Communication network around Earth. Photo: NASA, Via Satellite

Communication network around Earth. Photo: NASA, Via Satellite Satellite Internet of Things IoT for 5G

Satellite Internet of Things. For some time now the European Space Agency (ESA) project “Satellite for 5G,” together with 3GPP, has been quietly evaluating how Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTN) (including satellite segments) might form an integral part of 5G connectivity infrastructure. Importantly, this 3GPP work item does not solely focus on use cases for Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), but also seeks to address Massive Machine Type Communication (mMTC) requirements for hybrid connectivity.

Technical studies are still at the early stage, has thus far focused on describing use cases and understanding what technical problems must be solved, rather than proposing the solution. But the slow march towards a hybrid 5G Internet of Things (IoT) networks has seemingly begun.

This takes place alongside a growing crowd of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite operators financing and launching new space constellations, with some specifically oriented towards IoT. So, it is a timely moment to consider how these same networks might evolve and scale-up to meet the future aspirations of 5G mMTC.

3GPP standardization: 5G NR (New Radio) Waveforms for an LEO IoT Service Link?

Any initiative to drive economies-of-scale for key technology components in satellite IoT terminals must be embraced by smallsat operators since low-cost terminals are a missing catalyst required to accelerate service adoption. Ask any participating company what they’d like to see happen inside their ecosystem today and one of the top responses is access to a low-cost satellite communications module for IoT.

The industry has an acute need for such connectivity modules in the sub-6GHz spectrum. Today’s satellite operators are still tied into using a disparate mix of proprietary and standards-based technologies, as a one-size-fits-all waveform for satellite IoT has alluded the industry thus far. Perhaps 3GPP 5G NR standardization activities for Non-Terrestrial Networks will finally morph into a concerted effort to drive satcom terminal pricing down to commoditized levels that are more on a par with their cellular counterparts.

Be Careful What You Wish For

The flipside of having universal IoT standards would be a lack of differentiation. Opening-up the emerging 5G satellite IoT opportunity to incumbent suppliers of terrestrial connectivity hardware may sound all-well-and-good, but if the “Satellite for 5G” project successfully completes its quest to integrate Non-Terrestrial Networks into 3GPP 5G NR, that could also pave the way for terrestrial network equipment vendors to start commandeering satellite ground stations. Perhaps, even leading consortia of Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and terrestrial network vendors to build or acquire their own LEO IoT constellations, in response to emerging threats from the likes of Amazon’s Kuiper and Amazon Web Services (AWS) Ground Station initiatives.

That could at least offer an attractive exit strategy for some of today’s LEO smallsat investors and so to further assess the possibility, it is helpful to outline the shape and scale of future service demands placed upon a 5G mMTC constellation. Satellite Internet of Things IoT for 5G

NTN Service Requirements for 5G mMTC

3GPP current state-of-play identifies three key roles for a 5G satellite network: rolling-out 5G services in under-served areas, providing service continuity for 5G mobile IoT use cases, and administering efficient multicast broadcast services.

It can be taken as a given that LEO constellations in polar orbits will deliver low-cost global coverage, but a more pertinent question is: when will they have the appropriate scale to deliver a truly meaningful service component for 5G mMTC?

5G mMTC Capacity Requirements

At first sight, the scale of ambition for mMTC can seem bewildering, with 3GPP citing service density targets higher than one million sensors per square kilometer (km). This envisages a world where everything is connected — from smart meters and other smart city infrastructure to vehicles, people, and everyday objects.

But 3GPP’s frighteningly large number could pale into insignificance if 5G sensors transfer only a few 10s of bytes per device per hour across a satellite segment. In that case, even a dense population approaching one million nodes might consume average aggregate data rates lower than 100 kilobits per second (kbps). This suggests relatively simple satellite payloads could be perfectly adequate to the task, assuming they can navigate the challenge to provide multiple access at huge scale.

Even with billions of sensors to serve on the ground, satellite connectivity infill is unlikely to command a strong position in the food chain. Particularly if several competing LEO constellations all jostle to address the same opportunity using a common set of waveforms. Significant churn would then precipitate a need to chase ever higher efficiencies and the race-to-the-bottom in pricing. In such circumstances, the cellular industry has a long history of precipitating large-scale mergers to drive through economies of scale and the largest players could begin to acquire LEO constellations of their own as previously alluded.

Anticipating this fiercely competitive environment, how might LEO operators attempt to differentiate their space technology platforms to prepare for a massive invasion of open standard 5G sensors? Satellite Internet of Things IoT for 5G

Focused service delivery through intelligent spot beams

At first sight, low aggregate data rates for 5G IoT would seem to augur well for the LEO smallsat community, but patches of very high subscriber density could spoil their party.

