Is the IoT in space about to take off?

The Internet of Things has largely been an earthbound phenomenon. That could be about to change.

Is the IoT in space about to take off?
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Space may not be the final frontier for the Internet of Things, but evidence is mounting that it could be the technology’s next golden opportunity. While we’re still a ways away from the IoT in space becoming a commercially viable mainstream technology, a variety of companies are pushing the envelope in two significant ways.

First, companies are working to realize the promise of satellite-powered networks that would bring the Internet of Things everywhere on earth. Second, vendors — and NASA — are exploring actual IoT applications and use cases beyond Earth’s atmosphere, in satellites and rockets.

For a better view of how the IoT is making its way into outer space, let’s train our telescope on both instances.

Space-based IoT networks

It’s long been a goal to use satellites to provide simple, low-power, low-cost, IoT-friendly networks for remote users outside of the coverage areas of standard terrestrial networks. But due to the distances involved and other factors, traditional approaches to space-based IoT networks have tended to be expensive, power-hungry, and complex, limiting the economic benefit of the technology.

That hasn’t stopped companies from trying, though. Last month, cloud leader Amazon Web Services (AWS) struck a deal with satellite provider Iridium to “bring internet connectivity to the whole planet.” The deal calls for them to develop a satellite-based network called CloudConnect, designed specifically for IoT applications.

Similarly, earlier this month, U.S.-based Orbcomm, which provides satellite IoT and machine-to-machine communications services, announced it will work with Asia Pacific Navigation Telecommunications Satellite (APNTS) to provide its services in China.

Also in October, SemTech and Alibaba Cloud agreed to develop an IoT network in China using small satellites in low Earth orbit — reportedly just two of many companies looking to build such networks. The IOTEE Project (Internet of Things Everywhere on Earth), for example, has been funded by the European Union to provide IoT LPWA services from space.

It’s unclear whether it’s the right time for these efforts to come to fruition. There is a market available: It turns out that despite their rapid proliferations, conventional terrestrial networks cover only a small percentage of Earth’s surface. There’s often a need to track assets — vehicles, ships, even livestock — in areas that don't have coverage, and where building coverage may not make economic sense.

And as I understand it, the technology is pretty much available to make satellite IoT networks function. The question is whether they can be enabled at scale and at a price point that makes widespread economic use viable. If not, satellite IoT will likely remain a niche market suitable for tracking a limited number of high-value assets.

Wireless in space

Even if satellite IoT may not be ready for prime time, IoT actually in space is probably a bigger a market opportunity than actually using the IoT in space. Still, IoT technology is potentially a good match for many extra-terrestrial applications. In fact, NASA tested a couple of initial use cases in early 2017.

One test involved using wireless communications to transmit important orbital data within a Technical and Educational Satellite 5 (TechEdSat 5) released from the International Space Station. The goal is to use wireless networking to reduce weight to allow increased payload, an approach that could eventually become the standard in satellite design.

The Digi XBee 802.15.4 radio-frequency modules were also used to track the telemetry during tests of something called an Exo-Brake, designed to decelerate various payloads for reentry into the atmosphere — and eventually, safe recovery — without requiring rockets. (Or, as NASA reportedly calls it, “drag-based de-orbit.”)

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