Satellites in IoT: Unlocking the Potential of Space-Based Communication

By: Valerii Haidarzhy, 11 Jul 2023
15   min read
Reading Time: 15 minutes

The Internet of Things (IoT) has revolutionized the way we live and interact with the world around us. With the increasing demand for global connectivity, satellites play a crucial role in expanding the reach of IoT devices. In this article, we will explore the evolution of communication technology and the role of satellites in IoT, including the development of CubeSats and Swarm startup.

“The primary challenge stems from the nature of CubeSats themselves.  Historically, they’ve been seen not as commercial opportunities, but as academic playthings – tools for scientists, students, and amateur radio enthusiasts. However, Swarm represents a pioneering venture. It’s arguably the first enterprise to successfully harness CubeSats for commercial use. Within certain sectors, this is being hailed as nothing short of a revolution”

© Maxim Diatel. Senior SWE. Sirin Software.

The Evolution of Communication

The progression of communication methods has led to the crucial role of satellite communication in today’s interconnected world. It supports vital functions like worldwide navigation, meteorological predictions, and crisis response. Satellites offer the unparalleled ability to span extensive territories and facilitate communication in isolated areas that land-based systems cannot access. Let’s remember how it was.

Classic Radio Point-to-Point

Early communication systems relied on direct radio transmissions between two points. These point-to-point systems were limited by the range of the transmitter and the receiver, often requiring line-of-sight for successful communication. As a result, the reach of these systems was restricted, and communication over long distances was challenging.

Repeaters

To extend the range of radio communication, repeaters were introduced. These devices received a radio signal, amplify it, and retransmit it to another receiver. By placing repeaters at strategic locations, communication networks could be extended over much larger distances. This development allowed for improved communication and information exchange over vast areas, connecting people and communities that were previously isolated.

Ham Satellites

Amateur radio operators, or “ham” radio enthusiasts, realized the potential of placing repeaters in space, leading to the development of ham satellites. By placing a repeater on a satellite, signals could be relayed over much greater distances, even between continents. This innovation greatly expanded the reach of radio communication and enabled radio operators to communicate with others around the world.

BBS Early Mail Satellites

Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) were early online communication systems that emerged in the late 1970s. Users could connect to a central server using a modem to exchange messages, share files, and play turn-based games. BBS paved the way for electronic mail services, which allowed users to send messages without a physical connection, marking the beginning of modern communication.

Digital (Packet) Radio and PACSAT

Digital packet radio was a communication technology that emerged in the early 1980s. It allowed for more efficient communication as it no longer required dedicated channels for each conversation. Instead, messages are divided into smaller packets that can be transmitted individually and reassembled at the receiving end. This development increased the capacity of radio systems and enabled more simultaneous connections, facilitating the growth of digital communication networks.

PACSAT is an example of a digital ham satellite that supports digital packet radio. This technology allows for efficient data transmission without the need for dedicated channels. Packet radio satellite technology, utilized by PACSAT, enables radio operators to send and receive messages in small data packets. This method of communication is particularly useful when real-time communication is not possible due to distance or satellite limitations. Additionally, digital ham satellites like PACSAT contribute to the evolution of store-and-forward technology, further enhancing communication capabilities.

Commercial communication satellites

These massive satellites carry intricate communication payloads, providing direct-to-home TV broadcasting, internet, phone services, and video conferencing for a 10-15 year lifespan. Launched via rockets, they use radio frequency (RF) waves to communicate with ground stations and other satellites. Examples include Intelsat and SES, global operators offering services worldwide. Inmarsat, a British firm, delivers global mobile satellite communications, while EchoStar caters to US customers with direct-to-home TV broadcasting. Commercial communication satellites often struggle to accommodate IoT applications due to elevated per-connection costs, limited scalability, and reduced integration choices. Still, many operators plan to enter the IoT market, even though traditionally these commercial satellites focused on voice data transmission rather than the short data bursts typical of IoT devices.

CubeSats and Swarm Startup

As satellite communication technology advanced, the demand for affordable and efficient methods to explore space, conduct scientific research, and deliver satellite services to businesses and commercial entities increased. This led to the conception of compact, modular satellites. Proving to be precisely such a solution, CubeSats have significantly transformed the satellite industry by lowering entry barriers and promoting innovation, ultimately broadening the scope of space exploration opportunities.

