Machine Connectivity Enters a Decisive, Critical Phase Enabled by Satellite
As satellite technology continues to advance, industries like agriculture, oil and gas, first responders, and logistics are beginning to view satellite as essential to their connectivity requirements.
February 22, 2023
As satellite technology makes huge advances, industries such as mining, agriculture, forestry, and construction are evaluating their relationships with the satellite industry. The modern world runs on data, and the ever more digital world demands more and more connectivity. This extends to rural and remote as more industries recognize the value of reliable and resilient connectivity and how it leads to efficiencies in their businesses.
As satellite technology continues to advance in both space and ground infrastructure, industries like agriculture, oil and gas, first responders, and logistics are beginning to view satellite as essential to their connectivity requirements versus being viewed as just a last resort.
“The only constant connectivity is satellite, and more and more people are seeing this,” says Liz Ingle, vice president of Sales and Marketing for satellite service provider Expedition Communications. “The first responder community is really preaching constant connectivity. If you have a primary and secondary fiber and LTE, and both of those fail, what is left? It’s satellite.”
First responders, for example, need high-speed communications at a moment’s notice. They may be responding in areas where terrestrial networks are down due to natural disaster, or outside the reach of cellular coverage. Life-saving applications, like using AI to detect smoke and flames, require high levels of bandwidth, which isn’t always available.
Companies like Intelsat with its FlexMove connectivity solution support Comms-on-the-Move (COTM) and Comms-on-the-Pause (COTP) applications. This offers compelling reasons for businesses and organizations to invest in satellite-enabled solutions that provide real benefits for connecting equipment, applications and people on the move where and when other connectivity options are not available.
Intelsat works with a network of service providers like Expedition Communications and Network Innovations to serve their customers and their needs. These service providers have the depth of expertise to design, build, and execute successful technology solutions for the unique needs of their customers.
There is a generational shift at play, where people expect connectivity everywhere. Customers don’t ask how it happens, they just want the connectivity, says Frank Czulo, vice president of Networks for Network Innovations. “People think — Why can’t I do here what I do over there? If I can stream on my cell phone, why can’t I stream live video from a tractor or mine, for example? Expectations are higher.”
Agriculture is another example. Connectivity is crucial to transmit the vast amount of data collected on farms in order to understand and maximize crop yield.
Expedition’s Ingle highlights a conversation she had with a farming customer recently, who was looking for a connectivity service that they could use across any of their farm locations for a product that monitors water consumption and sunlight availability of crops to maximize growth. “These aren’t people sitting out at the farms, but machines that are reporting back to the company. I think we are only going to see more use cases like that,” she says.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified rural broadband as a major driver of the digitalization of farms, but many parts of rural America remain unconnected and fiber deployment is costly. A 2019 report found that ubiquitous broadband and adopting precision agriculture technologies could lead to $18 billion to $23 billion in economic benefits for the agriculture industry.
Major companies like John Deere see the benefits of always-on connectivity for agriculture, and are turning to satellite for the solution. The company recently announced a plan to work with satellite companies to equip thousands of machines with always-on connectivity, which will also enable autonomous farming in the future.
From IOT to Full Service
In the past, mobile satellite service was limited to low data rate messaging services that could transport byte sized messages for telematics . But with advances in satellite technology, remote users can access a true broadband connection with service levels in the mbps, enabling enhanced applications including video and cloud services, on the move, says Joel Schroeder, Director of Land Mobile for Intelsat.
“A solution like FlexMove opens the door for key larger amounts of data to be sent back from mobile operations. We are seeing OEMs and customers send gigabits of data from their operations,” Schroeder says. “FlexMove is perhaps the only network that can support that with its dedicated high throughput service. Customers are realizing it is a viable option to connect critical assets no matter where you are operating. FlexMove enables that with its high-speed broadband service.”
Machine connectivity is becoming vital for companies as they look to save money and boost efficiency. One area this comes into play is predictive maintenance. “By having machines and operations connected, companies can accurately forecast and predict when there will be a breakdown of the machine or they can conduct repairs in advance. This reduces the potential costs of having to shut down an operation that can be far more expensive than having a connectivity solution installed in advance,” Schroeder says.
For instance, if a mining site shuts down for a day because of a broken excavator, it can cost millions of dollars. But if the machines are connected for predictive maintenance, this scenario can be avoided at a fraction of the cost.
Machine connectivity is the future in a number of different ways, and it is the backbone of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, in which connected machines will enable real-time AI and analytics.
“As we are going through the stage of Industry 4.0, we are going into complete digitalization where everything needs to be connected,” Schroeder says. “The next stage with machine connectivity is AI. That will ultimately mean vehicles being connected all the time, learning how to respond to situations and becoming as efficient as possible for customers. People will still play an important role — but machines will ultimately be the ones driving efficiencies for companies.”
The autonomous era expands beyond agriculture to rail and mining, as companies see the benefit of autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles can reduce the number of stoppages, improve fuel efficiency, decrease the wear and tear of the vehicles, and reduce cost and improve productivity and efficiency in moving goods. New applications and analytics will emerge in the area of machine connectivity.
Companies in land mobile can send gigabits of data via multiple modes of transport — not just satellite. “Satellite can form part of that backhaul. If you have a mining or oil & gas site connected through a LoRa network, they will backhaul that data through cellular or to remote locations. They can do this through satellite,” Schroeder says.
FlexMove can also allow customers to backhaul high quality imagery from anywhere. Schroeder has seen an increased interest in closed circuit TV, and FlexMove can serve that need.
“We all talk about IoT. But, IoT here is about on the move,” Czulo says. “There is a lot of sensory data being pulled up. The vehicle is not only autonomous in its driving but in its efficiency and operation. I see it as inevitable, and connectivity is a huge part of anything autonomous.”
In the future, a mining operation could be completely managed from the surface, without any humans below ground, Czulo says. “If you look at recent history in oil & gas, connectivity allows the horizontal drillers to no longer be located on the rigs. They sit in offices with monitors and control the drill head. I think a few years now it will be required in those fields. It is an exciting time. We have a real need that needs to be answered,” he says.
The Future of Machine Connectivity
There is so much optimism looking toward the future of connected machines. Intelsat is working to meet that demand through its unified network, combining its ground network with a multi-layer, multi-orbit space-based network for seamless connectivity.
“The aim for Intelsat and FlexMove is to be the connectivity provider for Tier 1 service providers and heavy industry OEMs. That could involve FlexMove service running on both GEO and MEO or LEO satellites to best meet user requirements, as well as potentially integrating an LTE service,” Schroeder says. “We are a connectivity provider and we can provide the equipment manufacturers solutions to their connectivity problems, wherever they are. They will have one connectivity provider and we can service a ‘Networks of Networks’ approach, all operating within a 5G standard.”
This is all possible now. “We have the capability and a price point that works for people,” Czulo adds. “When you can provide a solution for people and the solution doesn’t cost more than the problem, then it starts to be a driving force. That is where we are now.”
Satellite technology has progressed, overcoming pre-conceived notions from the past.
“When people think of Ku-band, they think of larger dishes and slower speeds. This has really changed so we need to overcome that and then at the same time, there is a large percentage of prospects and customers out there that have seen the shift and acceleration in the evolution of satellite and the applications for it across IOT,” Ingle of Expedition Communications says. “We are seeing this acceleration in technology that we were forced as a society to do because of COVID. We had to do this. We were not in the workplace every day. Innovation was a good thing. We are seeing the benefits of that now.” VS