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    Satellite communications for IoT

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    Nadine Cranenburgh


    Traditional satellite solutions for providing a communications backhaul are obviously applicable for applications involving remote sensors, Defence, tracking across wide geographic areas including oceans, as well as developing solutions for global supply chains.

    In remote areas, terrestrial communication technology connectivity for IoT devices can be largely absent or very expensive. Existing data communication satellites (eg. Iridium and Globalstar) are a solution, but can be expensive, limiting the number of sensors that can be deployed to relay data, and how often data can be sent through IoT.

    The biggest cost of space communication technology is infrastructure: of building and launching a traditional satellite. This expense is passed on to the consumer through the high price of satellite data. A more task appropriate option in the process of being deployed is the use of nanosatellites.


    Nanosatellite constellations have the potential to provide a lower cost satellite communications option for low-power, small-data IoT systems, particularly in terrestrial communications blackspots. The end-to-end solutions required for large-scale deployment of low-cost nanosatellite IOT communications are still in the evolutionary stage, but a number of companies are scheduled to launch the first nanosatellite systems in early 2018, including South Australia based companies Myriota and Fleet Space Technologies.

    Nanosatellites represent the current trend in space technology towards cheaper, smaller and faster to build systems. The CubeSat standard for nanosatellites was developed in 1999 by Stanford University and Cal Poly. In the past fifteen years, CubeSats have been used in universities for numerous projects which engage people to use satellites.

    This big change in the satellite community has been driven by new technologies, like the miniaturisation of electrical components, PCBs, manufacturing and 3D printing. These technologies have meant that it is possible to now build a very small spacecraft with the same capabilities as a big one.

    The CubeSat is 10x10cm and can be constructed into modules up to 30x40cm. They generally have a mass of less than 50kg. Cubesat nanosatellites are still expensive to build and operate (over 1 million $AUS), but much cheaper than their larger counterparts.

    Advances in space technology

    Advances in commercial space technology such as micro and nanosatellites as well as low-cost commercial rockets with payloads capable of deploying multiple micro or nanosatellites in a single launch are being developed by companies such as New Zealand’s RocketLab and have the potential to bring the cost of the technology down even further.

    The recently established Australian Space Agency is also likely to open increased opportunities for Australian industry and Defence to become more involved in establishing micro and nanosatellite networks for IoT communications in applications such as Defence.

    Nanosatellites are usually launched into space via rocket as part of a bigger spacecraft launch. However, some companies are now building dedicated launchers for nanosatellites, which also has the potential to make nanosatellite communications for IoT a more economical option.

    Nanosatellites vs geostationary satellites

    Nanosatellites are launched into low earth orbit (LEO), rather than geostationary orbit. One example of a large geostationary satellite is the NBN Sky Muster satellite which has constant data coverage over the Australia continent. Nanosatellites cover a much larger area of the earth than geostationary satellites, but there is a latency of between 30 seconds to 30 minutes, depending on how close the LEO nanosatellite is to the ground station. This makes nanosatellite communications unsuitable for GPS tracking applications, although the development of triangulation geolocation techniques to provide this data are underway. Constellations of multiple nanosatellites also reduce latency.

    Geostationary satellites are suitable for GPS applications and big data IoT solutions.

    Commercial nanosatellite applications

    Commercial applications of nanosatellites include satellite imagery services, weather prediction, ship tracking as well as IoT data.

    South Australian company Myriota produces low-cost IoT modem technology for use in remote areas. This technology communicates via nanosatellites, although Myriota do not deploy their own satellites.

    Fleet Space Technologies is launching the first two of a 100 satellite constellation at the beginning of 2018, with the aim of being online by 2022. These constellations will provide a free data via a global backhaul service for industrial users of IoT. Once the constellation is online, users who buy sensors, gateways and terminals from vendors providing products containing the Fleet communications chip will be able to operate them without ongoing satellite data costs.

    Satellite vs terrestrial communication

    While launching a communications satellite is much more expensive than building a terrestrial base station, satellite communications provide much wider coverage. This means that the overall cost of coverage is greatly reduced, although the initial infrastructure outlay is much higher, as shown in the diagram below.


    Diagram courtesy of Flavia Tata Nardina, Fleet Space Technologies

    Satellite communications are also a more effective solution for coverage within oceans and remote areas.


    Initially, nanosatellite solutions will have a slow latency, with only a few passes per day providing the opportunity to upload data. This means that it will not initially be feasible to develop real-time solutions using this technology. However, as more satellites join any given constellation, the latency will drop to minutes or conceivably seconds.


    The information on this page was primarily sourced from:


    Edited by Nadine Cranenburgh

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