What is CubeSat

CubeSats are small, standardized satellites that are revolutionizing the space industry by enabling cost-effective access to space for various applications, including IoT. Built using a modular design, CubeSats typically come in units of 10x10x10 cm (1U) and can be combined to create larger sizes (e.g., 2U, 3U, or 6U). This standard was developed in 1999 to make satellite technology more accessible to a wider range of users. CubeSats are built using off-the-shelf components, can be designed at a fraction of the cost of traditional satellites, and launched as secondary payloads on larger rockets, making them a cost-effective way to test new technologies in space. By leveraging store-and-forward technology*, CubeSat enables integration with local or cloud-based IoT projects, offering a reliable and efficient communication solution for the Internet of Things.

* Store-and-forward technology allows data to be transmitted in chunks when real-time communication is not feasible due to distance or satellite limitations. By storing the data on the satellite and forwarding it when the destination is within range, it ensures that information reaches its intended recipient even in remote areas.

Structure 

CubeSat structures are carefully crafted to balance strength and weight. By using lightweight materials like aluminum and carbon fiber composites, these small satellites retain durability while reducing mass. Lower mass is crucial, as it directly influences the cost of launching satellites into space.

  • Aluminum is a commonly used material in CubeSat structures due to its remarkable strength-to-weight ratio, corrosion resistance, and ability to withstand extreme temperatures in harsh space environment. 
  • Carbon fiber composites are well-suited for CubeSat applications because they offer an exceptional combination of stiffness, strength, and low weight, all while maintaining excellent thermal and electrical insulation properties.

Material selection and CubeSat structure design significantly impact the satellite’s performance, influencing payload capacity, maneuverability, and resilience to harsh space conditions. Engineers commonly use advanced methods like computer-aided design (CAD) and finite element analysis (FEA) to optimize the structure, ensuring it endures the forces and stresses during launch and orbital operation.

Power Systems

CubeSats rely on efficient, dependable power systems for onboard computing, communication, and payload operations. Solar panels and batteries provide a stable energy supply throughout the mission.

  • Solar Panels: CubeSats use exterior-mounted solar panels with photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight into electricity. The panels’ size, type, and arrangement are optimized, considering factors like orientation, mission duration, and onboard power requirements.
  • Batteries: Rechargeable batteries store electricity generated by solar panels, ensuring continuous satellite operation during eclipses. Battery choice is vital, considering weight, size, energy density, efficiency, and lifespan. Common types include lithium-ion, lithium-polymer, and LiFePO4 batteries.

  • Energy Management: CubeSat power systems feature components that regulate energy flow between solar panels, batteries, and onboard systems. They manage battery charging and discharging, distribute power, and monitor consumption for efficient energy utilization. The system may also include maximum power point tracking (MPPT) for solar panel optimization and fault protection mechanisms.

Communication systems 

IoT devices can use a variety of communication solutions to exchange data with CubeSat satellites, depending on their constellation standards, mission objectives, and requirements. M138, LoRa, and Astronode in cooperation with RISC-V embedded processors and MCU-based controllers, are the most popular and scalable choices for IoT applications, so let us look at them a bit closer.

M138:
The M138 is a compact, energy-efficient transceiver specifically designed as the sole official modem for SpaceX Swarm communication. It operates in the 137-150 MHz VHF band, offering diverse communication possibilities. Depending on the frequency band and modulation, it supports data rates up to several Mbps. The transceiver can employ modulation schemes such as BPSK, QPSK, or GMSK to optimize communication. Its low-power design makes it ideal for CubeSat applications and power-saving IoT communication.

LoRa:
LoRa is a type of LPWAN technology that enables long-range communication and low data rate transmission. It is a good choice for certain IoT applications in CubeSats due to its low power consumption and ability to penetrate obstacles. LoRa operates on license-free ISM bands such as 868 MHz in Europe and 915 MHz in North America. It offers low data rates from 300 bps to 50 kbps, which is well-suited for IoT applications with limited data transmission requirements. LoRa is capable of long-range communication, up to several kilometers or more, depending on factors such as antenna design and environmental conditions. Additionally, it is highly energy-efficient, enabling extended battery life for IoT devices and reduced operational costs.

Astronode:
The Astronode is a compact SDR for the AstroCast network, designed for the AstroCast CubeSat constellation. The network offers an alternative to Swarm for efficient communication solutions in the satellite industry. It supports UHF, S-band, and X-band frequency bands, and offers BPSK, QPSK, and GMSK modulation options. The Astronode can handle data rates from a few kbps to tens of Mbps, catering to different IoT applications. The Astronode’s SDR architecture allows on-the-fly reconfiguration, making it highly flexible for changing mission requirements.

