Two shoebox-sized nano-satellites from the Netherlands are creating a space internet network like no other. The target market? Assets, rigs, pipelines, buoys, cargo, fishermen, farmers and even beekeepers who live in the 90% of the planet that currently has no affordable internet access.
What is “space internet?”
It’s not a new concept, of course. Internet access has been around for many years thanks to orbiting satellites, but it’s traditionally been slow and expensive. However, Dutch startup Hiber is making is about to make its HiberBand service available globally, and it’s expected to be 20-30 times cheaper than using sat-phone networks.
Hiber won’t have the market all to itself, with Astrocast, Myriota and Swarm all planning similar services (though the technology being used varies in implementation and cost).
What is Hiberband?
This is about small data packets traveling on a narrowband network, not high-bandwidth broadband. “We have a vision of connecting everything out there for very short and simple messages,” says Coen Janssen, Director of Business Intelligence and co-founder of Hiber. The near-global network will allow only one-way SMS or Tweet-sized messages that allow a sensor to tell the cloud its ID, its location and an additional 144 bytes. This is about the Internet of Things (IoT), and Hiber thinks that filling the gaps in global coverage is a $4.6 billion opportunity. Around 30 billion IoT devices ate expected by 2020, all of which will require Internet access.
What is the Internet of Things?
Also known as M2M (machine to machine) communications, the IoT is a loose concept where wireless sensors communicate with each other using antennas and modems. The data they gather is already changing how entire industries work. Industrial machinery, streetlights and smart trash cans that alert the cloud about their status can use local land networks and don’t require “space internet,” but “things” in more remote areas sure do.
Why does the IoT need HiberBand?
At the moment, the IoT is mostly terrestrial. LoRa and Sigfox are now building dedicated low power, wide area (LPWA) surface is networks that deal only in small data packets. Trouble is, as well as infrastructure, these IoT networks only cover a tiny percentage of the planet.
There are also IoT-M services that make use of existing mobile phone networks. However, as well as using a lot more power, mobile phone coverage extends only 10% of the planet.
The only way of exchanging data when in any other part of the globe is to use satellite internet services from the likes of GlobalStar, Inmarsat and Iridium and at present, they are too expensive for many IoT uses. HiberBand is an attempt to make an affordable global IoT network.
What space hardware does HiberBand use?
Hiber has two tiny nano-satellites, HiberOne and HiberTwo, circling the globe at 7 km/second 16 times a day in a polar orbit. At just 10x20x30cm, they’re no bigger than a shoebox. Together they cover any single point on the Earth’s surface four times per day. That means a minimum of four exchanges of data. “We have global coverage and we use only one frequency (400mHz), so both the software and hardware work anywhere around the globe,” says Janssen. “Our devices are also low power, so they can work for at least five years autonomously in the field.”
The satellites themselves will have a commercial shelf-life of about three years, after which their orbits will lower and their coverage narrows. After about 10-12 years, they will burn-up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
How does HiberBand work?
Users need sensors with HiberBand modems built-in. “When the satellite passes overhead, the modem wakes-up and send the data and goes back to sleep – the modem is “Hiber-nating” most of the time,” says Janssen. “When the satellite next passes over one of our ground stations [in Delft, the Netherlands and in Spitsbergen, Norway], it transmits the data back down and then it’s pushed to any cloud service such as IBM Watson, Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure.” HiberBand also integrates with ground-based IoT networks.
Exactly how many exchanges of data per day depends on the geolocation of the sensors; those near the equator get up to four messages per day, but in North America and Australia, six is possible.
However, this is not a real-time broadband network, so you can’t use HiberBand to go online, send an email or use Skype because as well as being one-way, for now, the data is only guaranteed to send once per day.
Who will use HiberBand?
Any company that wants to use IoT technology away from urban areas, but doesn’t want to pay for the high cost of satellite internet services or have to use high-power modems demanded by cellphone networks. About 50 customers are signed-up so far to use it for everything from asset-tracking to geofencing fish, cattle and even bees. One example is Belgian company Ovinto, which uses satellites to remotely monitor 500,000 railway carriages and tank containers. “Presently they use GlobalStar satellites and the Sigfox IoT network, but that’s too power-hungry,” says Janssen.
DHL and AXA are also signed-up as are Victrol and Marlink, the latter of which provides satellite communications to the maritime industry. HiberBand could be used to create geofences and help police marine parks and sanctuaries where fishing is banned. “By acknowledging where boats have caught their fish we can make it possible for illegal fishing to be stopped,” says Janssen.
An internet of bees?
HiberBand can certainly be used for “smart agriculture”, but Janssenhopes it can soon be used by agriculture assets. “There are tens of millions of beehives, most of used for cross-pollination so every six weeks they go to a different location,” says Janssen. “The challenge we have is not changing the structure of the beehive.”
Another ongoing project is an attempt to put Hiber’s antennas into collars for cattle, which could be tracked, which would help both farmers and, in some areas, the predators that prey on them. “With over 800 million free-ranging cattle in the world, it’s a very interesting use-case,” says Janssen.
How will HiberBand help science?
HiberBand will also help scientists in environmental monitoring. A pilot customer is the British Antarctic Survey, which will be using the network to transmit data from remote measurement stations that currently have no access to satellite communications. “The hard issue at the poles is that the usual geostationary satellites like Inmarsat cannot cover the poles as well as us because they’re positioned at the equator, so they only see a quarter of the Earth,” says Janssen. “The only way is to use Iridium, which is expensive.” Iridium is a constellation of 66 satellites that provide L-band voice and data coverage to satellite phones, pagers and integrated transceivers over the entire Earth surface, but the company just refreshed its entire fleet at a cost of $3 billion. “We drop by more than once a day over the Earth’s poles,” says Janssen.
Another of Hiber’s pilot customers is Clean2Antarctica, a team of environmental campaigners using a solar-powered car made from waste plastic to traverse the Antarctic. Other early customers also include a Dutch company taking climate stations to schools in rural communities in Peru, Tanzania and Sri Lanka to educate future farmers, and Blik Sensing, a company that monitoring global groundwater levels.
How did the nano-sats get into space?
Both of its satellites launched into space in late 2018 on ride-share rockets, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and an Indian PSLV rocket. “We aim to launch at least two more at the end of this year and another 10 in 2020,” says Janssen, who says that Hiber’s next satellite will be the half the size of a shoebox. The aim is to quickly have a reliable hourly service over the entire planet. “The market size is even bigger for the hourly service, so we want to get that globally available as soon as we can,” says Janssen. In the future, Hiber plans to have two-way communications and near-real-time connectivity.