An Internet of Things World: Where does Satellite fit in?
We live in the era where organizations and people want 24/7 always-on connectivity. The Internet of Things (IoT) will aim to make this a reality, and readily transform companies along with the way they do business. It is the next generation of internet connectivity, and it could have far reaching consequences for just about everything.
One of the big buzz terms at recent satellite events has been the Internet of Things (IoT), where we live in an uber-connected world full of connected devices which can pretty much track everything man and machine do as billions of devices talk to each other. While IoT is great news for the wireless industry, it could also offer some interesting new growth opportunities for satellite companies as they look to secure a role in this hyper-connected state of affairs.
Organizations such as the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) have already started work on IoT strategies in Europe and Singapore, respectively. Kian Teik Beh, executive director of the Office for Space Technology and Industry (OSTIn) at the Singapore Economic Development Board (SEDB), says OSTIn is focused on building up satellite technology capabilities in both its public research institutions and for industry players, particularly through encouraging public-private collaborations. OSTIn also supports companies interested in leveraging Singapore to develop new satellite-based applications and services for the region and beyond. The EDB recently signed a deal with SES as it looks to get its IoT strategy in gear.
Beh says this initial cooperation between SES and EDB’s OSTIn will seek to explore greater development in satellite technologies, hardware and software tools for the satellite networks of the future. SES and EDB will work with Singapore research institutes and industry partners in the design, prototyping and production of technologies for mobility applications in the aeronautical, automotive and maritime sectors. “Other potential areas of collaboration include the development of software to manage next generation satellite networks, as well as producing innovative, compact components for Internet of Things (IoT) applications, which will continue to advance Singapore in realizing its vision of a Smart Nation,” Beh adds.
Singapore could prove to be an interesting case study for IoT and satellite, as the country looks to maintain its position as a key technology hub. Last year, Accenture opened an IoT Center of Excellence (CoE) for Resources in Singapore to help companies transform their businesses through a combination of deep industry experience and extremely capable technologies.
“Supported by EDB, the center will help agriculture, forestry, metals, mining, oil and gas, chemicals, and utilities companies to capitalize on innovation and new digital services and business models. It will also focus on intelligent connected devices and machines that comprise the industrial IoT,” says Beh. “In the same year, Fortune 500 engineering and technology firm Emerson invested in the Pervasive Sensing CoE, further strengthening Singapore’s capabilities in system integration, data analytics and advanced manufacturing.”
As countries embrace IoT in its overall Information and Communications Technology (ICT) infrastructure, what will be satellite’s play as part of it of this movement? Beh says Singapore is still in “the early stages” of the IoT cycle, but that this presents vast opportunities for satellite technology to play an increasingly important role. He says the satellite industry needs to be plugged in during these early stages to understand IoT end-user needs, and shape discussions on how satellite technology and new applications can deliver value to address said needs.
“OSTIn is exploring collaboration models that will enable companies to accelerate the development of new commercial applications using satellite-enabled data. One example is OSTIn’s collaboration with ST Electronics to run a corporate accelerator program using Earth observation data from the TeLEOS 1 satellite. The program will connect commercial end users, satellite data providers and start-up or research communities to co-create and commercialize new ideas. We believe there could be value in leveraging such an approach for IoT applications as well, and will continue to explore this with relevant stakeholders as part of Singapore’s efforts to grow a vibrant, innovation-driven satellite applications ecosystem,” Beh says.
In Europe, ESA is also being proactive as it helps satellite companies become part of the emerging IoT landscape. Frank Zeppenfeldt, who works in the Future Programs group at ESA Satellite Telecommunications says ESA believes there are number of roles for satellite in the world of M2M and IoT. He talks of the use of satellite for backhauling M2M/IoT LPWAN (Low Power Wide Area Network) cells. “We see this already being done for with, for example, SigFox of LoRa base stations which are backhauled using relatively narrow-band VSAT or L-band solutions. A similar solution can be used for backhauling cellular M2M solutions based on LTE and its evolutions,” he says.
He also says an interesting role for satellite is to enable direct access for large numbers of very small sensors. “Together with industrial partners from the ESA member states, we are supporting a number of initiatives in this field. While one could say that some of the in-orbit LEO constellations already support messaging are some kind of ‘IoT’ system, we believe that there is a market for LEO or GEO systems which will be able to serve the very low data rate and massive uncoordinated sensors, similar as addressed by the LPWAN or the low-power cellular market,” he adds.
As part of its Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) program, ESA will initiate a number of projects to support European industry in demonstrations of new M2M/IoT concepts over GEO, LEO or MEO satellites. Zeppenfeldt also spoke about a new program ESA is proposing called “Pioneer,” which would enable the on-orbit demonstration of new emerging services in an efficient manner. “There is often a need to demonstrate new service concepts with new in-orbit space segment before further investments can be attracted. It would be of interest to see one or two demonstrations in orbit which actually show that you can receive millions of sensors from remote areas,” he says.
ESA is being very proactive when it comes to IoT, as it aims to make sure European satellite companies do not get left behind. Recently, it has launched a tender specifically meant to address a community, which is normally not working within ESA contracts. The agency calls this the M2M/IoT Makerspace.
“We would like to see new innovative concepts prototyped by individuals, one-man companies, garage companies, start-ups, academia, radio amateurs, hackers, students or others. We would like that the Makerspace is guided by a flexible company, which allows — together with ESA — to initiate quickly small projects with minimum overhead. We need more running code and demos in the lab, instead of big reports. A similar initiative will be launched next year and will be solely focused prototyping with Software Defined Radio (SDR),” says Zeppenfeldt.
