A key component of IoT’s long-term success is its capacity to be ubiquitous, an area in which disparate connectivity solutions fall amazingly short. Today, the Internet of Things is stretching towards the skies in what is known as the “Internet of Space.”
Internet of Space
Leading companies around the globe have started seriously considering the concept of the Internet of Space (IoS). Both NASA and ESA have prepared plans to deploy satellite networks around Earth, spanning Mars and the Sun. The networks consist of microwave antenna arrays with miniaturized satellites and lasers pointing through free space.
In the coming years, these technologies will provide the communication networks needed for connected robots and landers that will explore and possibly mine lunar and Martian surfaces.
Internet of Space Things (loST)
An innovative group from the Georgia Institute of Technology has introduced the concept of the Internet of Space Things (IoST).
The “things” in IoST specifically refer to a new class of small satellites they’ve developed called CubeSats. Equipped with limited onboard processing, their role primary revolves around data collection and transmission to and from the Earth, in conjunction with active and passive sensing capabilities.
The promise of CubeSats is the realization of a new global cyber-physical system that enables a multitude of applications on land, in the air, and in space. Additional connectivity leveraged from LEOs, GEOs, and MEOs, as well as the use of SDN and NVF based frameworks would allow CubeSats to be highly scalable, operate as-a-service and utilize network slicing for resource isolation between users.
Their system is designed for flexibility with multi-band connectivity to enable a wide range of geostationary and near-geostationary endpoints, including terrestrial, below ground, and underwater locations. Security is built into the IoST architecture through the use of different security profiles and delievered as-a-service to protect the availablity, integrity, and privacy of all connected resources and information.
Use cases for IoST applications:
- Remote sensing
- Monitoring of terrain and assets
- Exploration of the deep space
- Management of global transportation
- Inter-CubeSat or ground-station data transmission
- Disrupted or underserved areas have limited Internet access
Global Internet Access for All
Companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin have broken several traditional ideas about space exploration, opening up further investigation by private companies into commercial space opportunities.
Most new developments in IoS revolve around bringing internet connectivity to the other one-third of the world’s population (3 billion) who don’t have it. The ability to provide broadband access depends on the low-latency, high-speed communications provided by low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations.
LEO satellites are smaller, cheaper, and easier to produce than their GEO and MEO satellite cousins. For context, it only takes 3 GEO satellites to provide 100% communications coverage at an altitude of 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface. On the other hand, thousands of LEO satellites are required to reach complete coverage because they are so close to Earth’s surface (500-1000 miles). Accordingly, companies launching LEO constellations are benefitting from the low production costs and short development times of this technology.
Key Players in the Race to LEO
Enhanced internet connectivity is expected worldwide through the launch of 648 satellites by OneWeb Satellites by the end of 2022. As of 17 December 2020, 140 satellites were in operation by the company. OneWeb announced another launch, by 2022, of 650 satellites that will cover the entire world.
Starlink and SpaceX
The Starlink satellites supported by SpaceX aim to provide rural areas with high-speed broadband connectivity previously only available in urban areas. More than 1,000 Starlink satellites are currently orbiting the Earth, with beta services presently available in Canada and the northern US.
Amazon plans to launch Kuiper, a project in partnership with the Netherlands. The project aims to provide internet to tens of millions of people who lack access to basic broadband internet through the deployment of 3,236 satellites in a decade.
Canadian firm TeleSat has announced its plans to launch almost 1600 satellites in LEO to provide continuous data services over the ocean. The two sub-constellations are planned with 351 polar satellites and 1320 inclined satellites to cover the entire globe.
The Chinese government plans to construct large constellations of satellites under the “Digital Silk Road” (DSR) project. China and India are home to over half of the world’s population, many of whom have no connectivity. Some pay very expensive internet fees.
Whether it is CubeSats, SmallSats, or LEO satellites, the growing availability of commercially available space parts is allowing more companies to get into the space business. But to truly jumpstart these markets, commercial off-the-shelf costs (COTS) will have to come down for high-quality components. In an environment as harsh as space, electronics are easily destroyed by extreme temperatures and radiation. And due to expensive launch costs, devices and satellites sent up need to be “space-ready” and resilient to failure.
As technologies advance and more entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists collaborate to develop solutions, the space industry and internet of space will expand to provide new intelligence and insights from the farthest reaches of the galaxy.