Representatives of advanced manufacturing, IT, and financial sector companies discussed what they can offer the satellite industry and what it can offer them at Wednesday’s closing session of the annual SATELLITE show in Washington D.C. last week.
“We don’t launch satellites, but we do help them be lighter and stronger and more efficient,” said David Reichert, head of global business development for electronics and imaging at DuPont. The company makes Kapton, a polyimide film widely used in the satellite industry because of its ability to maintain its mechanical properties under the harshest of conditions.
“We want to be the IT provider of choice for the satellite industry,” added Jeb Linton, the CTO for IBM’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Watson, and its cloud platform. One new product for the industry IBM was looking at was blockchain — which combines distributed computing and the power of encryption to produce a tamper-proof and unforgeable record of transactions. Blockchain is the technology that underlies Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies — but it’s also being used in many other ways, for example, smart contracts that can execute themselves when particular conditions are met.
“Supply chain integrity is a big concern,” observed Linton, adding that IBM had “a working prototype” with NASA, of a satellite blockchain, “for the construction of satellites from conception to operation, tracking every single part all the way along the supply chain. Using smart contracts, every transaction gets signed for an immutable permanent ledger of every transaction … It’s a powerful application for blockchain.”
“We have invested heavily in new liquid crystal materials designed ... to drive the new generation of antennas,” chipped in Michael Wittek, of German advanced manufacturing, life sciences and pharmaceutical powerhouse Merck KGaA (not to be confused with the U.S. company of the same name, from whom they separated more than a century ago).
“We are coming from mass production and we are hitting an industry [satellites] where antennas seem to be built by hand,” Wittek said, adding Merck was partnering with display companies used to employing the novel materials to work with the antenna companies “to mass enable antennas at very low price points, using the infrastructure of the display industry to bend those prices down.”
“The whole idea of satellite connectivity is very important to us,” he concluded.
Other panelists agreed that satellite’s importance as a communications modality was largely about its robust availability — both geographically and over time. “Consistency and reliability are very important to our customers, especially when it comes to Internet of Things (IoT),” said Tom Tengan, director of digital enterprise for Siemens Industry Software and the leader of the company’s efforts to effect digital transformation in its customer base. “They rely on connectivity for visibility and control of their assets. If that goes down, they can’t see what their plants and other equipment is doing, which leads to outages and work stoppages.”
“A lot of it comes down to making sure those communication elements are always available,” said Reichert. “It’s all about redundancy of capability … satellites will always have a role.”
“For us, it’s all about having connectivity everywhere, especially where markets are undeveloped” agreed Jon Brickey senior vice president and cybersecurity evangelist for Mastercard. “We do a lot around financial inclusion, especially in Africa, and when it comes to connectivity, in a lot of those places satellite is the only option they’ve got right now and I don’t see that changing.”
At the other end of the connectivity chain, sometimes referred to as the edge, is the device itself. The number and kind of connected devices is multiplying in ways that were unforeseeable only a few years ago — driving demand for the kind of pervasive, always-on connectivity that — in many places — can only be guaranteed by satellite.
“We’re all about driving payments to the edge in a secure way,” said Brickey. If you have a car and drive up to a gas station, you want the car to pay for the gas … to have that connectivity at the edge means convenience for our customers.”
“We’re starting to hear about [satellite] companies … that are going to be putting computing at that edge, up there,” added Linton. “I think the ability to move computation to orbit where there are different sets of strictures from on the ground, for example international maritime law applying as opposed to the law of a particular country provides some room for new innovative business models.”
“We’ve even heard talk of blockchain in space,” he concluded. VS