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Nov 25, 2021

Satellite IoT Dreams Crashing into Reality

With the landscape of technology swiftly reshaping, various technologies’ evolution is running in full swing. During the past decade, the rapid evolution of tech was so revolutionary that people considered it mere since fiction is becoming mainstream now. As a result, various emergent technologies, including the Internet of Things (IoT), are already very accessible and popular. These emerging technologies are popular among enthusiasts and industrialists; they are already gaining a vast commercial market among consumers and various industries alike.

Internet of Things technology is evolving faster alongside processing and silicon technology, storage technology, sensing technology, communication and networking technology, and battery and power technology.  Furthermore, with the advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies like Machine Learning (ML), Big Data, and Deep Learning, devices are getting more powerful, efficient, and “intelligent” with even capabilities to make intelligent decisions.

Amid this progress, the IoT research and development paradigm itself is rapidly improving. Consequently, the global market also reflects this improvement with an increased valuation of the IoT industry every year. As a result, the global market for IoT technology was about 761 Billion US Dollars in 2020. This figure is forecast to cross 1,386 Billion US Dollars by 2026. This rate of increase accounts for about 10% compound annual growth rate of the IoT technology.

Read more: Ten Years of Top Emerging Technology Trends and How they’ve Changed the World

These huge figures and the increase in the IoT market show that the IoT industry is growing very fast. Furthermore, the complementary tech for IoT (AI, ML, processing and silicon technology, storage technology, sensing technology, communication and networking technology, and battery and power technology) is also evolving in its rights. Particularly the smartphone industry heavily impacts some of these technologies. For instance, every year, newer phone models come up with better processors, power efficiency, better communication, more accurate sensors, etc. This evolution certainly benefits the IoT industry further.

IoT technology is not just a concrete technology to come into use with a particular device or machine. It’s almost like an umbrella technology that encompasses various technologies, i.e., its complementary technologies. IoT is not just growing on fronts like smart house technology, but it has the potential to emerge in almost any field or industry. From Industries like agriculture, irrigation, housing to industries like aerospace and nuclear, companies are integrating IoT technology in nearly every device or object, even objects we don't consider technological objects like doors, floors, chairs, bags, etc. Such a broad reach of IoT technology has probably touched upon the most challenging engineering industry, the aerospace industry.

Before talking about IoT with satellites and within the aerospace industry, let's first know what IoT is?

Satellite IoT Dreams Crashing into Reality

What is IoT?

Internet of Things is a system of various devices and objects that connect through the different network communication systems, generally the internet. These devices or objects usually contain multiple sensors, cameras, RFID tags, data processing units, and communication interfaces to work correctly.

In IoT, these different devices connect to build a unified system that acts as a single system that can perform various tasks and provide various information and services to the user. So, the Internet of Things is also a device layer that acts as a connective link between devices that were previously not smart or were offline with smart devices like smartphones, computers, tablets, etc.

Various IoT devices connect, whether through physical means (through wires) or wireless networking solutions. But generally, these devices are in connection and communicate with each other through the internet. These devices transfer data and communicate with each other alongside communicating with the cloud. It is done to provide various services and features to different users with input from various IoT devices. It enables proper evaluation of the surrounding or environment around the IoT devices through multiple sensors and systems in them.

Read more: The Diverging Paths Of VR and AR

Altogether, this unified system generally provides a user interface for controlling, interacting, and customizing the IoT system. These interfaces are usually available to users in apps and websites on their phones and computer devices.

A simple example of an IoT system is smart bulbs. Usually, smart bulb IoT systems contain a communication/networking interface (typically wireless), a light-generating device, and control systems and processing systems to communicate and control the light-generating device/component. These IoT devices generally provide a user interface through wireless communication methods (usually WIFI) on smartphones through mobile applications. The user can then control the bulb with their phone. Some smart bulbs also allow scheduling the bulb to glow and turn off at certain times. For example, turn the bulb on when they arrive home or turn it off when they leave.

