Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The revolution above our heads

From Pulse by John McDermott

New satellite systems are about to disrupt and enable a wide range of industries by providing global connectivity for 'Internet of Things' (IoT) systems.
What is this about and why is it significant?
Since earlier 2018 I've been keeping an eye on a new generation of wireless connectivity systems and have been intrigued by the possible impact of these.
As each week has gone by and more and more announcements have been made by the companies involved, my belief that a revolution in connectivity is breaking out as increased.
I have a list of over 15 companies with a launch schedule of nearly 2,000 satellites in the next 2-3 years.

Let's look at one of these: Fleet Space, based in Adelaide Australia, and only founded three years ago by Flavia Tata Nardini is a prime example.
Over the last four weeks (Nov-Dec 2018) Fleet have launched four new nano-satellites to provide communications at low cost anywhere on the planet for small, low powered IoT devices.
With launches on RocketLab from New Zealand (two satellites), SpaceX in USA (one satellite) and ISRO in India (one satellite) Fleet is having a busy time.

The satellites are small units, under 10kg in mass.
Instead of high geo-stationary orbits (36,000km) this new generation of nano-satellite is typically positioned 500-700km high - Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
Rocketlab is a leading launch provider, with a dedicated service placing satellites in LEO.
The major advantage of LEO is significantly reduced cost of launch - just think that most of the launch weight of a rocket is fuel, so the lower the orbit the less fuel is required and the smaller and lower cost the launch vehicle is.

At these low orbits, the satellites are not geo-stationary.
They orbit the earth in about 90 minutes, and travel at 7.5km/s (over 16,000 miles per hour!).
As a single satellite doesn't stay overhead for long, a collection or constellation of satellites are needed to provide sufficient coverage.
Depending on how many satellites are operated that may mean a signal reception once an hour, once every few minutes or continuous.
The more satellites available, the greater the availability of signal reception.

Another example is Myriota, also based in Adelaide (notice a trend here yet?) And also launching on SpaceX recently.
In the case of Myriota their nano-satellite system provides an even lower cost device that transmits direct to the satellite using a transmission scheme developed at the University of South Australia. Myriota received venture funding earlier in 2018 to enable their growth.
The systems may seem to be a bit patchy at present, but remember we're only at the beginning. And for many of the use cases, an occasional signal transmission is sufficient.

Let's look at a few:
  • Water quality monitoring - access to water and quality of drinking water has become critical for many communities. Whether in a developed nation, such as New Zealand, where public opinion on river water quality has become a political football. Or, in a deprived region where water availability means the difference between life and death. The ability to place a low cost sensor system and reliably receive reports once or twice a day is a quantum leap from available technology that is costly, manual and impractical for remote environments.
  • Animal tracking - whether for endangered species or farmed herds, there is increasing use of technology to provide data for achieving better outcomes. Again, having a track position a few times a day can be invaluable.
  • Logistics tracking - where is that high value parcel? With millions and millions of individual goods in transit at any one time, having positive information of where a package is reduces uncertainty for business operations. Even if a current tracking portal appears to be fully computerised, it still relies on manual data entry to locate a parcel. With fully automated global tracking, errors and uncertainty are removed.
Let's be clear about this for a moment - this isn't global internet for all at close to zero cost.
These IoT satellites provide 'just enough' to get a GPS location, or small amounts of data from a sensor.
Streaming video or even voice connections will be beyond their capability.

But small amounts of data can be valuable.
Is a gate open?
Is a water tank empty?
Is a cow in the wrong field?
Is a boat lost and without power?
These can be high value pieces of information but are tiny pieces of data.

IoT-satellite doesn't exist alone, and is part of the eco-system of IoT wireless known as LPWAN (low power wide area networking) with technologies of Sigfox, LoRaWAN, and LTE NB-IOT and CAT-M.
These alternatives provide choice according to a particular application plus the new option of satellite systems to provide connectivity where ground systems are not available.
Like many revolutions, we often don't notice the beginning until it is too late to react, and then underestimate the long term impact.

I believe this is happening again with wireless connectivity for 'things'.
Want to join in?
The IoT Auckland Meetup group is taking a keen interest in IoT satellite developments and will be running a hackathon to trial systems from Fleet and Myriota in January.

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