Embedded RISC-V Solutions
RISC-V processors are gaining traction in satellite communication systems due to their flexible, open-source, and modular architecture. For instance, the University of Maribor in Slovenia, in collaboration with CERN and SkyLabs, developed the Trisat-R nanosatellite to measure ionizing radiation in medium earth orbit (MEO). The onboard NANOhpm computer uses a fault-tolerant RISC-V processor, showcasing the adaptability and resilience of RISC-V in space applications.

Canadian company SpaceBridge created an advanced satellite access technology (ASAT) System on a Chip (SoC) for next-generation Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) products, using a RISC-V processor to manage communication between ground equipment and satellites. This allows SpaceBridge to develop customizable, efficient devices with higher throughput and improved latency compared to traditional systems.

MCU-based controllers
Microcontroller units (MCUs) are integrated circuits designed for embedded applications. They are popular due to their energy efficiency, affordability, and user-friendly nature, making them suitable for many industries. MCUs are also often used in home automation, vehicle systems, and IoT devices to perform specific functions in real time. 

What is Swarm Startup

Swarm Technologies, also known as Swarm, is a startup company that utilizes CubeSat technology to provide IoT communication services by transmitting data between remote devices and ground stations. The company was founded in 2016 by a team of former NASA and Google engineers, headquartered in Silicon Valley, and was acquired by SpaceX in 2021.

Swarm Network in Urban Environment

When it comes to urban environments, the utilization of SWARM satellites can vary considerably compared to their application in rural areas. The typical spectrum in an urban environment is a complex and crowded space. With a multitude of signals from various sources, creating a robust solution for urban applications is not a simple task. 

Challenges

Interference with VHF Radio

Swarm proposes to operate its satellites using frequencies in portions of the 137-138 MHz (space-to-Earth) and 148-149.95 MHz (Earth-to-space) bands. These frequency bands fall within the VHF (Very High Frequency) range, commonly used for FM radio broadcasting, television broadcasting, two-way land mobile radio systems, long-range data communication, and marine communications., which can lead to interference.


The Standing Wave Ratio (SWR) at 144Mhz in a city

Sensitivity to Noise Factor

Technically, the noise floor is a measurement of the sum of all noise sources and undesired signals within a particular system. Given the high noise floor typically associated with urban environments, (-95 dBm in Europe), the SWARM network’s sensitivity could lead to performance degradation.

 
The typical spectrum in the city

An elevated noise floor implies a greater presence of unwanted signals, which makes it harder for a receiver to discern the intended signal amidst the “noise”. This is especially crucial for SWARM’s link budget, a comprehensive calculation of all gains and losses from the transmitter to the receiver. A high noise floor could mean a weaker Received Signal Strength Indicator (RSSI), a poorer Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR), and a potentially less reliable connection overall.

Solutions

Use of Bandpass Filters

In their functioning, bandpass filters enable specific frequencies within a set spectrum to go through while lessening or blocking frequencies outside this limit. Their frequency-specific nature greatly minimizes interference from devices sharing overlapping frequency zones. Using these filters for the SWARM network notably cuts down the interference from VHF radios and other devices using the same frequency spectrum as the SWARM modem. Therefore, these filters help establish a communication channel that’s neater and more robust against interference, supporting the smooth operation of the SWARM network

Custom Antennas

Custom antennas enhance SWARM network performance in urban environments. Tailored to specific frequency ranges and environments, they optimize efficiency. Despite larger sizes due to accommodating the 2-meter signal wavelength, custom antennas can be engineered for optimal performance. Leveraging design principles like effective aperture, polarization, and impedance matching, could significantly improve signal reception and transmission, overcoming noise and interference challenges.

SpaceX Starlink

SpaceX Starlink is a satellite-based internet service that has been developed to provide global internet coverage to underserved areas using a constellation of thousands of small satellites in low Earth orbit. Starlink satellites are closer to Earth than traditional communication satellites, providing lower latency, faster speeds, and better coverage. As of February 2023, Starlink consists of over 3,580 mass-produced small satellites in low Earth orbit, which communicate with designated ground transceivers. In total, nearly 12,000 satellites are planned to be deployed, with a possible later extension to 42,000. Starlink is designed to provide internet access to remote locations, areas affected by natural disasters, and developing countries. The service uses a phased array antenna to track and communicate with the satellites as they move across the sky. Starlink is still in beta testing and costs $110 – $500 per month with an additional one-time equipment fee for each distant located point.