Apart from this, numerous IoT systems such as smart consumer electronics like fridges, air conditioners, lamps, speakers, televisions, and many more are already prevalent and rapidly growing in adoption among consumers. Moreover, manufacturers or companies also use various devices to build and develop an IoT system that caters to their needs and demands. For instance, healthcare systems use IoT devices to monitor patients and their health conditions. Likewise, the agriculture industry uses IoT systems to monitor crops, automate watering/irrigation systems and even collect data to analyze or optimize the agricultural process.

On the same note, various satellite manufacturers or service providers use or build IoT satellites for different purposes, either for them or for their clients.

Satellite IoT Dreams Crashing into Reality

How Are Satellite IoT Dreams Crashing into Reality?

Building satellites and putting them up in space is very hard. The building part is complex, but putting them up in an area is also sometimes even harder.

Rocket Science is very complex, so complex that we define something very difficult or hard to be “rocket science.” It is why there is a distinct lack of satellites up in space or earth orbit. While satellites themselves do not have to deal with actual rocketry, they have to deal with and account for other complex stuff once they are up in the earth’s orbit. Some of this complicated stuff may also deal with things like orbital mechanics, but we will only focus on IoT devices since we are talking about IoT devices.

One of the most recent announcements regarding IoT satellites was from Hiber, a European satellite IoT provider. Hiber remarked that it would partner with Inmarsat’s new Elera network for its network in space. Meanwhile, the rest of its network infrastructure will be using Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN), a cloud-based Medium Access Control (MAC) layer protocol in maintenance by the LoRa (Long Range) Alliance.

LoRa Alliance, with its inception in 2015, is a non-profit association that supports and maintains the LoRaWAN protocol. It has over 500 members, including some tech giants like IBM, MicroChip, and Cisco.

This move from Hiber follows its move last month to abandon its plan to deploy an IoT constellation with smallsats. Hiber has already filed a request to drop its plans regarding this constellation to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). At the announcement, Hiber had 4 out of 24 satellites in orbit for its small constellation. Two of those were launched as payloads on PSLV and SpaceX’s Falcon9 rideshare mission in late 2018. The third one is on a Falcon9 rideshare mission in January 2021, and the fourth is on a Soyuz-2 launch in March 2021.

However, in the FCC filing to drop its plans, Hiber mentions that 2 of those satellites were no longer operational. At the same time, the remaining two had technical problems preventing Hiber from using them.

Myriota partnered with Spire, an Australian startup, a global space-based data, analytics, and space services provider. This partnership will help Myriota expand its Myriota Network through Spire’s existing low-earth orbit nanosatellites as Spire continues to launch and deploy them rather than Myriota themselves launching them.

Moving on, Swarm Technologies, a small satellite startup, agrees to be acquired by SpaceX. This move comes after Swarm proves its business model with the launch of 120 smallsats.

All these moves and changes of plans come from a single motive, to provide IoT infrastructure as a service since the demand for devices with connectivity that rely on satellite networks is not keeping up. Instead, IoT satellites provide connectivity on ground-based tech like Garmin in Reach walkie-talkie, which people can use to alert if they are lost or need help even in the most remote regions.

This market of IoT connectivity is growing more significant, but this demand just does not justify the need for companies to launch their constellations to be IoT connectivity providers. Companies like SpaceX with their Starlink (already operational and has expectations to come out of the Beta stage soon), Amazon with their project Kuiper, and OneWeb with their OneWeb satellite constellation are big players that can turn to launch and deploy their satellites.

However, IoT connectivity players cannot justify their move to launch and deploy satellite constellations just yet. Therefore, it is driving small satellite startups like Myriota and Hiber to look up more big players for the network infrastructures. SpaceX is already providing a big market for IoT satellites and IoT connectivity in satellites with Starlink, helping the satellite IoT dreams crash into reality. However, the need for IoT satellites and companies depending on such connectivity is only a current need with endeavors from companies just starting.

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