Disposable $100 IoT satellites could swarm Earth's orbit

Chip-sized, miniature satellites could take internet of things-like sensing to space.

Disposable $100 IoT satellites could swarm Earth's orbit
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Tiny cheap satellites, self-organizing and communicating as a group, could shift the internet of things (IoT) to space. The postage-stamp-sized devices, acting as sensors, just like the ones we see in traditional IoT networks could perform tasks such as mapping or studying Earth, say scientists involved in a recent successful launch of the disposable nanosatellites.

The test satellites, essentially just sensors, were deployed in a batch in March. They captured data, communicated with one another, and then after a couple of days in orbit, as was planned, burned up as they reentered the atmosphere.

“This is like the PC revolution for space,” says Zac Manchester, an assistant professor at Stanford University, in an article on the school’s website. Manchester invented the ChipSats 10 years ago. It has taken until now, and after a failed attempt in 2014, to get the constellation operational—if just for those few days.

“We’ve shown that it’s possible for swarms of cheap, tiny satellites to one day carry out tasks now done by larger, costlier satellites, making it affordable for just about anyone to put instruments into orbit,” he says.

Stanford uses examples such as studying animal migration patterns as earnest use cases, but if the price is right, the technique presumably could be used to study other things—such as people, by marketers, for example.

Each ChipSat satellite costs $100 to build and are a riff on CubeSats. I’ve written before about self-build CubeSats and similar PocketQubes, but those nanosats are relatively large compared to Manchester’s. The standard CubeSat dimensions are around four-inches cubed, whereas ChipSats are less than two-inches square and are flat—they’re less than a tenth of an inch thick.

ChipSats cost less overall. Plus, you can fit more in a pod, called a KickSat, within a launch vehicle. And because you expect them to last only a short time while you grab the sensor data you need, you don’t have to bother protecting them to the same extent like you would with a traditional satellite, or indeed the launch vehicle. That reduces bulk, too.

“The biggest cost is the launch, and we’re trying to create the smallest, lightest satellite platform capable of carrying out useful tasks,” Manchester says.

How ChipSats work

Small solar panels power the satellites’ microcontrollers, radios, and sensors. Other than the remarkable $100-build, plus launch, it’s the swarming nature of the satellites’ network that’s probably the most interesting feature. ChipSats communicate as a meshed group, locating one another in the deployed low-Earth orbit and then talking to one another. Data is sent back to ground stations as needed.

“I want to make it easy and affordable enough for anyone to explore space,” Manchester says.

Regulators have concerns with ChipSats

With the potential for flocks of new satellites, also called Sprites, in Earth's orbit, regulators are concerned about collisions and radio interference. They will have the final say on just how many make it up there.

In a pre-emptive strike, the U.S. government’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued an advisory last year reminding folks they can’t simply deploy satellites and Earth stations, however easy it might be, without permission (The Stanford and NASA Ames-combined project has the right paperwork apparently). Swarm Technologies, a small-satellite operator, had a go on its own last year and was fined $900,000.

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