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The (Literal) Launch of New Satellite IoT Services Has Begun

By Doug Mohney
December 05, 2018

In the past two weeks, SpaceX and ISRO have put 95 new satellites into orbit. India’s PSLV launch on November 29, 2018 carried 31 satellites to orbit while SpaceX’s Falcon 9 had 64 satellites onboard the December 3 launch.  Among the passengers, seven IoT (Internet of Things) startup companies looking to provide new, low-cost services to track and monitor things across the world.  Satellite IoT is surging and the subject of an IoT Evolution panel discussion in Ft. Lauderdale on January 31, 2019.

A few of the names you’ll hear more about in the weeks and months to come include Astrocast, Fleet Communications, Helios Wire, Hiber Global, Kepler Communications, Myriota, and Swarm Technologies. Six of the seven firms have successfully communicated with their 11 (total of all firms) new satellites; Swarm may have as well, but the company doesn’t like to talk to the media unless the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is holding up its licenses for bad behavior.  

Small satellites present two key advantages and one disadvantage for implementing IoT services.  Small satellites, being small, are cheaper to build and launch, lowering overall capital expense costs.  Flying closer to the ground than geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) at 22,300 miles above the earth.  At an altitude of a couple hundred miles above the surface, less power and smaller antennas are needed to transmit and receive data, lowering costs of both ground equipment and satellite transmitters.

The one disadvantage to lower flying satellites is they may fly over only one point on the Earth’s surface twice a day or so, so data only gets picked up every 12 hours on average.  Adding a second satellite means you can pick up data from a device up to 4 times a day and so on.  To provide near-continuous, near real-time or real-time monitoring service requires a combination of a lot of satellites and/or a way to relay data between satellites before passing it down to a ground station.  Most IoT satellite plan to launch 100 or more small satellites and many are looking at in-orbit (via satellite) relay networks to move data to the ground faster.

How low/cheap will monitoring a thing become? Hiber Global suggests it will be able to pull short bursts of data from a device once a day for around $5 per month.  Swarm Technologies suggests prices even lower.

How do 11 new satellites distribute among the 7 new IoT firms? Who currently has the most satellites in orbit? Does he who have the most satellites, wins?

Answering the last question first, the answer is “Sorta.”  Many companies are launching initial “pathfinder” satellites to test hardware in orbit, communication with things on the ground, and try out business models and services with potential customers.  The more satellites in orbit, the better the opportunities to move from service trials to paying customers.

For example, Kepler Communication has been able to demonstrate it can move large amount of data between its satellites and ships near the poles – regions more brimming with ice and penguins than high-speed connectivity.

Astrocast, Helios Wire, and Myriota all put up their first satellites through the SpaceX launch, while Kepler Communications added one satellite to its total on the PSLV launch. Kepler launched its first satellite in January, so it now has a fleet of two.

Fleet Communications Technology and Hiber Global have two satellites each in orbit, both putting one onboard the India PSLV launch and one on the SpaceX launch.  However, Fleet’s fleet stands at four satellites, with the company taking advantage of open space on the November 11, 2018 “It’s Business Time” Rocket Lab flight, with a pair of satellite built on short notice in two weeks.

Swarm Technologies put up three satellites using the SpaceX launch. However, the trio of SpaceBEE satellites are operating under a temporary FCC license until the agency decides what to do about Swarm’s earlier launch of four satellites onboard an India PSLV launch in January.  The FCC denied Swarm a license to launch the satellites because there wasn’t enough information on how to track the satellites, each roughly the size of a piece of Texas toast.  Swarm launched anyway, resulting in the FCC holding up licenses, conducting hearings, and trying to determine suitable action. 

With a total of seven satellites, Swarm has the most in orbit, but this advantage is offset by it having to straighten out its previous actions with the FCC.

“LPWAN in Space: Think You Can't Get Ubiquity in Those Hard to Reach Terrains? Think Again,” will take place at IoT Evolution Expo at 3 p.m. on Thursday, January 31. The panel discussion includes the co-founder of Hiber Global, CEO and co-founder of Helios Wire, and the CEO of Kepler Communications. 

Edited by Ken Briodagh

Contributing Editor

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