CubeSat Operators Launch an IoT Space Race

A rocket carrying CubeSats launched into Earth orbit two years ago, on 22 March 2021. Two of those CubeSats represented competing approaches to bringing the Internet of Things (IoT) to space. One, operated by Lacuna Space, uses a protocol called LoRaWAN, a long-range, low-power protocol owned by Semtech. The other, owned by Sateliot, uses the narrowband IoT protocol, following in the footsteps of OQ Technology, which launched a similar IoT satellite demonstration in 2019. And separately, in late 2022, the cellular industry standard-setter 3GPP incorporated satellite-based 5G into standard cellular service with its release 17.

In other words, there is now an IoT space race.

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In addition to Lacuna and Sateliot, OQ Technology is also nipping at the heels of satellite telecom incumbents such as IridiumOrbcomm, and Inmarsat for a share of the growing satellite-IoT subscriber market. OQ Technology has three satellites in low Earth orbit and plans to launch seven more this year, says OQ Technology’s chief innovation officer, Prasanna Nagarajan. OQ has paying customers in the oil and gas, agriculture, and transport logistics industries.

Sateliot, based in Barcelona, has the satellite it launched in 2021 in orbit and plans to launch four more this year, says Sateliot’s business development manager, Paula Caudet. The company is inviting early adopters to sample its service for free this year while it builds more coverage. “Certain use cases are fine with flybys every few hours, such as agricultural sensors,” Caudet says.

OQ Technology claims it will launch enough satellites to offer at least hourly coverage by 2024 and near-real-time coverage later that year. Sateliot is also aiming for better-than-hourly coverage sometime in 2024 and near-real-time coverage in 2025.

Incumbent satellite operators are already offering IoT coverage, but so far they require specific IoT hardware tuned to their spectrum bands and protocols. Insurgent companies that make use of the 3GPP release 17 standard will be able to offer satellite connectivity to devices originally designed to connect only to cellular towers.

New companies also see an opportunity to offer lower, more attractive pricing. “Legacy satellite providers were charging maybe [US] $100 for a few kilobits of data, and customers are not willing to pay so much for IoT,” says Nagarajan. “There seemed to be a huge market gap.” Another company, Swarm, which is a subsidiary of SpaceX, offers low-bandwidth connectivityvia proprietary devices to its tiny satellites for $5 per month.

Thanks to shared launch infrastructure and cheaper IoT-compatible modules and satellites, new firms can compete with companies that have had satellites in orbit for decades. More and more hardware and services are available on an off-the-shelf basis. “An IoT-standard module is maybe 8 or 10 euros, versus 300 euros for satellite-specific modules,” says Caudet.

In fact, Sateliot contracted the construction of its first satellite to Open Cosmos. Open Cosmos mission manager Jordi Castellví says that CubeSat subsystems and certain specialized services are now available online from suppliers including AlénSpaceCubeSatShopEnduroSat, and Isispace, among others.

By building constellations of hundreds of satellites with IoT modules in low Earth orbit, IoT-satellite companies will be able to save money on hardware and still detect the faint signals from IoT gateways or even individual IoT sensors, such as those aboard shipping containers packed onto cargo ships at sea. They won’t move as much data as voice and broadband offerings in the works from AST SpaceMobile and Lynk Global’s larger and more complex satellites, for example, but they may be able to meet growing demand for narrowband applications.

OQ Technology has its own licensed spectrum and can operate as an independent network operator for IoT users with the latest 3GPP release—although at first most users might not have direct contact with such providers; both Sateliot and OQ Technology have partnered with existing mobile-network operators to offer a sort of global IoT roaming package. For example, while a cargo ship is in port, a customer’s onboard IoT device will transmit via the local cellular network. Farther out at sea, the device will switch to transmitting to satellites overhead. “The next step is being able to integrate cellular and satellite services,” Caudet says.

This post was updated on 28 March to clarify the planned launch schedules and coverage schedules for OQ Technology and Sateliot.

First published by IEEE Spectrum: [html].