There is no understating how important the IoT (Internet of Things) is to both industrial and consumer areas, but it is important to remember that such connectivity does not just take place on the ground. This article looks at utilising satellites for the Internet of Things, some of the challenges, and ultimately what the IoT in space has to offer.
There is no understating how important the IoT (Internet of Things) is to both industrial and consumer areas, but it is important to remember that such connectivity does not just take place on the ground. This article looks at the aerospace innovation in the IoT.
Defining the IoT in space and why it’s become a reality
Put simply, the ‘IoT in space’ is the use of small satellites orbiting Earth to ensure the deployment and efficiency of Internet of Things systems in ways that traditional, on-the-ground IoT innovation cannot. This is chiefly down to the pitfalls of underground fibre-optic cables – of which environmental factors are just one of many.
Accordingly, the reason that the IoT in space has become a reality is down to user demands. Even if there were enough IoT deployments on Earth to ensure efficient Internet of Things connectivity all over the world, the existing communications infrastructure – for as long as it’s only based on Earth – may never accommodate such a high level of demand.
The need for high-performing smart technologies has become so prevalent that there has become a growing demand for the IoT systems to ‘take to the skies’ – by using satellites (specifically nanosatellites) to accommodate them.
Nanosatellites in the IoT
Nanosatellite constellations, formed of CubeSats (miniaturised satellites made of cubic modules), offer the communications infrastructure to facilitate the IoT in space. Such constellations are vital as they offer more equipment to process the enormous data demands of the IoT. After all, the use of underground (and undersea) fibre optic cables on Earth alone will always have limitations in Internet communications.
In fact, the very conditions of Earth mean that Internet cables themselves are prone to environmental damage, but the same cannot be said for CubeSats – or any satellite for that matter. As explained by the GSOA (Global Satellite Operators’ Association):
“An IoT ecosystem needs ubiquitous, resilient, and seamless connections at all times to run efficiently. Satellites, in conjunction with terrestrial services, have a proven track record of resilience and can provide these connections anywhere in the world in an economical manner.”
But despite the resilience of satellites, one problem that does need to be considered in the establishment of satellite-based IoT is latency. The Internet of Things by definition needs to have very low latency as it is a vital part of mission-critical systems. This is why IoT nanosatellites have to be installed in orbit from 500 to 600 kilometres from Earth – whereas traditional satellites are around 36,000km away. It is no wonder that the use of conventional satellite signals suffer latency more than IoT-based communications.
IoT in space R&D
Two major projects that are focused on the IoT in space are that of SpaceX and the IoTEE (Internet of Things Everywhere on Earth), the latter being an EU-funded initiative.
SpaceX, which is already focused on providing Internet access through satellites with its Starlink programme, has as of mid-2021 merged with Swarm Technologies, which explains that it uses “uniquely small satellites … to operate the world’s lowest cost two-way satellite communications network”.
The IoTEE, meanwhile, explains that it is an M2M (machine-to-machine) IoT solution that aims to vastly increase Europe’s space IoT market share and utilise the Internet of Things to help address key challenges the world faces. These include the need for environmental monitoring, food security, and much more.
With organisations as big as SpaceX and the EU behind it, it is clear that the IoT in space is not only well underway, but setting the stage for a revolution in Internet communications. On top of this, the environmental benefits that it is bringing, and will continue to bring, embody just some of the many applications that low earth orbit, low-latency nanosatellite networks can offer to the Internet of Things – and, of course, the world itself.