Nano satellites look tailor-made for IoT applications where connectivity is required in remote areas unserved by cellular or any other terrestrial wireless service, with primary candidates being marine, environmental monitoring and global asset tracking. The attraction is that nanosatellites are relatively inexpensive to launch, costing millions rather than hundreds of millions of dollars each, while supporting less complex up linking that can be integrated more readily into smaller IoT devices, such as private fishing vessels, asset trackers or even potentially life jackets to communicate precise location.
Even a few million dollars per launch is a lot of money for a start-up though and that coupled with logistical complexities and the time it would take to establish adequate coverage make it a high-risk business that is bound to result in a number of failures. The lack of initial coverage while a start-up has only one satellite launched equates to both low data rates and intermittent availability, sometimes referred to as latency although in a different context from communications delay.
In this case it is a function of the satellite orbital period, which can mean that during the initial phase when there is just one there can be delays of 12 hours between data being picked up. Only when several satellites have been launched does this delay come down to under an hour, which could be acceptable for some of the target applications in the marine and asset tracking sectors. But because of this delay issue, cellular connectivity, Wi-Fi, Sigfox, LoRaWAN, Zigbee and other terrestrial wireless protocols will be preferred where remote coverage in unserved areas is not a requirement.
Fleet, based in Adelaide, Australia, is one start-up dedicated to nanosatellites for the IoT that has greater chances of success than some as a partner of the French space agency CNES, which will provide monitoring. Launched in 2015, Fleet has raised around $3.5mn so far, enough to launch its first satellite which will measure just 4 inches (10 cm) cubed. Until recently it was difficult to find affordable or practical launch capacity on commercial rockets for such small devices, but the situation has improved with growing availability of rocket ride sharing.
Before that launchers of small satellites had to hitch a ride on larger ones, but now there are companies such as Spaceflight Industries dedicated to more fragmented payloads. This company has coordinated the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will propel over 70 small satellites into orbit, which is one of the largest batches yet carried by a single vessel, reducing unit costs.
Fleet CEO and co-founder Flavia Tata Nardini says that the company’s first two satellites will be launched November 2018, as secondary payloads via rideshare with the US launch provider Rocket Lab. However, the company has ambitions of becoming the first nano satellite provider dedicated to the IoT with a full constellation capable of providing low latency services spanning almost the whole globe and that will eventually require dedicated launchers to refresh the stock regularly. This is because nano satellites will have a relatively short lifespan with one advantage being they then burn up completely upon reentry to the earth’s atmosphere, leaving no space debris.
What is not clear yet is where the money will come from, given it will cost up to $200 million to launch the full constellation, coupled with high operating expenses. The company hopes to start gaining revenues quickly from use cases that need just intermittent connectivity before addressing a much larger target market when full coverage has been achieved. At least it will be a large target in terms of potential IoT devices to connect.