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The next frontier for IoT is outer space

Added to IoTplaybook or last updated on: 05/25/2022
The next frontier for IoT is outer space

It’s often said that for the Internet of Things (IoT), the sky’s the limit. It appears that bit of hyperbole is outdated.

That’s because IoT is now in space thanks to a burgeoning industry including traditional providers such as Viasat-Inmarsat and HughesNet to Starlink and a variety of other new players. Their mission is to supply connectivity between devices on Earth to a satellite and then back to a data center on Earth where processing and analysis can be performed.

It’s the latest addition to the already unwieldy number of choices facing those implementing IoT on a large scale, and like each one of those, it has clear advantages and disadvantages.

From a connectivity standpoint, IoT has suffered from an embarrassment of riches.

At least a dozen solutions continue to battle each other for supremacy, from protocols falling within the IEEE 802.15.4 standard such as ZigBee to proprietary protocols as well as narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) offered by wireless carriers and Low-Power Wide-Area Networks (LPWANs).

While it’s good to have choices, it complicates the deployment of wireless networks, especially in brownfield Industrial IoT (IIoT) installations where multiple wireless networks may already be deployed and where hundreds or thousands of sensors need to be added throughout multiple facilities.

The satellite industry enters the fray with the unique capability of potentially being able to serve any location on Earth, including oceans and seas that represent more than 70% of the Earth’s surface. Although this capability has been provided by satellite providers for years, the required equipment and monthly fees were too high for use by enterprises with only modest resources. The extremely high cost of building, launching and operating satellites has been far too high for all but large enterprises and government agencies.

But when NASA effectively divested itself of the low-hanging fruit in its portfolio to focus on exploration of the far reaches of the universe, private industry quickly took notice and an entirely new industry was created to fill the gap. These companies develop everything from reusable launch vehicles to an ecosystem of satellite builders.

Exploiting massive advances in semiconductor, signal processing, cloud computing, artificial intelligence and other technologies, it became possible to build very small satellites. They’re typically called cubesats and cost much less. SpaceX is the most obvious and well-established of these companies, but there are hundreds of smaller ones that build smallsats and add application-specific payloads for their customers who deploy them by piggybacking on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets with payload bays to spare.

The shipping industry, which tracks ships across the globe, was the first target market. Government and civilian agencies that monitor illegal fishing, wildlife poaching and oil tankers trying to evade sanctions are another target market. Another market being explored includes farmers who can command silos to release food, manage irrigation systems and perform other functions without the need for high levels of technical expertise.

The fossil fuel industry is another potentially immense market because of its geographically diverse infrastructure, which must be monitored in near real-time. Other applications include animal tracking, water and vehicle monitoring, wildfire detection, and biodiversity management. New applications are being explored every year. The key differentiator for satellite-based solutions is that they can provide capabilities to remote locations anywhere there is power. Because equipment and service costs are comparatively low, they can be exploited by nations without massive financial resources

In each case, the information gathered by sensors on the ground or on the water is transmitted to the satellites that send data to cloud data centers for analysis and then back to the point of origin where operators can make decisions to monitor and control their operations. All these capabilities fall well within the broad umbrella of IoT, and unlike other communications solutions, satellite systems implemented in many of these situations are deployed in remote locations – from mines to farmland, ships to oil platforms.

A satellite-based IoT solution requires that the devices or platforms generating the data be equipped with a transceiver and directional antenna that provide either unidirectional or bidirectional communications to the satellite. Some of the most recent such products (minus the antenna) are the size of a small paperback book, consume very low power, and can be mounted on stationary or moving platforms.

The latency factor

Both speed and latency define the performance of a communications link. Latency is the delay incurred throughout the transmission path, caused primarily by distance but also by all the electronic components and systems the signal must pass during its round trip. In fact, total latency is not simply the distance between the sensor on the ground and the satellite. A trip has four segments: from the data-generating device on Earth to the satellite, from the satellite to the internet, the internet to the satellite and back to the point of origin.

Traditionally, this trip averages about 550 ms. When satellites are in low Earth orbit (LEO), the trip can be reduced to one-tenth of this or less. Latency of 500 ms is not all that important for voice calls or streaming video, which that can tolerate such delays. For applications such robotics, telesurgery and many others, responses to commands from the ground can tolerate only a few milliseconds of latency.

In short, the latency of satellite-delivered communications doesn’t compare favorably with cable, which has latency between 15 ms and 35 ms, and fiber’s 11 ms to 14 ms. Thanks to the laws of physics, there is no way to improve these metrics. The only way to reduce latency is to reduce the distance between the device and the satellite, and the nearest that can be is LEO where the spacecraft is hundreds of kilometers away.

However, the satellite industry is not really focusing on these latency-critical applications, but on machine-to-machine communications that typically have low data rates and don’t require instantaneous responses to commands. Nearly all of the applications described earlier fall into this category, so the high latency of satellite-based IoT is not critical. These markets offer enormous potential revenue, which is why several new players are entering this market every year.

Conclusion

While every IoT connectivity solution has its pros and cons, a satellite-based approach has one characteristic none of the others can match: coverage anywhere on Earth. This alone should enable this industry to grow rapidly in the coming years, expanding where IoT can be deployed. It’s already a multibillion-dollar industry and growing fast.

 

Avnet

This content is provided by our content partner Avnet, a global technology solutions provider with end-to-end ecosystem capabilities. Visit them online for more great content like this.

This article was originally published at Avnet. It was added to IoTplaybook or last modified on 05/25/2022.