SmallSat is About to Take Off

Spotlight

Small Satellites in Low Earth Orbit Edging Towards Commercial Sustainability

The smallsat industry is accelerating at remarkable speed these days. According to several reports, the market for the small Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites is growing by 20 percent a year and is projected to reach $62 billion in 2030. 

Realizing that connectivity is becoming a huge competitive factor, several industries are gradually turning to LEO – to the benefit of smallsat companies who can provide cheaper connectivity on a global scale and with lower latency. That is why now, after years of testing and demonstrating, the technology behind smallsat is maturing, and the market is gradually getting ready for commercialization.

The usage of small satellites orbiting around the earth with an altitude of 2,000 km (1,200 miles) or less is now diverting into areas such as Research & Space exploration, Governmental and other commercial services. Today, small satellites help provide air-traffic and maritime tracking data and are also used for earth observation purposes and IoT/M2M applications. Small satellites are also gaining ground in the defence sector. A recent example is the brand new satellite architecture based on LEO satellites revealed by the newly established U.S. Space Development Agency earlier this year.

The potential of LEO satellites and networks has also caught the attention of Elon Musk and his company SpaceX who have also ventured into the smallsat market and have so far launched 60 out of 12,000 scheduled LEO satellites as a part of the company’s growing Starlink fleet. Amazon, headed by Jeff Bezos, has also launched its own largescale smallsat project dubbed Project Kuiper. The effort will count 3,236 LEO satellites providing internet to remote communities around the world.

Established high throughput satellite operators are also eyeing the LEO market. Up to now, these companies have been solely focusing on traditional satellite constellation systems, namely the enormous geostationary satellites. But earlier this year, Eutelsat commissioned the company’s first LEO satellite designed for IoT services, and Telesat is also planning a fleet of initial 300 LEO satellites. The turn to small satellites has even made the market for geostationary (GEO) satellites bleed. In recent years, there has been a significant decrease in GEO satellite orders dropping from 20 to 25 orders annually to just five to seven commercial satellites last year.

The future is cellular
The increasing number of LEO satellites is fed by the rising use of IoT services that draw on terrestrial networks based on the ground. However, as these networks only cover 10 percent of the earth’s surface, satellites – and especially LEO satellites – can be a huge help getting the remaining 90 percent on the grid.

Today, the most common solution for space-based IoT is proprietary solutions. However, the terrestrial low-power wide-area networks (LPWANs), such as LoRa or SigFox, are also being modified to be used from space. Even though these are stable and reliable networks, the cellular-based standard, Narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT) network, also holds great promise.

NB-IoT is supported by cellular networks and is used for several IoT applications today. As 3GPP NB-IoT has both technical and commercial advantages, it makes a very strong candidate for space-based IoT – even if the technology still requires some adaptions to handle the special conditions for communicating in space. Extending the network’s existing 4G/LTE standard allowing an accessible cellular data connection, NB-IoT has the potential to provide a stable connection for all areas of the earth – moving towards the 5G market as well.

A new NB-IoT satellite network will not only benefit the general connectivity and common IoT devices. Forming a network that covers remote areas and most of the sea, NB-IoT can be used for navigation, tracking systems and earth observation. In that way, satellite communications will be able to provide a stable and reliable connection to all areas of the world – urban as rural – and form a truly global satellite network.

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