Satellite IoT Startups Launch Small satellites fuel big ambitions

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Rick Merritt / 2018-08-10 / News

 As many as a dozen startups aim to launch as many as 200 nanosatellites each over the next few years to link nodes in remote areas that cellular networks don’t reach.

Bill Ray, a Gartner analyst, predicts that the 1,500 commercial satellites in orbit today could grow by an order of magnitude in five years, many of them aimed at IoT. “A lot of companies are at an early funding stage,” said Ray. “Some raised $4–5 million with a proof-of-concept and are ready to launch their first couple of satellites.”

It’s a renaissance for a mature industry once focused mainly on large, expensive birds parked in high geosynchronous orbit. The new satellites weigh less than 15 pounds and cost less than a million dollars to build and launch into low orbits about 300 to 500 miles above Earth.

Both the new and a handful of existing satellite IoT services are competing to get their software designed into a wide array of sensors, end nodes, and gateways. It’s an opportunity for chip and system companies if they can pick partners who survive what’s expected to be a shakeout over the next few years.

Among the players, Sky and Space Global (Perth, Australia) has launched three of 200 nanosatellites that it plans to put into orbit for a cost of $160 million. The S-band sats use a novel mesh networking technology and are geared for a number of applications beyond IoT.

Astrocast (Lausanne, Switzerland) plans to launch 64 nanosats at a cost of $50 million by 2021, with its first launches this fall. U.S. startup Swarm reportedly ran afoul with U.S. regulators when it launched from India a handful of satellites too small to track.

“We are still in in the early stages of satellite IoT,” said Alex Grant, chief executive of Myriota (Adelaide, Australia), which aims to make satellite links directly to IoT end nodes. “Companies are getting their infrastructure in space … ultimately, we see a market for hundreds of millions of devices.”

The startup designed a $50 module with a five-year battery life based on an off-the-shelf UHF transceiver loaded with its own firmware and algorithms. It aims to get the module designed into OEM sensor gear before the end of the year. Many other startups are embedding more bulky and power-hungry satellite receivers in access points that link to hundreds of end nodes via Wi-Fi or LoRa.

For its part, Myriota filed for 20 patents on its proprietary waveform, coding scheme, network architecture, and approaches to delivering end-node security and location data. Today, it serves a few hundred pilot users based on connections to four third-party satellites.

Next year, the startup aims to launch its first two or three satellites dedicated to UHF bands that deliver wide coverage for relatively low power. It has filed regulatory requests for 24 satellites so far and hopes to have a constellation of more than 100 up within five years.

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lex Grant shows Myriota’s $50 module that lives up to five years off of a battery. (Image: Myriota)


All of the startups will compete and collaborate with a handful of existing satellite IoT players including Iridium. The former Motorola spin-off started its life as a provider of global voice services but, in 2006, added narrowband IoT data services that are now its fastest-growing business segment.

Iridium now makes about $100 million of its nearly half a billion dollars in annual revenues from more than 600,000 IoT-connected devices growing at nearly 100,000 a year. “IoT outstripped every aspect of our satellite business in growth,” said Tim Last, general manager of Iridium’s IoT group.

It’s a good business, but not good enough to scale it down to compete with the newcomers.

Iridium offers a high-end service thanks to a constellation of satellites on a mesh network delivering latency of a few seconds using a globally available L-band. However, its $110 transceivers are relatively expensive and power-hungry compared to the upstarts pushing hard to get below $50.

The flip side of the coin is that the lower-power UHF/VHF bands that newcomers will use are not available in some areas such as Russia. And the new networks are challenged to get latency for a data relay below 90 minutes.

Rather than re-tool its net or launch another, Iridium is talking with about six startups. It already struck partnerships with Hiber, an Amsterdam startup with satellites now serving emerging markets, and Feet Space, an Australian vendor of a satellite gateway called the Portal that links to end nodes over LoRa.

“We see [the new startups] as complementary — some aim for a data service that costs $2/year” said Iridium’s Last, whose customers pay $12/month on average.

Like the startups, Iridium is trying to get its proprietary satellite transceivers and software embedded into third-party IoT chips and systems. It has signed up nearly 400 OEM partners using its boards since its data service started in 2006, but so far, only a handful of them, such as Garmin, are integrating its transceivers in ASICs.

Iridium is moving on three fronts here. It aims to sign up more ASIC partners; later this year, it will announce the first chip makers integrating its software; and it is making a few systems itself.

“Fewer and fewer OEMs want to build [satellite-integrated] products, so we have to build a small number of finished solutions ourselves to lower the barrier to get to market … we care about service revenue; hardware is a means to an end,” said Last.


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Iridium plans more finished receivers beyond Iridium Edge. (Image: Iridium)

Ultimately, the vast majority of IoT connections will be on terrestrial networks. Satellites from a few entrenched suppliers and perhaps a few newcomers will serve a small niche, according to Alan Crisp, a senior analyst with Northern Sky Research who tracks the area.

“I expect the market will only handle a few constellations for IoT, so a number may go under or merge,” said Crisp, suggesting that success will mainly be in cargo tracking and new apps like satellite links embedded in life jackets. In many markets, satellite IoT “will have big challenges compared to terrestrial nets,” he said.

The hurdles include getting terminals and ground stations validated, getting modules made and designed into OEM systems, and launching a full constellation with broad coverage and latency below an hour. Even then, data rates can be limited to a few Kbytes or even a few bytes a day.

In addition, satellites have an average lifespan of less than four years, so constellations need to be continually refreshed and there is a fight for limited launch space. Unlike their terrestrial rivals, satellite IoT really does involve some rocket science.

Among other startups worth noting are Sat4M2M, which already has a transceiver operating on the International Space Station; Kepler Communications (Toronto), which is repurposing Ku-band ground equipment to reduce switching costs; and Lacuna Space, a startup based in a U.K. incubator run by the European Space Agency using LoRa modulation techniques for satellites.

Of up to 20 satellite startups in IoT or other services such as broadband or imaging, six to 10 won’t make it through to production, said Last of Iridium. “A handful will undoubtedly get through — the rising tide of IoT is lifting all of us.”

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