From Wildfires to Heavy Equipment: Case Studies for Satellite IoT
Hundreds of use cases are emerging in satellite IoT, which expands the Internet of Things beyond the reach of terrestrial networks. Here are a few case studies, from wildfires to heavy equipment.
April 24, 2023
Most fires don’t start as big explosions, but as small, smoldering hazes that look like yellowish pillows of smoke. It can take between one and several hours for a flame to spark into a crown fire. Once this happens, the strength of the fire escalates quickly. Within hours, a fire spreads rapidly — often taking down hundreds of acres of trees and homes in its path before it can be contained.
That’s an outcome Dryad hopes to prevent with its solar-powered wildfire sensors and IoT mesh gateways, powered by Swarm, a SpaceX subsidiary that provides low-bandwidth satellite connectivity from its constellation in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). Dryad’s early detection technology is designed to stop fires before they even look like fires, through a solution that utilizes sophisticated machine learning sensors which cost less than $50 each. These sensors detect fires in the smoldering phase and quickly push that data to a mesh network of interconnected gateways, which are then picked up by a satellite. The Swarm satellite then enables the dispatch of an alert to first responders.
“About 80 percent of fires are human induced, like an idiot throwing a cigarette while hiking,” says Carsten Brinkschulte, CEO of Dryad, who founded the Eberswalde, Germany-based company in 2020. “And then you've got what's called a smoldering phase, where slowly and surely a fire will develop but it can take one hour or two hours before you have an open flame.”
So far, Dryad has deployed its solution at 25 sites around the globe, in California in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia, and sold 10,000 sensors and is now in the process of manufacturing another 20,000 units.
“The Swarm system is relatively low power, we can run it on solar,” says Brinkschulte. “Previously, the existing satellite connectivity was extremely expensive and required a lot of energy for transmission to space, both of which you don't want in our use case. We don't have a lot of energy … there is no power plug in the forest. Previously, it wasn’t simply possible with the Geostationary systems because they required so much energy to communicate with them. And also from a pricing perspective, they were too expensive.”
Dryad’s application is just one of hundreds of emerging use cases for satellite IoT, a potentially lucrative market within the space and satellite industry: While forecasts vary, one recent estimate suggests that the satellite IoT market size is projected to grow from $1.1 billion in 2022 to $2.9 billion by 2027.
As the cost of satellite connectivity continues to plummet, industries from mining and mineral exploration to agriculture and forestry are looking to how satellite IoT can support their needs and expand coverage beyond terrestrial networks.
With some of these use cases for satellite IoT in the early stages of rollout, there’s an emerging opportunity for future partnerships between satcoms and wireless operators, fleet managers, and vertical markets not typically associated with satellite, like livestock and mineral mining. The possibilities are seemingly endless.
Connecting Big Markets
“The demand for satellite IoT is one of the more exciting trends in the industry,” says Tim Last, Iridium Communications’ vice president and general manager of IoT, who points to multiple use cases for IoT around the globe. Iridium provides global satellite IoT services through its network architecture of 66 LEO satellites.
“We have over 500 partners around the world that puts us into all sorts of different applications, and probably two-thirds of those are IoT in one form or another, connecting a product or an asset from somebody remote in the field to usually a cloud-hosted application,” Last tells Via Satellite. “They’re using the data that comes back to generate insights or take action in response to something they're hearing from that asset in the field to make their business more efficient. It could be tagging a truck and tracking a container, it could be tracking a piece of cargo as it goes around the world. It could be making sure that an engine is running properly.”
What makes satellite-based IoT more compelling than traditional terrestrial IoT systems isn’t simply its ability to reach into dense forests and deep coal mines. It’s the ability for it to do all of these things with very little power, at a much lower cost, enabling connectivity for industries in remote, off-the-grid, parts of the world, from Montana to West Africa.
“You hear a lot of cool, interesting, sexy IoT applications such as environmental protection services, tracking animals and all that good stuff, but the [fastest] growing businesses are oil and gas, logistics and fleet management,” says Last. “It's also growing in agribusiness and agriculture, which increasingly is getting connected, whether it's the vehicles or sensors in the field.”
For example: Iridium’s partnership with Sumitomo Construction Machinery, a manufacturer of heavy equipment, to leverage its satellite communications technology for its Link-Belt Excavators; in addition to Iridium’s Short Burst Data service for its RemoteCare service platform in North America.
“You can build a product or a service with Iridium and you can deploy it anywhere in the world and get substantially the same performance,” said Last. “Wherever you go, guaranteed. You don't have to think about coverage, you don't have to think about different regions. You don't have to think about different orbital dynamics or whether or not the satellite can still be seen in the sky because a user or application is too far south or too far north.”
Mining: Smarter Machines, Speedier Insights
In the mining industry, extended mining cycles, unscheduled downtime, and exorbitant operating costs are persistent and pressing issues. That’s why one of the biggest draws of satellite IoT is that it speeds up communications, helping equipment operators obtain actionable insights much faster than terrestrial networks, which can’t always promise seamless coverage.