Most of today’s satellite IoT services are necessarily served using large spot beams 100 to 500 km and so we might anticipate some degree of capacity crunch rolling-out satellite IoT services around the major sensor population hubs in the U.S., Western European, and Asia. LEO satellites pass from horizon-to-horizon in less than 8 minutes, during which time a staggering number of sensors could be observed. This drives up the peak requirements for data aggregation, a challenge that is further compounded if the 5G satellite IoT service must provide some degree of guaranteed latency.

Of course, LEO operators could scale-up peak service capacity by launching ever bigger constellations or deploying bigger satellites with wider payloads. Or they might evolve increasingly intelligent ways to dynamically focus transponder bandwidth into a highly concentrated service region during a fly-by. That capability could be delivered incrementally as operators replenish a fleet or in-situ, by leveraging new software-defined space platforms such as the recently announced SmartSat from Lockheed Martin. At any rate, the most effective satellite IoT systems will be dimensioned to serve cost-effective “hot-spots” around major population hubs. Note that Geostationary Orbit (GEO) holds some clear advantages in this regard and this could hold some significance in certain network deployments.

Satellites and Autonomous Vehicles industry, It is a measure of the complex challenges facing the autonomous vehicle industry that participants in the space cannot yet seem to agree on whether wireless vehicle connections are necessary. Market players point to leaders, Waymo and Cruise Automation, and assert that connectivity is not essential to the automated operation of these vehicles.

Intel, meanwhile, talks about 4 terabytes a day flowing from connected autonomous vehicles and wireless industry advocates praise the vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity that will be enabled by C-V2X and 5G cellular networks. The question remains, though, are cellular wireless connections necessary for the autonomous operation?

Even more salient than this question, though, is the issue of satellite connectivity. To get a perspective on this, it is worth assessing trends in the automotive wireless market and the implications for autonomous operation.

First of all, bringing wireless connectivity to cars is a fundamentally unnatural act for the average car company. The product life cycle of a car — 15 years or longer — extends beyond the life cycle of a particular wireless network topology, which is constantly evolving. On multiple occasions, car companies have been blind-sided by cellular network upgrades (analog to digital, 3G to 4G) that have led to the shutdown of legacy networks and the disconnection of cars — with resulting class action lawsuits, at least in the U.S. — or expensive retrofitting of existing vehicle fleets.

Secondly, car makers are committed to ensuring the safe functioning of their vehicles under all circumstances. Wireless carriers have no such requirement or commitment. The understanding is that the quality of wireless service is dependent and vulnerable to changes in demand. Satellites and Autonomous Vehicles industry

For these reasons, multiple car companies are preparing to launch vehicle connectivity systems with multiple Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) devices to ensure higher levels of service quality and signal reliability. Multiple German automakers are specifying so-called “dual-SIM dual active” (DSDA) 2-SIM configurations while some Chinese Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are proposing 3- and 4-SIM solutions. General Motors’ Cruise Automation autonomous vehicle subsidiary, for example, makes use of a module with four cellular wireless carrier connections.

The truth is that wireless connectivity will be essential to the operation of autonomous vehicles. Not only must maps, traffic, weather, road hazard information, and software algorithms be regularly updated or processed in real-time, the entire industry is facing a long-term requirement for remote control.

The only technology that can deliver a universally reliable connection at high speed and low latency is a satellite. In fact, given that most autonomous vehicle developers are planning fleets of such vehicles serving public transportation objectives, the ability of satellite technology to broadcast vital information or commands to vehicles en masse is a huge advantage over cellular.

The reality is that cellular and satellite are ideally suited to work side by side to enable, enhance, and assist in the development and deployment of autonomous vehicle technology. The satellite networks best suited to the task will include OneWeb and SpaceX and the enabling antenna technology is already available.

For the quality of service, reliability of signal and volume of data — particularly in a broadcast scenario — satellite technology is tough to beat. The immediate opportunity is for application in testing and development scenarios where cost is less of a concern.

As volumes scale up on the path toward deployment, the rationale for satellite technology will only improve. The conventional wisdom is that autonomous vehicles must be designed to operate in the absence of a wireless connection. The reality is that connectivity for autonomous vehicles will become a regulatory requirement.

The debate over the need for wireless connections to enable autonomous operation will likely go on. The reality is that wireless connections between vehicles (for collision avoidance), with infrastructure (for integrating with traffic signals), and with control centers (via cellular and satellite for monitoring and remote control) will be an essential element of the evolution of automated vehicle technology.

Rendition of space junk surrounding Earth. Photo: ESA.

Rendition of space junk surrounding Earth.

