What are the market drivers and roadblocks for satellite-powered vehicles? What are the obstacles? Here, we take a closer look at the landscape.
When it comes to connected transportation, satellite providers share a common vision — vehicles on wheels (or rails) that can process data in dead zones, navigate roadblocks, communicate with each other, and support dozens of safety, entertainment and other applications, by car, train, or truck.
It’s a vision that, if you believe latest projections from leading analysts, we’re just a few years away from realizing — at least partially. According to the latest figures from space and satellite market research firm NSR, we can expect to see 10.1 million satellite-based Machine-to-Machine (M2M)/Internet of Things (IOT) devices in 2027, 3.7 million of which come from new small satellite constellations, to power applications such as cargo tracking (which has the largest share of satellite M2M/IOT terminals).
“Over the last few years we’ve seen a lot more interest in connected transportation by land,” says NSR analyst Alan Crisp. “A lot of companies are making a lot of noise, especially about connected cars.”
But while there are a number of market drivers — from the evolution of technology to the readiness of constellations that support satellite applications to end-user demand — there are also a lot of unanswered questions. How will the connected car race shape up? How will satellite coexist with terrestrial wireless and other technologies? To what extent will cost factor into deployment? By looking at individual transportation markets, we can cut through much of the noise, and have a better idea of what factors will shape the next two to three years.
What’s Driving the Connected Car Movement
What’s arguably one of the sexiest examples of futuristic land transportation is the satellite-powered connected car. Flat-panel antenna manufacturer Kymeta’s version of this dream machine, named the Mirai, is a concept car unveiled with Toyota at the North American International Auto Show in 2016. It can stream video continuously, complete Firmware Over-the-Air (FOTA) and Software Over-the-Air (SOTA) updates, and offer telematics information and infotainment globally — providing timely, reliable, mobile connectivity anywhere you can see the sky.
This is a big selling point for satellite solutions, which can provide connectivity in areas where coverage from 5G terrestrial wireless networks is not as strong. “It’s not so much as competing with the cellular solutions — it’s more like you’re completing the cellular solutions,” says Nathan Kundtz, President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Kymeta, which works with automotive Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), truck and rail companies, and other transportation partners. “Other technologies have compelling advantages over satellite but it’s not a complete solution for some customers. And what satellite can do is complete those developments.”
Yet most automotive manufacturers, like Toyota and Ford, who have made announcements, are tight-lipped about their plans for the connected car of the future, perhaps due to fierce nature of competition in the auto industry (Via Satellite reached out to both for this story, but was unsuccessful in obtaining a response).
Kymeta’s Kundtz also declined the opportunity to discuss specific details on any partnerships with automotive manufacturers — but spoke at length about the company’s rollout of first responder cars in the United States. “Our first customers right now, and the places where we have begun to see scalable and repeatable business growth is Department of Defense (DOD)/Ministry of Defense (MOD) and early adopters and the first responders,” says Kundtz. “The work being done on those vehicles reflects what cars of the future will look like. The vehicle [we showcased recently at our local demo day with Microsoft and Nomad Global Communications Solutions] was using Microsoft Azure, which brought information in from a variety of sensors, aggregating them using Artificial Intelligence (AI), and sharing that back to a global cloud over a hybrid connectivity solution that was both satellite and cellular, and best-cost routing algorithms working to figure out when to use each and for what type of services to use each.”
But the technology used on the ground is only as good as the technology in the sky — from the constellation to the orbit, frequency, and its associated advantages (e.g., latency, line of sight, etc.). “To satisfy the amount of data that is needed in these first responder vehicles or other vehicles of the future, you need to have high-capacity services,” says Kundtz. “There are some really great constellations out there … We believe getting up into the Ku- and Ka-band is how those need to be solved. Some applications make more sense with Geostationary Orbit (GEO) and some make more sense with Low Earth Orbit (LEO).”
Satellite communications provider Iridium sees a future with connected transportation applications which will be supported by its LEO fully global Iridium Next network, operating in the L-Band frequency range. Iridium’s technology will support connected transportation — everything from first responder vehicles and connected industrial heavy equipment, to services that support connected cars.“Most satellite companies are trying to find a path into the wider world of connected autonomous transportation,” says Tim Last, Vice President and General Manager of Iridium’s IOT Line of Business. “A number of our competitors are talking about the connected car. The challenge is that while the satellite industry has started to define aspects that can help to provide compelling solutions for the connected car, it does mean that the satellite operators need to work in collaboration with other bodies, such as the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), to ensure that satellite has a standards-based role. Also, more work is required to ensure satellite solutions are cost effective for this very competitive market.”
Last says satellite technology will initially be leveraged over the next couple of years to power smaller, premium safety applications, such as emergency notifications to first responders, e911/e112 and airbag alerts features, whereas wide-scale use for broadcast entertainment or firmware downloads will take longer to take hold. Considering that these initial safety applications can be accessed anywhere, even in a rural dead zone, this gives satellite the advantage over its terrestrial competitors.
Bob Foster, CEO of Auton, one of Iridium’s connected transportation partners, also sees a market warming up to a higher caliber of security features. “The demand for self-driving, autonomous solutions that will require a higher caliber of sophisticated software that will need near-constant monitoring and updating also plays well for the satellite industry,” says Foster. “Automakers have cited security concerns from recent hacker attacks and vulnerability demonstrations. And they’re presently skeptical of wireless SOTA/FOTA solutions, instead preferring a wired connection made at their dealers.”
