manufacturing their own chips for OEMs and third-party developers to embed into devices, launching their own fleets of nanosatellites, and delivering data through cloud-based services via web portals accessible with APIs.
The newest on the market are building satellite systems using IoT open standards, testing and demonstrating the ability to pick up LoRa and cellular signals directly from orbit. Lacuna Space is using a modified version of the LoRaWAN protocol to communicate and plans to have five satellites in orbit by the end of the year. Lynk has shown it can pick up and deliver SMS text messages via satellite using 2G GSM and plans to support LTE and NB-IoT in the future. OQ Technology conducted a technical demonstration between a satellite and an NB-IoT device on the ground last year.
Conceived as a voice and narrowband data network, Iridium has been in operation for over two decades. Nowadays IoT is 65 percent of Iridium’s business. This was made possible by updating its existing constellation and developing new satellites. The satellite IoT start-ups see themselves as broadening the IoT market by bringing in new customers rather than being in direct competition with Iridium and its large and well-established constellation of satellites. They will have to open new avenues, because Iridium’s existing customers have multi-year commitments and there’s good reason for it. For example, for aviation safety and voice, Boeing and Airbus want products to last for 10 years plus. They don’t want to touch or update an existing solution installed in an airframe during its lifespan.
Heavy equipment OEMs like Caterpillar, Sumitomo and others are now embedding Iridium IoT modules into new equipment rolling off the production line and retrofitting them to older equipment when it goes into the shop for maintenance, enabling real-time telematics monitoring. Extended downtime is a big loss, so companies want to make sure to get a truck into service before it breaks down or it may take a long time to get it back from the field and get it fixed. But satellite communications are also well suited for the small drone world where you can’t have a huge antenna for command and control.
This is a fast-growing market and we can expect more companies to join in the following years.