In the last few weeks, several companies have announced plans to build IoT networks using satellites and a variety of networking technologies. For example, Amazon is working with Iridium to launch a network using traditional satellite radios to connect ships, cattle, and whatever else people want to track around the world. Orbcomm also announced plans to launch machine-to-machine service in China.
With that in mind, my interest was piqued when Alistair Fulton, VP of IoT product management at Semtech, mentioned a deal with Alibaba that would use a low Earth orbit satellite network to deliver connectivity to sensors at 40,000 feet. I was less excited by the deal with Alibaba than I was intrigued by the companies building these satellite IoT networks.
Fulton told me that several companies were hoping to operate LoRa networks using small satellites in low Earth orbit. These satellites would help deliver LoRa connectivity to places where traditional tower networks and gateways might not be feasible. Fulton — and the companies building satellite networks for IoT — believe that there is plenty of demand for information about things that travel to places where the cellular networks don’t reach.
“A good chunk of IoT boils down to understanding where something is and what condition it is in,” says Fulton.
LoRa is a radio technology that offers fairly low data rates, but can transmit signals over a mile or so. That means companies can use LoRa to build wide area networks for devices that don’t need to transmit a lot of data without spending a lot on tower infrastructure. I tend to think LoRa is a good solution for private campuses, inside warehouses, or outdoor areas such as mines.
Fulton says many customers of Semtech’s LoRa chips are thinking bigger. He declined to tell me which companies Semtech was working with, but one appears to be Lacuna, which did an announcement with Semtech in February touting a partnership between the two companies.
Lacuna is a UK-based company that hopes to build a 32-satellite constellation to gather and transmit data from sensors around the world. It has a contract with another company, NanoAvionics, which builds small satellites. The two hope to launch a test satellite together this year. It would receive messages over a LoRa network and then transmit them down to base stations on the ground as the satellites pass over them.
The idea is that this would be good for asset tracking, fleet management — even for tracking livestock. However, I’ve covered the satellite industry for a long time, and while the technology associated with smaller satellites is exciting, I’m not entirely convinced that it’s the right tech for IoT.
The internet of things requires cheap connectivity, and satellite connectivity is notoriously expensive. Many companies argue that the smaller satellites will change the economics, but so far I’m not convinced. Space is a harsh environment and it takes a lot to get gear up there and keep it working consistently.
Tim Farrar, founder of consulting firm TMF Associates and an expert in the sector, agrees. He’s seen dozens of startups pitching small satellites, but he’s not sure they have a real business yet. “There’s a lot of cute nano-satellite companies out there that people are trying to figure out what to do with. IoT seems like a possible answer,” Farrar says. “It’s desperately easy for these startups to get $10 million to do a demo, but it’s really difficult to get the $50 million or so needed to do something properly.”