Swarm and Starlink in IoT

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the interconnection of various physical devices and systems through the Internet. These devices can range from simple sensors and actuators to complex machines and appliances, and they can be used in various applications, including healthcare, transportation, agriculture, and manufacturing.

Swarm and Starlink represent different approaches to IoT connectivity, and their suitability depends on various factors such as the nature and scale of the IoT application, the cost and availability of hardware and services, the regulatory and environmental constraints, and the level of connectivity required. Here, we will explore the advantages and drawbacks of Swarm and Starlink in more detail.

Swarm and Starlink: Differences, Advantages, and Disadvantages

While both Swarm and Starlink utilize satellite technology, they have different purposes, advantages, and disadvantages.

  • Purpose: Swarm focuses on providing low-cost IoT connectivity solutions, while Starlink aims to deliver high-speed broadband internet access.
  • Satellite size and network: Swarm uses small, cost-effective CubeSats in its network, whereas Starlink employs a large constellation of small satellites for its broadband service.
  • Communication technology: Swarm relies on store-and-forward technology to transmit data between remote devices and ground stations, while Starlink offers real-time communication through its satellite network.

Advantages:

Swarm:

  • Lower cost: Designed to be more affordable for IoT applications. Especially for a large number of remote points.
  • IoT-focused: Specifically tailored for IoT projects and their unique requirements.
  • Easy integration: Easily compatible with local or cloud-based projects.
  • Scalability: Supports a large number of devices simultaneously for large-scale IoT deployments.
  • Energy efficiency: Low-power devices help prolong battery life and reduce maintenance costs

Starlink:

  • High-speed internet: Offers low-latency broadband internet access.
  • Global coverage: Provides connectivity even in remote and underserved areas.
  • Broad applications: Has the obvious potential for usage beyond IoT applications.
  • Network resilience: Less susceptible to outages or disruptions due to a large number of satellites.
  • Rapid deployment: can quickly provide connectivity in remote areas and disaster-stricken regions.

 

Disadvantages:

Swarm:

  • IoT limitation: Primarily suitable for IoT applications, potentially restricting its use cases.
  • Store-and-forward: This technology may not meet real-time communication needs.
  • Ground station dependence: Relies on ground stations, which could create potential bottlenecks.
  • Data rate limitations: approximately up to 1000 bits per second, restricting its application scope.
  • Regulatory challenges: Faces regulatory hurdles in various countries, potentially limiting global availability.

Starlink:

  • Higher cost: May be more expensive compared to Swarm, especially for IoT applications.
  • Specialized equipment: Requires a dedicated equipment list for connecting to the network at each distant point.
  • Power consumption: Starlink terminals may consume more power compared to Swarm’s IoT devices, leading to increased energy and maintenance costs, and shorter battery life for IoT deployments.
  • Latency variations: Although Starlink offers low-latency broadband access, the latency could still vary depending on satellite positioning, potentially affecting the performance of time-sensitive IoT applications.
  • Limited IoT focus: Although suitable for a wider range of applications, it may not be as specifically tailored to IoT projects as Swarm.

Entering the Space with your own IoT project

Although Starlink has garnered significant attention in recent years, we won’t be discussing it further, as its primary focus lies outside IoT, and much of the information has already been covered extensively. Instead, we would suggest you look closer at the benefits of using Swarm’s IoT-centric services or even take the bold step of deploying your own CubeSat to create a tailor-made IoT network in space, allowing you to unlock new possibilities and push the boundaries of your IoT projects.

Benefits of Using Existing Swarm

  • Reduced Time to Market

Using existing Swarm technology enables organizations to quickly deploy and implement IoT solutions, reducing the time to market and accelerating return on investment. By eliminating the need to develop and launch a custom CubeSat, businesses can focus on creating innovative IoT applications and services that deliver value to their customers.

  • Lower Entry Costs

By leveraging existing Swarm technology, organizations can reduce the initial investment required to establish satellite-based IoT communication. This cost-effective approach makes satellite-enabled IoT solutions more accessible for businesses of all sizes, allowing them to compete in the growing IoT market.

  • Reliable Network Infrastructure

Swarm’s established network infrastructure ensures reliable and efficient communication between IoT devices and ground stations. This robust network enables seamless integration with IoT devices and applications, providing a dependable solution for organizations seeking satellite-based IoT connectivity.

  • Scalability

Using Swarm’s CubeSat technology allows organizations to easily scale their IoT operations. The modular nature of CubeSats means that additional satellites can be deployed to expand coverage and capabilities as needed, ensuring that your organization can grow and adapt to changing market demands.