“We’re in the business of making mining more efficient, reliable, and sustainable [but] as we progressed and started helping mining companies, we came to understand that we can also serve not only mining but also forestry, agriculture, and construction because the machines are very, very similar,” says Ash Agarwal, president and CEO of Symboticware, which provides software to heavy industries.
Symboticware is partnering with Swarm to support its satellite IoT needs.
The company’s platform, which is interoperable with all OEM/manufacturing vehicle specifications, is centered on speed to access: AI-powered data interfaces are affixed to machines in a fleet, routinely sending critical information to a platform that processes data, ensuring timely and critical intelligence is delivered to operators.
Agarwal admits that using satellite IoT to power this platform has some disadvantages when compared with cellular. For example, its network connectivity is not as strong as cellular, and “some work needs to be done” to compress data into small packets, which Swarm engineers have helped with. But the satellite’s footprint is much broader — and the technology’s downsides, like latency, are diminishing over time.
Also, the cost of mobile satellites in LEO are a fraction of what it costs to use geostationary satellites, he said.
“Less than 10 percent of our planet is covered by cellular,” says Agarwal. “If I were at AT&T, I would focus my efforts toward the cities where there are millions of people willing to pay me as compared to remote locations where there is not a significant population density. The mines are in the middle of nowhere, and where cellular networks have little incentive to cover that space with proper network coverage. That's a challenge for our industry, not just mining, but forestry, agriculture, and construction. We have to bridge this infrastructure gap. We cannot become a project and bail ourselves [out]. So how we fill the gap is [through] satellite communications.”
There are other interesting use cases for asset tracking with satellite IoT.
Astrocast, a Swiss global nanosatellite IoT network operator founded in 2014, recently announced its partnership with Madrid-based Digitanimal, a livestock-tracking solutions provider, to offer IoT connectivity through its constellation of 18 LEO satellites, which utilize the L-band spectrum through an alliance with Thuraya.
Carlos Callejero Andrés, CEO of Digitanimal, who co-founded his company in 2015 help a friend in the agriculture business track cattle, also said the benefits of using satellite IoT is constant real-time connectivity, at a fraction of the price of a Geostationary satellite network. Farmers can not only track the movement of cattle and other livestock, but also their health, body temperature, and weight. This, in turn, leads to healthier livestock and greater profitability.
“The conditions of the environment are changing and sometimes [livestock] are walking in hills and grasslands,” said Callejero. “There are a lot of areas where even having good antennas, maybe there are some valleys and some areas where we know that the signal is not reaching the collar.
“Livestock are strongly affected by environmental conditions, so when we try to detect anomalies, we need to take into account all the external factors and recent changes,” he continued. “We have observed very significant changes in activity, for instance, after a fire in the forest, we can see how they have [modified their behavior], or even during the winter if they are very low temperature and they cannot sleep.”
Callejero said an internal study the company did with seven of its Spanish farm customers showed that satellite IoT in conjunction with its tracking solution saved 3,000 euros per year in costs associated with tracking and fuel, and increased livestock reproduction rates by 20 percent.
Connecting Operators, Extending Coverage
The mobile satellite operator Sateliot is addressing the coverage gaps between terrestrial wireless and satellite by offering wireless operators low-power IoT connectivity through its constellation of LEO satellites: five will launch this year, with plans to have 256 satellites by 2025.
“What we found is that the only way to connect IoT devices outside the coverage of the mobile operators was using satellite devices … which are not for massive IoT,” says Sateliot's CEO Jaume Sanpera. “They are super expensive, they are proprietary, and they are costly to maintain. Then what we did we look at the IoT devices that the mobile operators were using on the moment — this was three years ago. And we realized that with minor modifications in the standard, we may connect from a satellite.”
Sanpera said that using Sateliot, mobile operators can connect forestry, agriculture, cattle management, infrastructure monitorization in any place on the planet using the same global device. This is appealing to mobile operators across the world who want to do away with barriers to global connectivity.
“We are just an extension of the mobile operators,” Sanpera said. “Instead of today having those complicated maps with red points where they have coverage, mobile operators will have coverage everywhere. IoT customers will have no idea if they are connected to a satellite or a base station.”
Over the next five to 10 years, Sanpera said he expects the satellite IoT market to grow even more competitive.
“What's going to be happening in the future is something even more interesting,” he says. “The big chipset manufacturers for mobile phones, they are implementing the [satellite] IoT protocol on the mobile phone. This means that not only will you have full coverage everywhere with IoT, but also you will have full coverage for messaging with your mobile phone. This is something that will happen very soon. And at an incredible low cost.” VS
Lead photo: Image credits clockwise from top left: Dryad, Sumitomo Construction, Freepik, and Digitanimal