Reaching the unreachable with satellite IoT - Embedded.com

Reaching the unreachable with satellite IoT

It comes as no surprise that capturing data in some of the hardest to reach corners of the planet is a challenge any IoT player will gladly take on.

(Source: LoRa Alliance)

The Internet of Things (IoT) is all about collecting and reading data, then leveraging that data to obtain valuable insights that can be acted upon. With that, the IoT holds enormous potential for enterprises to use connectivity as the key to turn small encrypted messages into powerful information and make the right decisions that greatly enhance industrial processes, enterprise operations and worker efficiency.  

With nearly all urban areas in the world covered by a mobile-broadband network, almost 85% of the population had access to a 4G network at the end of 2020 [1], accessing any data at any time may seem a done deal. The reality is that gaps still subsist in rural areas. According to global technology advisory firm ABI Research, in 2019, terrestrial cellular networks only covered 20% of the earth’s total surface. This creates a considerable connectivity expansion opportunity in areas that are not being used to their full potential. With a significant fraction of massive IoT use cases requiring a global reach in industries like logistics, maritime, fleet management, energy or environment monitoring, it comes as no surprise that capturing data in some of the hardest to reach corners of the planet is a challenge any IoT player will gladly take on.

A solution to complement terrestrial networks lies in satellite-based IoT services that use satellites for their backhaul. While satellites have been around in different shapes and sizes and for various purposes for over half a century, the miniaturisation of electronics has allowed manufacturers and solution providers to now offer small and cheap satellites that are perfectly suited for low-bandwidth IoT. This enables low-cost sensors with long-range low power communication capabilities to send IoT messages from the remote area directly to the satellite gateway, bypassing the need for expensive new fixed power infrastructure.

The family of technologies, standards and smart devices that make this happen, is known collectively as Low Power Wide Area Networks, or LPWAN. Thanks to their rapid adoption over the past decade, the number of connected devices is expected to grow from 13.9M in 2017 to 1,151M in 2023 [2].  What LPWANs and, specifically, the open standard LoRaWAN® brings to the system environment, is cost-effective flexibility. LoRaWAN uses unlicensed radio frequency spectrum that satisfies IoT applications that require long range, low bit-rate and low power consumption with devices lasting up to 10 years. Places and things that could not be cost-effectively networked are now within easy reach. With that in mind, applications are limitless.

The rise of IoT satellites

For a long time, due to expensive installations, high satellite launch costs and low bandwidths, satellite technology was sought after as an option of last resort. But things have changed. Decreasing satellite payloads and launch costs in the past couple years have enabled a fast-growing massive satellite IoT ecosystem. Recent studies reveal a promising outlook, with the global satellite market projected to grow 25% per year to $3.4 billion by 2022 [3]. ABI Research announced that by 2024, there will be 24 million IoT connections made via satellite.

 Paired with improved economics and advancements in technology in both the satellite capacity and on the ground-segment, the rise of new technologies and ever-increasing capabilities of satellite networks has made satellite backhaul become an attractive proposition across the globe and in many different applications that require high through-put data networks. And this is a good thing. Any remote area network deployment, whether it be a cattle ranch in central Australia, a boiling desert in Mexico or the Russian Ural Mountains, does not only pose a significant logistical and costly challenge, human safety risks are involved too. Hazardous environments can be a threat to whoever is building and maintaining the infrastructure. Satellite technology significantly reduces these risks.

Next to this indifference to inhospitable grounds and environmental restrictions, satellites are easy and safe to deploy, offer a consistent reliability of service, and can support existing cellular and non cellular technologies. Satellite and terrestrial networks both enjoy similar capacities and device power consumption, and have a unique opportunity to collaborate through roaming, guaranteeing ubiquitous coverage at all times.

LoRaWAN and satellite: Changing the cost-benefit equation

For a satellite to receive valuable information, it needs to communicate with a sensor. This is where LoRaWAN enters into the equation. Although LoRaWAN IoT terrestrial networks have been massively rolled out in over 165 countries, there’s a huge economic return on investment to gain in remote unconnected regions where satellite service may be more effective than a privately owned LoRaWAN network. LoRaWAN can obtain a large amount of data in a variety of challenging large-scale industrial activities such as marine engineering, earthquake monitoring and irrigation performance by simply engaging small, low cost sensors that establish a connection with the satellite. An example is smart remote flow monitoring for hydropower stations. Through continuous monitoring and real-time remote data, manual on-the-road data collection is eliminated which saves time and money and considerably reduces staff safety risks. Compared to periodic manual data collection, this solution reduces the road-time by 80%.

The previously mentioned low power consumption of LoRaWAN enabled devices allows batteries to last up to 10 years without service or need for human intervention to replace them. How does this work? In the case of cargo containers that move vast distances, much of which is completely outside of any connectivity reach, existing solutions would involve power consuming protocols such as GPS. Thanks to connection with a satellite, vessels and its containers remain in touch with the network at all times and can report data in real time. As a LoRaWAN enabled device will be active only when needed, data packets can be sent with specific intervals. Devices do therefore not require regular recharging. This is a highly cost saving technique since the cost of recharging the tracker after every trip of a typical shipping container far exceeds the cost of the tracking device or connectivity charges itself.

While there has been much progress in closing the global connectivity gap, there is work to be done to bring access to the millions of people and businesses who still live without it. What is certain, is that satellite technology will be a game changer for entire industries, revolutionizing the way businesses access and use data from assets no matter where they are deployed, and are fixed or on the move. Many applications are already available now and will continue to be built over the next years, bringing us a step closer to a sustainable planet where local economies and communities are helped by reliable data transfer to suburban, rural and remote areas.

The answer to truly global IoT connectivity, is to reach a little higher for the stars.

References:

  1. International Telecommunication Union Development Sector; Measuring digital development Facts and figures, 2020.
  2. Structural Health Monitoring Market by Solutions (Hardware: Sensors, Data Acquisition System; Software & Services), Technology (Wired and Wireless), End Users and Geography – Global Forecast to 2022 (summary available here).
  3. IoT Analytics. LPWAN Market Report 2018-2023. Market size & Outlook.

Anne van Gemert is an internationally skilled digital marketer currently serving the LoRa Alliance as the Director of Content. As part of this role, she drives several work groups composed of renowned experts across the globe to present and simplify a variety of IoT and LoRaWAN related topics to a broader audience. She previously served in the marketing department at Actility and managed a broad portfolio of clients at a European PR agency.

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