Research firm NSR said last November that small satellites are a $37 billion market and it expects 6,500 satellites to launch by 2027. The firm anticipated growth across all applications, but said that communications will drive the largest share of revenues.
Many of those communications applications will be connecting 'things', the numbers of which are growing exponentially. There are many forecasts -- Statistica, for example, is tipping 75 billion by 2025, up from 23 billion in 2018.
Not all of those 'things' will be within range of cellular or the rapidly spreading low-powered wide area networks like LoRaWAN and Sigfox. That means a big role for satellites, with established operators like Iridium moving to exploit the Internet of Things (IoT) opportunity.
Iridium has just completed deployment of its $3 billion Next network of 75 low earth orbit satellites. Iridium claims its IoT business is growing at 19 percent annually and says it's the only company that has truly global coverage, ideally suited for IoT applications.
However, these established players are facing competition from companies that are exploiting a new kind of satellite technology that requires much less capital and promises much greater agility: Nanosatellites. One such company is ASX-listed Sky and Space Global (SAS).
When Iridium announced completion of the initial design of Next in March 2012, SAS did not exist. Today it has two nanosatellites in orbit and is on track to launch a network of 200 that will support voice, low-speed data, and IoT applications across a region 15 degrees north and south of the equator. It has raised AU$47 million to date.
Iridium boasts of the 19-year lifespan of its Next satellites. SAS intends to replace its nanosatellites after just four years.
SAS CEO Meir Moalam told ZDNet this is not because this is the limit of their useful life, but because the company wants to take advantage of technology developments it confidently expects will occur in that timeframe.
SAS is one of at least half a dozen startups around the world, all chasing success off the back of nanosatellite technology for IoT and other applications. Australia is home, nominally at least, to more than its fair share.
What is a nanosatellite?
According to the unofficial NanoSats Database, a nanosatellite is any satellite with a mass of between one and 10kg -- it also specifies a whole range from minisatellites at 100-500kg down to zeptosatellites weighing less than a gram.
You'll often see a nanosatellite specified as being built with a 2U, CubeSat form factor, or a similar low number. That means it comprises multiple blocks of 10 x 10 x 11.35cm, each of which conforms to the CubeSat standard, created by California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University in 1999 to facilitate access to space for university students.
SAS is listed on the ASX but has no other presence in Australia, whereas firmly rooted in Adelaide are Fleet Space and Myriota. All are competing with overseas players, but with quite different technologies and different market aspirations.
The SAS system is designed to provide real time voice and low-speed data, text messaging, and support for IoT applications. It is essentially a cellular network in the sky. The network receives data from a ground device and routes that data between satellites until it reaches one that can 'see' the destination terminal.
Communication with the satellites is from a small unit of a few square centimetres, and SAS is also working on developing a smartphone that will be able to communicate directly with its satellites.
A swarm of nanosatellites
Fleet Space is firmly focused on the IoT market, and on delivering very low-cost communications. It does not aim to provide communications direct to devices, but via a LoRaWAN gateway that will gather traffic from surrounding devices and relay this to the satellites.
Fleet Space's technology does not support real-time communication. The satellite that receives a message from the ground holds that message until it can 'see' a ground station. Outbound traffic is similarly routed.
Myriota, also based in Adelaide, is also a non-real-time IoT-specific nanosatellite play, but unlike Fleet Space, uses small credit-card-sized units that communicate directly with its satellites, which can connect to a wide variety of IoT devices.
Meanwhile, US-based startup Swarm Technologies is planning to launch what it says will be a network of the world's smallest satellites for IoT and other low-rate data applications.
Co-founder and CEO Sara Spangelo says these will "solve the problem of low-cost connectivity at a global scale far faster than any other provider, and at a fraction of the price."
However, the company has given no details of what data rates its satellites will support or what its charges might be. Swarm Technologies presently has four cubesats in orbit that are 1/4U in size, which makes them 5 x 5 x 5.675cm.
Dutch startup Hiber has launched the first of a planned constellation of 48 nanosatellites that it says will together "provide the entire planet with the ability to stream data to and from connected technologies."
Hiber says these will use a process that is up to 20 times cheaper than existing global solutions, by transferring data from modems and antennas owned by customers directly to the nanosatellites, and back to earth via two existing earth stations in Spitsbergen in Norway and Delft in the Netherlands.
The company says user terminals could operate for up to 10 years on a small battery, communicating via either a 10cm-diameter cylindrical antenna 6cm high, or an 8cm-square 2cm-high slab antenna.
Swiss company Astrocast is also targeting the IoT market. It plans a network of 64 nanosatellites in eight orbital planes 600km from the Earth. These, it says, will give two-way 100 percent coverage -- in particular, "the 90 percent of the globe currently not covered by cellular networks."
Astrocast claims its network will support two-way communication via a module that's smaller than a credit card and with "lower latency and cost than existing satellite communications networks," but has given no indication of pricing. It launched its first test satellite in December 2018.
In an interview with Newspace People, CEO Fabien Jordan said prices for annual data subscriptions could be only one twentieth of current industry standards, and terminals between one fifth and one tenth of current industry standards.
Kineis says it plans to connect "several million objects" around the globe by 2030, but has given few details of how its network will operate. However, it claims it will build on expertise gained by CLS through operating the Argos satellite network for environmental monitoring since 1986.
Winners and losers
It seems unlikely that all these players will succeed long term, and few have given sufficient details of their offerings to enable comparisons against their peers or against any available terrestrial technologies.
Fleet Space is the exception. In early February it announced Project Galaxy, offering satellite capacity for IoT connectivity for an annual cost of $2 per device with 500kB of data each month.
Fleet Space hoped to get commitments for one million device connections before the scheduled 28 February close date of the offer. It reached that target in less than 24 hours, and added another two million to a waiting list.
That's a useful indication of possible demand, but the Fleet Space technology does not support direct device-to-satellite communication, only via a LoRaWAN gateway. This means the market for all the would-be nanosatellite IoT players such as Myriota, that are planning direct communication from a small unit, is still wide open.
Myriota CTO and cofounder David Haley told ZDNet that the company had discussed pricing with customers -- it is presently providing services using existing satellites owned by founding shareholder ExactEarth of Canada -- but would say only "for some IoT applications it will be in the range of dollars per annum per device."
Haley believes there will be room for multiple players in the market and makes the point that, unlike some of the more recent entrants that could be characterised as technologies looking for a market, Myriota -- which started life as a research project in the University of South Australia before being spun out in 2015 -- owes its existence to a clearly identified market need.
"We noticed a gap in the market eight years ago for a direct to orbit service…at very low power," Haley told ZDNet.
"We saw exactly what would be needed, we spoke to customers and were making decisions around the dimensioning of the service back in 2011. We used that to set the requirements for the service and went about designing the technology to make it happen."
Haley makes the point that this technology is a complete ecosystem, of which satellite technology is but one component. It embraces radio communications, encryption, security, signal processing, identity management, and the gathering and correct routing of many thousands of messages to the correct customers.