Over recent months, there has been a sudden wave of public awareness relating to the massive and growing problem of plastic in our seas. Mainly thanks to a remarkable BBC documentary featuring Sir David Attenborough highlighting the problem and the ensuing awareness campaigns, plus, the advent of alternatives to plastic. When you think about it, the same analogy can be applied to space with different effects. Our increased dependency on space capabilities demands an understanding of the associated vulnerabilities in what has become an increasingly congested Earth-orbiting space environment. From just one spacecraft in-orbit in 1957 to thousands of spacecraft, their associated transportation systems (spent rocket stages) and other related debris have entered the space domain. This debris is causing a knock-on effect to our space environment. We have two responsibilities: reduce the debris in space and prevent further debris being generated.

A Growing Problem

Much like plastic in our seas, debris has been steadily growing over recent years. While many of these objects have either transited out of Earth orbit or re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated, nearly 23,000 trackable objects currently remain in orbit. This includes Vanguard 1, the oldest orbiting Earth object, along with 1,150 active spacecraft and thousands of retired spacecraft or other orbiting debris, ranging in size from fragments to 25-meter-long rocket stages at altitudes from 100,000 to120,000 kilometers (km) or more from the Earth’s surface. Given the significantly reduced atmospheric drag in higher Earth orbits, many objects will stay in space for decades, and in Geosynchronous Orbits (GEO) objects could remain in space for hundreds of years or more.

An example is that of the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) based in the U.S., which actively tracks all objects of ‘softball size’ (10 centimeters) or larger in-orbit, using a combination of ground radar and optical systems and some space-based sensors.

Of the 23,000 trackable objects, 7,500 are considered very small and are followed only by an extremely limited number of sensors. Degradations among those sensors can have a significant impact on our ability to track and, more importantly, to provide safety of flight for both critical manned and unmanned space vehicles. Remember, the object the size of a marble (1 cm) has the potential to destroy a spacecraft.

Presently such small objects are not tracked, and only rarely consistently track objects between 1 cm and 10 cm. Estimates of the number of such objects in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) range between 300,000 and 560,000. It is expected that as sensors and computing systems improve, more will be discovered and could track thousands more of these objects. Then consider that the number of objects less than 1 cm is estimated at more than 150 million!

The Cause

Before 2007, the number of trackable objects orbiting Earth increased at a predictable rate. But since then, three incidents have completely changed the situation. In 2007, the Chinese carried out an anti-satellite test against their spacecraft known as Fengyun 1C. Two years later, there was a collision between two spacecraft known as Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251. And, in 2012, the upper stage of a Russian BRIZ-M rocket exploded.

Together, these events were a watershed. Between them they nearly doubled the number of cataloged objects in orbit, drastically increasing the number of close approaches between orbiting objects, or “conjunctions,” that are detected. Additional debris from those three events is found and tracked nearly every day.

The Effect

According to the Kessler syndrome, a theory proposed by NASA scientist Donald J Kessler in 1978, a collision in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) would cause a self-sustaining cascading collision of space debris. As two objects collide and create more debris, this will then collide with other objects, further exacerbating the problem until space becomes literally filled with debris.

The plastic problem has far from gone away, but we are now seeing huge action taking place on a global scale to remove plastic from our oceans and reduce the amount of disposable plastic being used on a daily basis. In space, we are slow on the uptake. Yet, we have the awareness, power, and responsibility — so how do we fix the problem of debris?

Monitoring Debris

A major reason why the Space Data Association was set up in the first place to complement the vital work done by JSpOC and recognize the problem for the commercial industry. Other organizations such as the European Space Agency (ESA) and DLR (German Aerospace) are also heavily involved with similar work and cooperation, bring new developments and technology to help remedy the debris problem.

Removing Debris

The first question is how do we remove the debris already in space? It is a challenging dilemma and not easily answered. That said, there are a few innovative ideas that have the beginnings of success with some recent launches of debris recovery spacecraft and a continuing program of development.

Over the past few years, there have been a number of ideas emerging to tackle this growing problem, including using an electrodynamic tether designed to generate electricity that would slow down the speed of satellites or space debris, allowing it to return to earth. Another idea saw a British company launch a sail to effectively push the debris down to lower orbits. However, tangible results are low.

Last year saw the launch of a spacecraft from the International Space Station(ISS) which may change that. It is aiming to experiment with removing debris through a harpoon, net, and drag sail. Since launch, it has been running a range of experiments with the different methods. Once complete sometime next month it will use the drag sail to deorbit, which is critical in order to ensure it doesn’t itself cause extra debris. This is of course just initial experiments but is a massive step in the right direction.

Preventative Measures

As well as focusing on removing debris from orbit, we need to work on preventing the cause of further debris. This comes down to ensuring all satellite operators adhere to certain best practices.

Firstly, we need to be avoiding debris-generating collisions. The only way to do that is to have effective and accurate space traffic management solutions in place. The best way of ensuring that right now is by joining and feeding data into the Space Data Association which is able to warn of close approaches. The more members it has, the more accurate that data becomes. It is particularly crucial for those smaller operators which do not have the luxury of dedicated space situational awareness teams.

