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7 December 2018

Astrocast gets test off ground in IoT micro-satellite surge

Astrocast has announced that its test launch for its low-earth-orbit (LEO) IoT-focused satellite network was a success. Launched by Spaceflight, on the back of a SpaceX rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, the startup is hoping to launch its own LEO constellation that it can use to serve the 90% of the earth’s surface that Astrocast claims is not covered by cellular networks.

Now, given that around 70% of the earth’s surface is actually covered in water, it’s worth stressing that there isn’t a need to have complete global coverage for the vast majority of applications. Unless your use-case involves maritime shipping and/or boats, then this 90% claim is something of a moot point.

However, there’s definitely a need to bring more connectivity options out to the underserved territory, and these small satellites have proven to be quite popular among the investment community. There’s a lot of enthusiasm on show for such companies, which hope to fill in the gaps between the much larger conventional communication satellites, with technologies that have been adapted to suit the low-power and low-bandwidth requirements of the IoT – something that the likes of a TV satellite just isn’t going to handle.

The gist of the proposition is that it is more cost effective to provide coverage for underserved regions using constellations of small satellites, than to build out conventional cellular networks. Because the satellites are small, they are cheap to build and launch, and so can (in theory) provide very affordable coverage for IoT devices in these remote regions.

In a similar vein, SpaceX (the Tesla sister) is looking to challenge fixed-line broadband providers using its own constellation of satellites, but these are going to be much larger units than the IoT-focused variants. There’s certainly a chance that SpaceX can muscle in on these smaller providers too, but it seems that the incumbent satellite industry has been taken aback somewhat by the veracity of these startups.

Astrocast is one of these firms, but Riot recently looked at Fleet, an Australian startup that is looking to pursue IoT nanosatellites and also has LoRa integrations for hybrid terrestrial systems. Myriota is another Australian company with a similar plan, and Sky and Space Global (SSG) is a British group planning a 200-unit equatorial nanosatellite constellation. Hiber is a Dutch provider, Kepler is a Canadian startup, and there’s also the US-based Swarm Technologies, as well as Audacy – although it has a slightly different focus. A trio of companies in Luxembourg are also in the running, comprising OQ Technology, EmTroniX, and GomSpace.

Of course, if a handful of startups each build their own constellation, and a couple of them go out of business, there’s a legitimate concern to be had over the amount of space junk left behind, floating around and making future launches that much more difficult to plan. Astrocast is planning to launch 64 satellites by 2020, but it did get in trouble with regulators after an Indian launch installed satellites that proved too small to track – proof that there is already the beginning of a problem.

Conventional satellite operators have shown interest in the IoT. Inmarsat has its Fleet Data service and Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN, Vodafone is a reseller/customer), Iridium has CloudConnect and a partnership with Amazon, Eutelsat has SmartLNB, SES has its O3B Networks subsidiary (not as IoT-focused as the others).

Orbcomm is perhaps a good warning for the startups here though. In business since 1993, the company has 31 LEO satellites, but only around 2mn subscriptions. As a dedicated IIoT and M2M provider, it has only managed a market cap of $781mn, and its share price has been pretty rocky since posting big gains through 2016. Orbcomm has a number of devices for its target applications, and a number of big-name customers, which might drive growth as those customers increase their connected portfolios.

Now, there’s a disconnect of sorts between the battery-constrained IoT devices that Astrocast seems to be targeting, and conventional equipment that might simply lack sufficient cellular coverage. For example, a seismic activity detector in a remote mountain range might need a ten-year battery life, and so might opt for the satellite option if there isn’t an LTE Cat-M provider nearby. However, something like a solar farm monitoring system is not power constrained, rather it might not have a reliable cellular link. Both need satellite, but there are two very different camps in the satellite IoT market.

The former, the battery constrained devices, are going to have to battle the conventional wisdom that satellite is a relatively power-hungry way of communicating. Astrocast claims that its small form factor modules, powerful antennae, and optimized data protocol, will solve that problem, but if the developers and customers can’t wring enough years out of the technology, then it seems dead from the get-go. Sure, the non-power-constrained devices could still be served well, but there’s going to be a lot of disappointed potential users that realize they’re still going to have to build a terrestrial WAN network somehow.

Of course, a hybrid approach is possible, where the satellite link is simply backhaul for a more power-efficient protocol being used on the ground. A LoRa network’s base stations could be fitted with these modules, allowing them to backhaul data from LoRa-only devices out in the field. That method would prove necessary if the LoRa base stations don’t have access to a cellular connection or a fixed-line broadband cable.

The hybrid approach has been explored by Inmarsat, one of the major satellite communications operators, which has made a number of announcements involving LoRa. The aforementioned Fleet Space Technologies is another, and it’s a promising way to begin the satellite revolution. However, satellite’s major advocates would like to be able to directly serve end-devices without an LPWAN intermediary, and while that day may come, it is not yet here.

As for the remainder of Astrocast’s announcement, the company is primarily targeting maritime, oil and gas, mining, agriculture, and smart cities (as a critical LPWAN backup, apparently). It is aiming to provide low-latency two-way communications, using its own chipsets, modules, and data plans. Of course, fears of vendor lock-in will be prevalent.

Astrocast is in partnership with Airbus (an investor), Thuraya (a UAE-based satellite communications operator), and the European Space Agency (ESA), aiming to develop its constellation. Airbus and Astrocast have developed the low-cost ASIC module, which they claim is the most power efficient satellite modem for IoT applications. Astrocast’s heritage lies in SwissCube, an ESA project that is one of the longest-lasting nanosatellites in orbit.

The most recent launch was powered by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, but the payload was Spaceflight’s SSO-A – a launch system that put 15 micro-satellites and 49 cube-satellites into orbit, from a range of commercial, startup, government, and educational institutions. Even a US middle-school managed to get a spot aboard the SSO-A launch.