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Why direct-to-orbit satellite communication is the holy grail for remote IoT

3 Aug 2017

The forecast numbers around the Internet of Things (IoT) are staggering. In the industrial world, there is huge demand for IoT in agriculture, logistics, mining, and other remote industries. The challenge for these industries is access to cost effective IoT connectivity given they operate outside of traditional communications range. Because let’s face it, without connectivity, these remote ‘Internet of Things’ become, well, just ‘things’.

Satellites are the obvious choice for remote connectivity. They provide truly global coverage. So why aren’t we seeing more IoT devices connected via satellite?

At the end of the day it comes down to cost and battery life.

Like all IoT applications, remote IoT requires small, low cost, long battery life transmitters. This is easily achieved when communicating with a tower a few kilometers away, but much more difficult when transmitting to a satellite hundreds of kilometers above the earth.

In addition, remote IoT requires low ongoing data charges and low infrastructure overheads – and this is where satellite IoT becomes really challenging.

Fortunately, recent technological advances have made satellites cheaper (under US$1.5m), smaller, and easier to launch. But you still need to spread the cost of these cheap satellites across huge numbers of IoT connections to make them viable. And this is the crux of the problem. Existing satellite technology is not designed for direct communication with huge numbers of IoT transmitters. It’s designed to transmit comparatively large amounts of data via smaller numbers of bigger, power hungry transmitters with large antennas.

Let’s use an airport like London’s Heathrow as an analogy. Every year Heathrow accommodates about 70 million passengers with roughly 1,400 large jets arriving or departing every day. They use air traffic control to safely co-ordinate these large aircraft movements. Imagine if Heathrow banned jumbo jets and only allowed the operation of small, two seat airplanes. It would require about 1,400 aircraft movements every 25 minutes to accommodate Heathrow’s 70 million annual passengers! The planes would crash into each other and the system simply wouldn’t work.

Likewise, existing satellite technology is very good at dealing with smaller numbers of large, highly co-ordinated, power hungry transmissions. This is great if you need large amounts of data like voice or images, but it doesn’t work if you have millions of direct IoT connections.

As a result, there are two ways people use existing satellite technology for IoT. They transmit direct-to-orbit (expensive, power hungry, comparatively small numbers of transmissions) or they aggregate data via local wireless networks and use the satellite as a backhaul service. In the latter case this requires the installation of towers or other ground based infrastructure.

In instances where there is a critical density of sensors, using towers as a backhaul (via satellite or otherwise) is often a viable solution. But in instances where there is a lower density of sensors or those sensors move around (such as remote asset tracking) using towers as a backhaul simply doesn’t work.

When you take all these considerations into account, it is clear the holy grail for remote IoT is a cost effective, long battery life, direct-to-orbit, satellite IoT solution. Myriota, a company based in Adelaide Australia, has developed this exact technology.

Myriota uses small, low cost transmitters to send small packets of data direct to a constellation of low earth orbit nano-satellites providing affordable IoT connectivity without the need for ground based infrastructure. Myriota’s patented communications system exploits the advancements in silicon chip and nano-satellite technology, to enable low cost direct-to-orbit IoT connectivity on a massive scale.

Myriota is engaged with hundreds of companies from around the world in a variety of industries including agriculture, maritime, defence, utilities monitoring, environmental monitoring, and transport and logistics. In recent months it has deployed several commercial trials including a remote water tank monitoring solution and a remote asset tracking application. Myriota will be launching its commercial direct-to-orbit IoT connectivity solution in 2018.

Tom Rayner is Business Development Executive for Myriota, an Australian company with unique technology providing global low cost, direct-to-orbit, satellite IoT connectivity.