The other element is what happens at the end of the satellite’s life. The new LEO mega constellations mostly have extensive deorbiting plans in place. The same cannot be said for some of the older satellites currently in space or the new era of small, cube, or nanosatellites! If deorbiting plans were not in place at launch, how can we ensure they are not simply left in orbit to risk causing debris at a later date? Deorbiting should be a requirement for all new satellite launches but it also needs to be considered for those already in space without deorbiting provisions in place.

Ridding the Seas

Ultimately, just as is the need in the seas, we need to get to a scenario where debris is at a minimum and new debris is not being generated. The only way we can get there is with innovative new tools and cooperation of the entire satellite industry. More importantly, as we explore further in space, such as our Moon and Mars, then we should keep those places clean — from the start!

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Photo: Vince Lim/Via Satellite

Amazon is joining the race to provide broadband internet access around the globe via thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit, newly uncovered filings show.

The effort, code-named Project Kuiper, follows up on last September’s mysterious reports that Amazon was planning a “big, audacious space project” involving satellites and space-based systems. The Seattle-based company is likely to spend billions of dollars on the project, and could conceivably reap billions of dollars in revenue once the satellites go into commercial service.

It’ll take years to bring the big, audacious project to fruition, however, and Amazon could face fierce competition from SpaceX, OneWeb and other high-profile players.

Project Kuiper’s first public step took the form of three sets of filings made with the International Telecommunication Union last month by the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of Washington, D.C.-based Kuiper Systems LLC. The ITU oversees global telecom satellite operations and eventually will have to sign off on Kuiper’s constellation.

The filings lay out a plan to put 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit — including 784 satellites at an altitude of 367 miles (590 kilometers); 1,296 satellites at a height of 379 miles (610 kilometers); and 1,156 satellites in 391-mile (630-kilometer) orbits.

“Project Kuiper is a new initiative to launch a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites that will provide low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world,” an Amazon spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “This is a long-term project that envisions serving tens of millions of people who lack basic access to broadband internet. We look forward to partnering on this initiative with companies that share this common vision.”

Satellite view of North America at night Amazon said the satellites would provide data coverage for spots on Earth ranging in latitude from 56 degrees north to 56 degrees south. About 95 percent of the world’s population lives within that wide swath of the planet.

The United Nations estimates that almost 4 billion people around the globe are underserved when it comes to internet access, which is becoming increasingly important as the world grows more connected.

Some of the world’s best-known companies have been working for years on plans to serve that market.

Internet access is already available via satellites in geosynchronous orbits, such as the constellations operated by Viasat and Hughes Network Systems, but satellites in low Earth orbit are expected to offer advantages in terms of low latency and low cost.

Other ventures are staking a middle ground in the satellite broadband race. One of those ventures, SES Networks, is due to have four of its O3b satellites launched into medium Earth orbit today to boost space-based connectivity.

Amazon didn’t provide a timeline for deployment of Project Kuiper’s satellites or for the start of internet service. Nor did it say how much the service might cost. The service is likely to be associated with the Amazon brand — as opposed to, say, Amazon Web Services. The project’s code name, which pays tribute to the late planetary scientist Gerard Kuiper and the solar system’s far-flung, icy Kuiper Belt, isn’t likely to end up being the name of the service once it goes commercial.

Although the Kuiper satellite coordinates were passed along to the ITU by the FCC, the FCC itself has not yet taken regulatory action on the project. Amazon’s next step will be to submit filings to the FCC and other regulators around the world.

The regulatory process is likely to consider whether Amazon can guarantee that its satellites won’t interfere with the thousands of other satellites expected to operate in low Earth orbit and that the satellites will be disposed of safely at the end of their operating life without adding to orbital debris.

It’s not clear whether Amazon will manufacture Project Kuiper’s satellites or have an outside vendor make them — which leaves lots of room for jokes about second-day satellite deliveries. Neither is it clear where Project Kuiper will be headquartered — although it’s known that some employees in Seattle are working on the project.

Last November, Amazon Web Services launched a cloud computing service known as AWS Ground Station to facilitate space-to-ground communications, but satellite broadband is likely to require a much more extensive network of earth stations. In a recent FCC filing, SpaceX sought approval for up to a million Starlink earth stations.

The cost of designing, manufacturing, deploying and operating thousands of satellites is sure to run into billions of dollars, but the fact that Amazon’s market capitalization is currently close to $900 billion suggests it can cover that cost.

It so happens that Amazon’s billionaire founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, has more than a passing interest in space: His Blue Origin space venture is developing an orbital-class rocket called New Glenn that’s due for its first launch in 2021 and could launch bunches of Project Kuiper’s satellites at a time. Privately held Blue Origin, which is separate from publicly traded Amazon, already holds contracts to send broadband satellites into low Earth orbit for OneWeb and Telesat.