The HTS and IoT Question
Many satellite operators are in the process of, or have launched, new, powerful High Throughput Satellites (HTS) as they look to capitalize on the growing demand for data-based services. But what impact will they have on the world of IoT? Zeppenfeldt says while there potentially is no fundamental change when using HTS or other Fixed Satellite Services (FSS) solutions, there could still be developments in technology that could facilitate a stronger presence in IoT. He highlights the development of flat panel antennas that are vital for user terminals of LEO-HTS systems.
“If the LEO-HTS plans that have been announced will become reality, there will be new opportunities of backhauling M2M/IoT from any moving platform, which could easily install such flat antennas,” he says.
Marwan Joudeh, product manager for M2M at Thuraya believes new satellites and satellite technologies will probably evolve to address the expected growing demand for IoT connectivity over satellite. He says satellite companies are investing significantly in IoT infrastructure from backend platforms, gateways, devices and even satellites that can support IoT applications.
For satellite companies, IoT is now front and center as they look to expand from traditional core markets. While many companies are targeting connected transportation verticals such as aeronautical, maritime and the connected car, companies will also look to develop new markets that traditionally satellite companies have not been associated with. For example, Thuraya has already been able to develop solutions for wearables. “Recently, we partnered with WiCis, a provider of wearable solutions for mountain climbers. Together, we have been able to provide vital health information from the individual climbers back to base camps, with data also being monitored thousands of miles away. So we can make sure people are in good health while they climb some of the most challenging mountains in the world. This should open up a whole host of opportunities for us,” says Joudeh.
Orbcomm is another player to watch out for. Marc Eisenberg, the CEO of Orbcomm says the company has spent the past several years transitioning from a satellite network owner and operator to a provider of end-to-end solutions that can cover every touchpoint in the IoT ecosystem using its constellation as an enabler. He says the company is working on numerous satellite-IoT projects right now.
“We’ve got over 100 projects in our pipeline. We’re continuing to develop our core capability products like cost-reduced satellite modems and dual-mode hardware devices as well as more integrated, complex telematics solutions. We’ve developed a state-of-the-art portal for device management that makes it easy to provision and control devices spanning three satellites and seven cellular networks through a single platform and are further expanding its functionality. It doesn’t stop there,” he says. “We are a full-service IoT solution provider pushing our R&D efforts in multiple directions across multiple platforms.”
Out in the Margins
IoT is seen as a sector that will be worth tens of billions of dollars, yet recent industry forecasts suggest that satellite-based IoT could amount to only 1 to 2 percent of that. One of the fears is IoT could be another sector where the satellite industry will be increasingly sidelined and marginalized compared to mainstream communications’ technologies. Joudeh says the scale of opportunity here is “substantial.”
Thuraya is seeing more and more entities and individuals requiring communications where they are currently unavailable. This demand ranges from exploration for resources, expansion of trade through globalization, and people embarking on personal trips to remote locations for leisure or sports, says Joudeh. “The need for connectivity through satellite will only grow as the IoT market itself grows.,” Joudeh adds.
Eisenberg believes while there are opportunities for satellite companies in IoT, they could be limited if the price for satellite capacity does not come down.
“In a perfect world where there are no cost advantages between cellular and satellite, everyone would choose satellite. With satellite, there are no geographic issues, no worries on end-of-life platforms or connectivity sunsets, and no global logistics issues. In today’s world, IoT companies need to be connected and in control of their assets everywhere but at a cost-efficient price. So, if we don’t hit price points, there will be limited opportunities for satellite in the IoT world beyond boats, buoys and weather stations,” said Eisenberg.
Zeppenfeldt says if one considers the annual growth rate of terrestrial M2M/IoT in terms of connections, there is still a large addressable market for satellite. “In addition, one should also not forget that satellite is often used as a backup connectivity for critical M2M/IoT applications,” he adds.
Numerex Believes in a Satellite IoT Future
Numerex is a M2M communications solutions provider based out of Atlanta, Georgia. The company is now working its customers and partners to shift the focus away from connectivity and more onto business-based value propositions within IoT. The company looks to provide services to manage connectivity for its customers to allow them to focus on their business rather than the actual technology. In terms of where satellite fits into this structure, Steve Baker, VP of network product management at Numerex, says the company is using satellite for monitoring assets deployed by U.S. agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide tracking of emergency material deployments and monitor for theft and container tracking for in-bound and out-bound cargo.
When asked whether satellite is falling behind other technologies in an IoT world, Baker says Numerex believes satellite is, on the contrary, gaining momentum as a global access capability.
“As data costs continue to decline and more specialized devices become available with extended battery life, specialized certifications such as ATEX, and hybrid capability, satellite is poised to grow its market share within the IoT space in the coming years. Satellite can also play a major role as a fall back option when cellular communications aren’t available,” he says.
He adds this redundancy for connected IoT solutions is very attractive to global shipping and transport companies as they deploy assets all over the world. “Keeping supply chain fidelity and knowing where your high value assets are at all times is a key value add that satellite can provide. These new hybrid solutions (cellular combined with satellite) are becoming increasingly popular and available as the technology progresses,” he says, adding however that only a handful of companies will be capable this.
For a company like Numerex, satellite technology is “a critical element for truly global IoT solutions.” With a consistent, fixed cost of service regardless of location (no roaming) and massive reach over land and sea, it becomes an extremely important tool for tracking and control without boundaries, according to Baker. VS
Caleb Henry contributed to this report.