Trains, Trucks, Fleets and Other Large Vehicles
Meanwhile, the gravitation toward connected land fleets — trucks, trains and even commercial equipment — is well underway, moving at a seemingly faster, less secretive pace than the consumer automotive market. And as with the connected car, end-user market’s needs will drive everything.
In pursuing transportation opportunities satellite providers will need to work more closely not only with cellular, but also other wireless technologies, such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), Long Range Wireless Area Network (LORA WAN) and similar long range and low-powered technologies, says Mike Holdsworth, Director of Transport for Inmarsat Enterprise, which is actively pursuing land-based connected transportation partnerships (e.g., technology, integration, data analytics and also vertical industry alignment). Most significantly, the organization partnered with Orbcomm, which developed hardware and an array of services for cold chain and fleet management based on the Inmarsat Data Pro (IDP) service.
To date, the list of possible applications for connected land commercial vehicles is seemingly endless. [See Sidebar]
For example, Inmarsat has been working for four years with its partners to build a system to take the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) over satellite and cellular in order to improve safety and operational efficiencies on regional lines.
“Currently in Europe, figures suggest there is around 25 percent of the rail network covered by ERTMS,” said Holdsworth. “It’s costly to deploy and maintain trackside ERTMS systems apart from in high traffic areas and so the only solution for cost-effective rail safety and traffic management in less populated areas is to utilize public bearers such as satellite and cellular.”
Also, mobility-as-a-service will become more important over time. “In most cities in the world, there will be massive operational benefits to the economy of moving people around efficiently, but regional and rural areas won’t see this due to the lack of cellular coverage,” Holdsworth says. “I see no way of creating a nationwide mobility-as-a-service platform without satellite to plug in the gaps in cellular connectivity.”
Orbcomm, a company whose entire business is devoted to M2M and IOT solutions (including seamless satellite and cellular connectivity), is seeing more opportunities in helping fleet managers — say, for international trucking companies — leverage insights to improve operations.
In addition to technology developments, regulations such as the Food Safety and Modernization Act, which calls for more stringent controls on refrigerated cargo from farm to fork, is influencing the rollout of satellite-based solutions that can ensure proof of temperature compliance for the entire journey — even outside our cellular coverage.
Complete visibility means going beyond simple temperature monitoring, allowing real-time alerts that allow you to respond to temperature anomalies in real-time, ensuring safe food transport, notes says Sue Rutherford, Orbcomm’s director of marketing. Satellite can work hand-in-hand with Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID), barcode and sensor-based technologies to deliver more value in connected transportation applications.
“What we’re trying to do is layer a number of sensor-based technologies together to enable complete cargo visibility, right down to the pallet level,” says Rutherford. “You’re really flying blindly if you don’t know what your fleet is doing.”
Return on Investment
Inmarsat’s Holdsworth says the challenge of upfront costs are increasingly offset with better fuel efficiency and route optimization.
“There are a lot of opportunities for creating efficiencies using mobile, global satellite connectivity,” says Holdsworth. “In some cases, where costs can be high in the initial setup of a solution, the return on investment can be realized in a matter of months. Additionally, we are increasingly working with more OpEx managed services models where this initial setup cost can be mitigated. Global and regional freight forwarding and multi-modal transport are areas where there are significant operational improvements that can be brought about by utilizing satellite.”
And nearly every market can benefit from fuel efficiency and route optimization, he adds. “The areas where we see the highest return are either with perishables or high-value goods,” he says. “Plus, for industries such as such as agriculture, mining, pharmaceutical, automotive, aerospace, electronics and petrochemical, high granularity of data of goods in transit can be a game changer.”
The Most Compelling Satellite-Driven, Land Transportation Applications
What applications for connected land transportation, powered by satellites, will be the most buzzworthy? If you ask this question to a room full of industry insiders, you’ll get a million different answers, depending on whether you’re talking about information, entertainment, operations, or security. Here is what satellite industry thought leaders said when we asked them about some of the best connected transportation applications for land in development.
“The most compelling applications for connected transportation [I see] are emergency assistance calls, navigation and mapping updates, backup connectivity for terrestrial networks (especially on autonomous vehicles) and over-the-air updates”
— NSR Analyst Alan Crisp
“OBD (On-Board Diagnostics) applications will monitor vehicle health and driver data for usage-based insurance (UBI) services and enhanced fleet management. OBD retrieval solutions need to securely access and exchange this data while preventing unwanted or malicious access. Trucking fleet managers will want secure access to OBD data for monitoring vehicle health, fuel efficiency, driver habits, and vehicle location”
— Auton CEO Bob Foster
“I think customs and the speeding up the movement of containers, vehicles transiting ports or borders absolutely benefits from the use of satellite. We have seen in Singapore an application that utilizes Inmarsat technology to allow the ‘green laning’ of containers fitted with our Inmarsat Data Pro (IDP) tracking system to flow through customs in record time and reduce delays by a matter of days.”
— Inmarsat Enterprise Director of Transport Mike Holdsworth
“One of the big opportunities we see is in global telematics in heavy equipment. For example, Komatsu uses Iridium to provide real-time location, health diagnostics and proactive maintenance data from anywhere in the world to its customers.”
— Iridium IOT Line of Business Vice President and General Manager Tim Last VS