IoT Is Beaming to Earth Onboard Its Smallest Vessel Yet: CubeSats

April 05, 2023 by Aaron Carman

The latest cellular standard brings IoT to the final frontier.

In a bid to move the cloud beyond the clouds, satellite operators are beginning an IoT space race. While the Internet of Satellite Things (IoST) may never be able to provide the speeds of fiber-optic and terrestrial-based communications, IoST stands to offer a wider coverage range for a bevy of new applications.


Space-based IoT

Space-based IoT stands to offer an all-new coverage mechanism to provide IoT communications to developing countries, remote locations, and all areas where terrestrial communications are impossible.


Space-based IoT is not a new idea. However, after 3GPP’s release 17 cellular standard, IoST can access a much larger market share. Devices that were originally limited to cellular towers can now leverage the 3GPP standard to connect to satellites without requiring major hardware modifications.

While those who follow engineering and technology trends are likely familiar with the concept of IoT, the jump to space creates interesting design challenges and limitations that don’t exist for its terrestrial counterpart. This article dives into the connectivity challenges in the final frontier, as well as current trends and predictions for how the IoST market will evolve in the coming years.


Cheap Launches With CubeSats

Most people understand space exploration to be an expensive endeavor. However, the cost of putting payloads into orbit is steadily declining, with recent estimates reaching $2.6K per kilogram. This reduction in launch cost, coupled with the miniaturization of RF electronics, has made small satellites like CubeSats less of a fiscal risk.


As the cost of launching satellites reduces, the number of satellites launched has increased

As the cost of launching satellites reduces, the number of satellites launched has increased considerably in recent years, especially for IoT satellites versus Store-and-Forward (S&F). Image used courtesy of Applied Sciences


Despite the lower cost of entry, developers aren't rushing to send their microcells into space. Terrestrial communication comes with luxuries that are unavailable in space, namely power availability and atmospheric protection.

Since energy translates to increased mass in a CubeSat, low-power devices ensure launch costs don’t reach prohibitive levels. In addition, even in low-earth orbit (LEO), satellites endure high amounts of radiation, making radiation-hardened electronics a necessity for sensitive components in LEO satellites.


Coverage Everywhere

Despite the fact that the recent 3GPP standard was released in late 2022, companies such as Lacuna Space, Sateliot, and the SpaceX subsidiary Swarm have been offering IoST for years. Each of these, however, required its own hardware and band allocations in order to function well, raising the barrier to entry.

Following 3GPP’s release 17 standard, IoST is expected to pick up considerable momentum in the coming years. This couples well with the increase in IoT offerings for remote areas, where traditional terrestrial connections may be impractical or impossible. IoST, while it won’t be providing high bandwidth any time soon, does offer unprecedented coverage on a worldwide scale.


Starlink coverage

This image of Starlink coverage shows that, despite the low maximum bandwidth, coverage can be provided on a worldwide scale. Screenshot courtesy of SatelliteMap


This coverage enables remote devices to integrate seamlessly with the IoT ecosystem, making applications in agriculture, geology, or rural areas considerably easier to get up and running. Researchers in Antarctica tracking penguins have even used IoST and CubeSats to manage their cameras from afar. While live images may not be visible, they are able to monitor the health of their cameras to determine if they need hands-on repair.


Expanding IoT Across the World

The decreasing launch cost and the increased applications for CubeSats are rapidly making them a popular solution for worldwide coverage, even if that coverage can’t outperform the speed of terrestrial communication. Altitude diversity may allow for even more unique applications thanks to the LEO satellites' improved latency and geosynchronous satellites' reliable positioning.

While the specific areas that will benefit the most from IoST are still unknown, the increased coverage is certainly a benefit for IoT designers looking to make their devices work in all environments. Furthermore, IoST stands to open new markets in developing countries where the lack of communications infrastructure can prevent familiar IoT systems from being used. Although some companies have already deployed IoST satellites, it seems that the IoT space race is only beginning, and the rewards for success could bring about a new age of global-scale communications.