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January 24, 2023updated 31 Mar 2023 8:10am

An IoT revolution in space can happen – if the first movers let it

Space should enable companies to transform operations in remote areas. But smaller players say GEO operators are hogging all the good frequencies.

By Ryan Morrison

Farmers love moisture. Anyone with the wherewithal to make a career out of growing soybeans, maize or wheat will tell you that the successful harvest of those crops depends on the soil in the fields retaining a consistent level of moisture throughout the year. Too little, and the plants will either grow stunted, or not at all – too much, and they’ll drown. By staking a specialised sensor into the ground, however, farmers can ascertain just how thirsty their crop is. Plant a dozen or more and hook them up to an IoT network, and that same farmer is halfway toward predicting whether or not their business will still be in shape by harvest.

IoT sensors and devices can send signals to space and provide "live feeds" from even the most remote parts of the planet (Photo: OQ Technologies)
IoT sensors and devices can send signals to space and provide ‘live feeds’ from even the most remote parts of the planet. (Photo by OQ Technologies)

Having access to a satellite also helps. Without the space sector, much of the data generated by such IoT sensors would be prohibitively expensive to retrieve. By using satellites to connect to such devices, however, data can be transmitted quickly and reliably even in the most remote areas, allowing everyone from long-haul truck drivers to oil rig engineers to harness these networks. Ultimately, space-based communications are allowing businesses to take advantage of the latest IoT technology and access the data they need – without being limited by geography.

What’s even more remarkable is that comparatively few IoT providers are actually taking advantage of these types of live link-ups, according to Lucy Edge, chief operating officer of the Satellite Applications Catapult. This, explains Edge, is thanks in part to the still-high cost of putting the kinds of satellites into orbit that can facilitate IoT networks in remote locations. But, she argues, there is also a need to build the kind of infrastructure to better suit the needs of the growing IoT sector. “It is all clearly possible at the moment – but we’re not maximising the benefits of it,” says Edge.

IoT goes to space

There’s a clear demand among businesses for more reliable connectivity during the implementation of IoT solutions. A study by Inmarsat in 2021 found that 75% of companies that were surveyed experienced connectivity challenges when trialling IoT projects, citing issues from a lack of basic coverage to high costs.

Satellite-based communications should be solving this. Recent years have seen the price of launching a satellite into space fall precipitously, thanks in part to the pioneering development of reusable rockets by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. As of January 2022, there were 4,852 active satellites orbiting the Earth, with more than half of those part of the firm’s Starlink satellite internet constellation. Another 385 are technology demonstrations launched by start-ups, including those working in the IoT space.

It’s a revolution that has helped realise a swathe of new IoT applications in difficult-to-reach locations, with agriculture, mining, the fossil fuel industry and drone logistics firms all benefiting from the newfound availability of satellite-based communications. On farms, for example, satellite-enabled IoT devices can be used to track and monitor crop growth and shifting weather conditions, in addition to soil moisture, leading to improved yields and cost savings. In both surface and underground pits, too, satellite-enabled IoT devices can be used to track and monitor the movement of heavy machinery, as well as the condition of equipment and the safety of workers. This helps to improve efficiency, reduce downtime and help to prevent serious mining accidents.

Satellite-enabled IoT is also helping to save the rainforest. A project led by the University of Stirling and IoT start-up Ground Control has installed AI-powered camera traps across the interior of Gabon. The modules operate using a ‘gateway’ tool, piggybacking off an Iridium satellite constellation using messaging packets no larger than 100kb. Each unit automatically photographs and identifies dozens of animal species, as well as unwelcome poachers, before sending the data back to rangers. Such remote monitoring solutions, explained researcher Dr Robin Whytock, “could revolutionise how we monitor and protect the world’s most threatened ecosystems”.

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For now, these edge cases are the main drivers of space-based IoT solutions, but in time, argues Edge, embracing satellite communications could lead to IoT modules buttressing smart cities and drone-based supply chains. “Then,” she says, “the resilience of the connection needs to be even stronger – and that is where the role of space comes in.”

Space for everyone

There’s only one problem: space is getting increasingly crowded. To operate inexpensively and with sufficient coverage to reach this planet’s remotest areas, IoT satellite networks require constellations comprising hundreds of units flying in low Earth orbit. So far, that market has been cornered by large multinationals like SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb, all of which are well on their way toward expanding their huge and diverse swarms of satellites that use very specific frequencies at very specific heights above the Earth’s surface.

Either IoT providers on Earth need to strike new deals with these providers – something that both OneWeb and SpaceX seem interested in doing – or allow others to piggyback off the same frequencies using their own satellite fleets.

Omar Qaise, however, believes in the latter approach. Legacy players with large satellites in geosynchronous orbit “have been sitting on [these signals] and doing nothing with it,” argues the founder and CEO of OQ Technology, an IoT satellite telecommunications start-up. New regulations forcing these early satellite companies to share frequencies, meanwhile, might trigger a wave of innovation in the IoT space.

“Once you have competition,” says Qaise, “and you have different players accessing that spectrum, you’ll see a lot of innovative ways to coordinate and coexist with each other – because everyone will use that spectrum efficiently.”

Read more: Connected device supply chains lack transparency but the IoT’s security problems run deeper

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