Space, the final frontier. For low power Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity, perhaps the next frontier.
Even now, a terrestrial LoRaWAN or other low power IoT network seems to be the obvious and only choice.
I see that changing in the New Space Age. Not a complete replacement, but complementary. Space-based low power IoT connectivity will, at least in the medium term, make sense in select situations. It is therefore necessary to understand both the opportunity and limitations. This will guide efforts and investment.
(As an aside, I focus on low power satellite IoT assuming that’s of interest to readers here. In this context, low power implies long range connectivity and long battery life for devices traded off for low data rates).
Low power satellite IoT will use low earth satellites in polar orbit. They are in a 600 km orbit, taking around 90 minutes for a complete orbit.
Adequate coverage and latency critically depends on how many satellites are available in a constellation. While some of the established satellite companies, like Iridium NEXT, will have enough in orbit to provide constant coverage, newer companies will take a few years to get there. Till then, data will only be able to be transmitted once or few times a day, with latency of up to 16 hours.
Most other limitations that are traditionally associated with satellite communications are well on their way of being addressed. Costs are one example, focus on high bandwidth applications with high power requirements another. It should be possible to get 5 years battery life, even without solar charging.
Realistically, the opportunity right now is to find a suitable use case and, knowing that low power satellite IoT will be fully available in a few years, to get in early. The defining limitation that will remain is low data rates, i.e. limited number and length of data transmissions.
There are two different costs to consider.
The first is connectivity. The other is cost of the radio and antenna. Both of these have already fallen significantly and will continue to do so.
Even with scale in the medium term, it is reasonable to expect total satellite based costs will be higher than terrestrial options. However, already there are examples where the connectivity costs at least are low enough to compete with terrestrial options.
Terrestrial or Satellite Gateway
Two distinctively different approaches are possible.
The first is to connect devices to a (terrestrial) gateway in the normal way. The gateway uses satellites for backhaul instead of a terrestrial option like cellular or fibre. To keep data transmitted to a minimum, some amount of edge processing on the gateway is becoming normal. An example is Fleet.
The big advantage of this approach is the devices remain unchanged. So the investment, scale, certifications, and ecosystem advantages continue.
Currently, Fleet’s pricing is A$ 1,999 for the gateway and A$ 29 per month is the connectivity fee for one gateway and 10 devices. Within the gateway’s capacity of 1.000 devices, additional devices connect for A$ 3 per month.
The second approach is for gateway on the satellite. Devices transmit directly to satellite instead of the normal (terrestrial) gateway.
This is quite different to the first approach. Clearly the device has to be modified. At the very least, the device needs a different antenna and firmware. Whether it needs a different radio depends on if there is a protocol change. In most cases, this also makes the satellite based gateway approach more suitable where there are a small number (or just one) device that needs to connect from a place.
Protocol choice is not clear-cut at the moment.
For people in the LoRaWAN area already, there are obvious advantages to continue using LoRaWAN. Lacuna will provide this option in the future. The three issues are link budget, Doppler effect, and economics. Lacuna believes it can solve all of these (see video below). Their Explorer Package will be available soon, allowing up to 6 data transmissions a day for 5 devices. Connectivity price is claimed to be comparable to terrestrial LoRaWAN networks.
A big advantage is continuing to use the same Semtech chip for the device. Only a different antenna and firmware modifications are required. The biggest disadvantage of Lacuna is the wait for sufficient satellites to provide acceptable latency and the service offering to mature.
Another example is the Inmarsat LoRaWAN network, powered by Actility’s ThingPark™ LPWA platform.
The other option is to use a satellite specific protocol. An example is Hiber. Their proprietary Hiberband® requires a different modem and antenna. With connectivity pricing “only a few euros per device per year” it is an interesting proposition for low power satellite IoT.
The biggest disadvantage, besides waiting till next year to get acceptable number of daily messages and latency, is the need to re-engineer current LoRaWAN and other LPWAN devices to use their modem. However, with a firm plan to have a constellation of satellites and reasonable modem cost, there is some attraction to their service even for LoRaWAN device manufacturers.
There are some obvious use cases for low power satellite IoT which make a good starting point to consider if and how it is right for your business or device.
Where there is no LPWA network coverage, satellites become an obvious choice. The good news is that there are now low cost options for low power IoT, making it an economic choice. As an example, it makes a lot of sense for a LoRaWAN network provider like KotahiNet to provide satellite connectivity when installing a single river water quality monitor at a remote location where there is no network coverage from its public LoRaWAN network. Another use is for providing LoRaWAN network coverage with satellite backhaul at a remote location which has many devices connected to a terrestrial gateway but no terrestrial backhaul.
Another obvious use case is to track location globally. Whether on sea or land, across countries, and across multiple transport modes, a container or asset can easily be tracked from the sky. Most satellite based services use the device’s radio transmissions to provide rough geolocation, with significant battery savings. More precise location is available using a GPS on the device.
For low power IoT device makers selling globally, shipping and supporting one device across the world has many benefits. No more configuring to a country’s ISM band. There will be some savings in device certification and meeting RF standards. There is the additional benefit of bypassing local wireless network providers.
It is still early days for low power satellite IoT but, if you have a suitable use case, now is the right time to give it a go.