Retelling IoT’s ‘space history’

By Paul Kostek, senior member and advisory systems engineer with Air Direct Solutions LLC
Paul Kostek, senior member and advisory systems engineer with Air Direct Solutions LLC, details how early space missions shaped IoT

As the space industry gears up for the upcoming moon mission, developers are experimenting with new suits, landing platforms and prototypes – undoubtedly incorporating Internet of Things (IoT) technology into these advancements. Space missions have served as the launch pad for many of the innovations people use every day. It laid the foundations for new solutions to develop modern communication networks, computing and navigation systems and power sources. Most of which people use every day, including PCs, smartphones and solar panels, as well as medical innovations such as the insulin pump, scratch-resistant lenses for glasses and artificial limbs. 

Paul Kostek, senior member and advisory systems engineer with Air Direct Solutions LLC

How did the Apollo landing shape future uses of IoT?

Many of the latest technology innovations originated from the original moon landing, over 50 years ago. Although the first real-time embedded digital computer, the Apollo Guidance Computer, was limited in its capabilities, it still pushed the development from room-size machines towards the miniscule sensors available today. A key thing to note is that Apollo engineers had to reduce the computers of the day to fit in the limited space of a space shuttle. This significantly helped to shape the future uses of IoT’s because the success of the Apollo missions led to the incorporation of smaller computers into commercial and military aircraft, as well as its commercial use in science and financial services. The computers also increased the performance capabilities of modern satellites.

The Apollo landing has caused a notable transformation in the future of IoT. Digital technology continued to grow faster and smaller, transitioning from the space programme to the commercial market and eventually leading to the development of PCs, cell phones and then smartphones. Simultaneously, sensors adopted digital technology to improve functionality and manufacturers could make devices smaller, easier to power and cheaper. The latter was the driving force for expanding the uses of IoT. These changes meant sensor technology could be applied not just to space programs, but also to military sensors for combat purposes and medical field applications.

Once IoT devices were successfully implemented on missions in space, researchers began to explore how the technology could be used on Earthbound systems too. Particularly, as they needed to develop smaller, faster and more reliable systems. Satellites are a primary example of devices that gather data, collect images and transmit information with the data collected being sent to ground stations and then to the final users: government or university labs. 

IoT in space is increasing with the introduction of constellations of low orbit satellites known as Satellite IoT or Sat-IoT. Sat-IoT enables asset tracking and monitoring anywhere.

IoT is steadily being deployed in rural and undeveloped areas where access to medical care is limited. For example, if fears of a new communicable disease were to arise, data could be shared quickly with a lab and the areas of the outbreak to try to contain the spread of disease. As it currently stands, many smart buildings have already incorporated sensors to adjust temperature and lighting based on the presence of people in rooms to lower energy waste. 

Current IoT applications and challenges

When it comes to applications in space, IoT currently has more conceptual uses than applications. That is because it has many obstacles to overcome before organisations can use IoT in space practically. According to research by Techjury, by 2030 it is estimated that there will be approximately 25.4 billion IoT devices in use. One proposal involves leveraging IoT and satellite technology to deliver internet connectivity to areas of the world that currently lack access. As it currently stands, several companies, have been looking into this already. The European Union began the IoT European Platform Initiative to assist businesses that are implementing IoT projects. At this point in time, however, the power requirements and broadband cost limit the functionality. 

Another possible use would be to connect terrestrial IoT networks with satellites to create low-power WAN (LPWAN) in space. LPWAN would require less bandwidth and power and provide the ability to scale the number of connections. This is still in the conceptual phase and questions must still be answered, such as how many satellites should be launched, how large should the satellites be, where should IoT networks be installed and what should the standard for network connections be.

Strengthening communications and boosting network resilience 

Some obstacles need to be addressed when enhancing network reliance, namely the cost of IoT networks in space. As it currently stands, costs are based on the data rate because IoT is still in the development stage. The use of space-based systems has two major Issues latency and bandwidth. They cannot compete with the performance of ground-based systems.  Once developers fully establish IoT networks and the interfaces to satellites, the costs for data transfer will shift to the number of connections. 

In addition to this, it is important for developers to plan how a satellite would interface with a new network request. This includes deciphering whether IT administrators should manage requests from a ground station, or whether the satellite itself should manage them using AI. Organisations hoping to develop IoT in space must address the cost of connecting a new network to a satellite and how to process finances before a satellite responds to a new request. When the organisations developing IoT in space tackle any barriers, organisations that use the network will be charged per device connection, not for the data transfer.

One European Union funded project, known as IoTEE (Internet of Things Everywhere on Earth), is currently focusing on the telemetry between a low powered satellite in ISS (International Space Station) and a terrestrial infrastructure. The aim is to broaden the horizon of IoT with the help of space and bring more benefits to the global market in terms of cost and tracking possibilities.

A promising future 

The global demand for connectivity is opening avenues for new space technology, precision spatial analytics and satellites. The existing infrastructure in space is currently used for navigation, connectivity and weather observations. However, applications can be utilised to overcome the constraints involved currently in IoT, and the gaps in space technologies can be filled out with IoT. The future looks promising. With the continued investment from organisations and international governments, we can expect to see new opportunities and markets emerge with the Internet of Space Things (loST) taking form alongside a new class of small satellites. 

Paul Kostek is a senior member and advisory systems engineer with Air Direct Solutions LLC.

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