  • Regulatory Compliance

Swarm’s established satellite communication infrastructure adheres to international regulatory standards, ensuring that organizations can confidently use their services without worrying about compliance issues. 

Benefits of Developing and Launching Your Own CubeSat

  • Customization and Flexibility

Developing your own CubeSat allows you to tailor its design and functionality to meet the specific needs of your IoT applications. This level of customization ensures that your satellite can efficiently communicate with your devices and adapt to any changes in technology or requirements, providing you with a flexible and future-proof solution.

  • Control and Ownership

By developing and launching your own CubeSat, you have full control over its operation, data privacy, and security. This allows you to manage and maintain your satellite assets independently, ensuring your organization’s data remains secure and well-managed.

  • Innovation and Learning Opportunities

The process of creating a CubeSat provides valuable learning opportunities in satellite engineering, IoT integration, and project management. This hands-on experience fosters innovation within your organization and encourages the development of new ideas and solutions for satellite communication and IoT applications.

  • Competitive Advantage

Launching your own CubeSat can give your organization a competitive edge by providing unique IoT capabilities and creating new business opportunities. As more industries rely on IoT technology, having your satellite-based communication solution can set you apart from competitors and attract potential customers or partners.

  • Enhanced Brand Image

Developing and launching your own CubeSat demonstrates your organization’s commitment to innovation, sustainability, and technological advancements. This can help improve your brand’s image and reputation in the industry, showcasing your dedication to pushing boundaries and exploring new frontiers in satellite communication and IoT. By positioning your organization as a leader in the field, you can attract potential customers, partners, and investors who share your vision and values.

Applications of CubeSat in IoT

  • Remote Monitoring and Control

CubeSats enable organizations to monitor and control IoT devices in remote locations where traditional communication infrastructure is limited or unavailable. This capability allows businesses to manage their assets and operations effectively, regardless of their geographic location.

  • Data Collection and Analysis

CubeSat technology facilitates the collection of vast amounts of data from IoT devices, providing valuable insights for analysis and decision-making. This information can be used to optimize processes, reduce costs, and improve overall efficiency.

  • Asset Tracking and Management

With CubeSats, organizations can track and manage their assets, regardless of their location. This application ensures that businesses can maintain accurate inventories, prevent theft, and optimize the use of their assets.

  • Environmental Monitoring and Conservation

CubeSats can be used to monitor environmental conditions and natural resources, providing valuable data for conservation efforts and environmental management. By tracking changes in temperature, air quality, and vegetation, CubeSats can help identify trends and inform strategies to protect the environment.

  • Smart Agriculture

CubeSat technology can be employed in smart agriculture applications, helping farmers monitor soil conditions, crop health, and weather patterns. This information can be used to optimize irrigation, fertilization, and pest control, leading to improved crop yields and reduced resource consumption.

  • Fleet management

CubeSats enable tracking and management of vehicle fleets, allowing businesses to optimize routes, improve fuel efficiency, and enhance overall operational efficiency. This application can lead to significant cost savings and reduced environmental impact.

  • Route heatmaps

By collecting data from IoT devices on vehicles, CubeSats can generate route heatmaps, providing valuable insights into traffic patterns and congestion. This information can be used to inform infrastructure planning, optimize transportation systems, and improve overall traffic flow.

  • Emergency Response and Disaster Management

CubeSat technology can play a vital role in emergency response and disaster management by providing communication and data collection capabilities for distant areas. This information enables first responders and emergency services to make informed decisions, deploy resources efficiently, and save lives during natural disasters or other crises.

Partner with Sirin Software

Looking to unlock the potential of space-based communication for your IoT applications? Developing and launching your own CubeSat or using an existing Swarm can offer numerous benefits, but it’s important to choose the right partner for your project.

At Sirin Software, we have extensive experience in developing software and hardware solutions for various IoT applications, including those that use CubeSats for communication. Our team of experts can provide technical support and expertise, helping you navigate regulatory compliance and reducing time to market. We offer a wide range of IoT services, including software development, cloud solutions, and hardware design, ensuring that your CubeSat communication solution is reliable, scalable, and tailored to your specific needs.

Sirin Software team can provide access to the latest technologies and tools to build a reliable and cost-effective CubeSat communication solution. Whether you are looking to develop and launch your own CubeSat or use an existing Swarm, we can help you achieve your goals. Contact us today to learn more about our IoT services and how we can help you fully reveal the potential of space-based communication for your IoT applications.

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