Via Satellite

Satellites in a "Smart" World: The Future is Now

In an opening panel titled “What’s the Next Big Idea” at SATELLITE 2019, speakers from across the satellite and telecoms divide discussed the future of the industry in a way that hasn’t been seen before at a mainstream satellite event. Terms such as “ambient connectivity,” “neural nets,” and “deep stacks of data” were mentioned as the panel looked toward the future of the changing industry.

Lockheed Martin VP and General Manager of Commercial Civil Space Lisa Callahan spoke of a future of “smart satellites,” where satellites could change their mission in orbit. “This could collapse the value chain, as you can take out some of the middlemen. We will talk more about Artificial Intelligence (AI) on how we operate those satellites,” she said, “If you can re-program satellites, you need greater security. Our military and government customers have been asking for a lot of security capabilities. We are starting to see this in the commercial world.”

IBM Watson Cloud CTO of Partner Ecosystem and Cognitive Security Jeb Linton brought an interesting perspective, and spoke in-depth about the security issues the industry could face. He said the biggest disruptor to the industry will be AI. “We have just entered the age of AI which will disrupt every area of technology,” he said. “With that advent of AI, huge amounts of data from satellite constellations can be evaluated. Security becomes a paramount concern. We can’t have an era of satellites producing masses of data, without a much greater security capability. You have to focus on the resilience, as you can’t keep the bad guys out today.”

Customers are changing. While there was plenty of talk of a more millennial customer base, one of the keys for the industry will be finding new customer sets as we move into a hyper-connected world. John Finney, Founder and CEO, Isotropic Systems cited a great example recently of how satellite could play a role in “smart farming.” He said Isotropic has been talking to a mobile operator which wants to help build smart farms. Finney talked about the fact that increasing the quality of milk as a major problem, and something in which the satellite industry can help in order to drive greater efficiency. By putting sensors on cows, it can enable much more efficiency in terms of predicting when cows going to into labor. Finney pointed out that 100,000 cows died in labor in the U.K. alone, and sensor networks could help radically reduce this number. “Small, tiny devices can drive big revenue opportunities,” he said.

In terms of other trends, Finney spoke of greater intelligence and spot pricing. He added, “The intelligence is in the terminal, and service providers can cherry pick which satellites they can use. The industry will end up with spot pricing.”


Jean-Luc Vuillemin, Executive VP, International Networks, Orange Business Services gave a very interesting telco perspective admitting that the mobile industry works very differently from the satellite industry. He described satellite as a niche technology, mainly used for backhaul. However, he believes 5G will change the game. “For us, we do believe that 5G could be the end of the Internet as we know it today. The promise of 5G, is what we called ‘ambient technology’. It will be all around you, and you will do it without any voluntary action from your side, he said “So, in this world, what will be the place of satellite? 5G is an opening for satellite. From a standard point of view, it provides an access as well as a backhaul opportunity for satellite. It is not just backhaul. This is a big change.”

To realize this promise of 5G, Vuillemin said satellite will have to meet a number of challenges. He said satellite is perceived as an outdated and costly technology. “The ability to lower the price will allow the telecoms operator to rebalance its use of satellite capacity. Satellite capacity can play a much bigger role, not just in rural areas. What we would like an industry is propose a common interface for an operator like ourselves,” he added.

Government/Defense Versus Commercial

Another trend is the confluence between commercial and government/defense customer needs. “Smart solutions and digital are things we have been talking about for a long time. We want more integrated capabilities so you can re-program in orbit,” said Boeing Satellite Systems International President Chris Johnson. “Customers want more flexible, ubiquitous connectivity. The commercial industry will have the same needs of government, much more than what we have seen in the past.”

Amazon Web Services AWS Ground Station General Manager Shayn Hawthorne echoed this statement, and spoke about a greater parity between government/defense and commercial. He said, “Customers from government and commercial are looking for parity with each other. I have been seeing a strong move forward to delivering the same technologies and services to the same sets of customers.”

Additionally, Planet Co-Founder Robbie Schingler spoke about an industry in transition. “With the decrease of costs, there is renaissance of new technologies, supply chains. AI is transforming every single business,” he said. “The transitioning of a space architecture is one that will be upgradeable. New business models will emerge.” VS