How Satellite Communication is Enabling Global Coverage for IoT

By: Scott Amyx

26, June, 2017


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Internet of Things (IoT) is all about connectivity. According to Gartner, more than 20 billion connected things will be in use worldwide by 2020. Smartphones interconnected to smart homes and vehicles, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and smart cities produce a lot of data. This massive amount of data or big data, in turn, makes these entities intelligent. A reliable 24/7 connectivity demands an efficient communications network that spans across the global.

Which communications technology is capable of handling 20 billion connections scattered all over the globe? It is not just about managing the flood of connections but also capturing all the data produced.

Business operations that extend into unmanned sites and offshore platforms have been using satellites for decades to provide connectivity for facility monitoring and instantaneous management. Examples include transcontinental voyagers, pipelines across deserts, oil drilling stations somewhere in the sea, and fiber-optic cables connecting the continents.

Since its advent, IoT has been pushing existing technologies beyond their existing scope. New research and applications are assisting IoT-based innovation in robustly fitting into the current technology landscape. Whether it is the blockchain technology to provide security and privacy or real-time data analytics for decision support, IoT is increasingly becoming a driving force for technological innovation.

Global Connectivity Challenge: Satellites Show the Way

Custom engineered space-based communication seems to be the only feasible solution to the problem of interconnecting IoT devices scattered across the globe. Satellite technology has the potential to support the development of the IoT sector. Satellites can easily handle such wide-spread connectivity challenge. The speed of data transaction for such high loads might prove to be a problem. It is, however, just a matter of time before innovative solutions spring up.

Satellite operators are already collaborating to bring forth such services and hardware that can unleash the full potential of IoT. They are developing satellite-based solutions that can be easily integrated into hybrid networks that combine fiber, wireless networks, and satellite. Once IoT is empowered with a global network of billions of interconnected devices, it will usher in sweeping changes with impact to business model transformation and new capabilities.

Currently, narrowband providers (L band operating frequency range 1–2 GHz in the radio spectrum) are being used for IoT connectivity purposes. But advancement in high-throughput Ku-band and Ka-band satellite connections have created a broadband expressway in space.

The global nature of satellite systems and the ability to broadcast to multiple points at the same time makes it the most efficient signal delivery on earth. Satellite transmissions can

work seamlessly with terrestrial networks to attain global coverage.

LEO, GEO, and ATG Satellites

Among Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO), and Air-to-Ground (ATG) networks, commercially, GEO is the best option currently. There are many technical challenges in connecting a non-GEO constellation to a vehicle or device, especially the terminal products. This task primarily requires a hybrid solution with the ability to innovate the satellite ecosystem.

Satellite operators are investing in meta-material-based antenna technology to develop Flat Panel Antennas (FPAs). Such antenna and terminal products will be no bigger than a laptop in size, and would provide mobility, content delivery, and wireless backhaul.

Meanwhile, researchers are working on a new model as well. It combines the advantages of GEO and LEO satellites. These hybrid fleets will bring the polar regions under broadband coverage. This model will help in layering bandwidth for high-density traffic regions and applications that require redundancy.

Dublin City University (DCU) and the European Space Agency (ESA) are collaborating to establish a maker space for IoT developers. It will enable the creation and rapid prototyping of satellite technology to support the advancement in machine-to-machine and IoT technologies.  DCU and ESA are focusing on three areas of space communications: development of sensors to aid in search-and-rescue operations, monitoring of critical infrastructure, and adaption of existing radio protocols and standards found in Earth-based communications with systems in space. They believe that research on these three streams will unlock the potential of satellite communication.

Iridium Communication as a Significant Player

Iridium Communications is also playing a significant role in the broad adoption of satellite-based communication. They are launching their brand new IoT product “Iridium Edge.” It has been approved for use in many global markets including Canada, Europe, Australia, and the U.S.

It will enable the fixed-location, satellite-based monitoring devices to add satellite connectivity for cellular-based applications.

Tim Last of Iridium Edge informs that a number of their partners are willing to expand their IoT application to uncharted territories. However, they lack the wherewithal to develop a solution by themselves. And that’s where he believes Iridium Edge can play a major role—taking them global.

The device contains an Iridium modem and antenna enclosed in a small waterproof enclosure. Iridium is of opinion that Iridium Edge can provide connectivity while avoiding blockage problems. This is due to integrated design of the Iridium constellation with a network of interconnected satellites creating a coverage web.

The recent SpaceX satellite constellation will enable Iridium Certus to provide faster speeds and higher throughputs. In addition, it will also facilitate low-latency satellite connectivity for tracking, monitoring, and management functions.

Other Players

Inmarsat and Actility also teamed up combining Inmarsat’s global L band satellite connectivity platform with Actility’s ThingPark IoT management platform to deliver an integrated solution in the form of a LoRaWAN-based network.

NSR estimates that by 2023 there will be 5.8 million machine-to-machine (M2M) and IoT connections via satellite worldwide. This will also result in low cost-per-bit connectivity.

Communication Among Vehicles

Communication companies are also competing to provide bandwidth to the vehicles. They are planning on providing hybrid connectivity to cars, featuring both satellite and terrestrial LTE Cellular technologies. This way satellites will broadcast software updates to cars and other IoT devices on a global scale.

Security updates are one of the primary concern in IoT devices. This capability gives satellites a strategic advantage in providing both operating and navigation software updates. When it comes to cybersecurity, the satellite system is far superior to the cellular system. This is because it reduces cyber attack vectors by eight or nine orders of magnitude.

An autonomous vehicle (AV) will work efficiently in the presence of two different types of external signal connections. Time-sensitive operational functions of the car that require information about other vehicles can rely on LTE networks antenna. Other functions can use satellites as a medium of communications, because of its omnipresence and broadcast abilities.

Whether it is an autonomous vehicle or an airplane, satellite communication will enable them to update real-time position data. Additionally, remote engine monitoring and calibration of integrated systems are also commonly quoted applications.

About Scott Amyx

CEO at Amyx+, IBM IoT Futurist, TEDx, European Commission, United Nations, Wiley Author, TechCrunch, Postscapes & IoT Institute, Winner of Innovation Awards.


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