The impact of the Internet of Things (IoT) on the global economy could reach $6.2 trillion by 2025, McKinsey Global Institute estimates, and those billions of devices about to come online will need stellar connectivity. Australia-based Fleet Space Technologies believes hundreds of nanosatellites monitoring Earth’s IoT array from low Earth orbit is the best solution.
PCMag met with Fleet CEO and co-founder Flavia Tata Nardini, a rocket scientist and former propulsion test engineer at the European Space Agency, to find out more. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
Very cool to interview an actual rocket scientist.
(laughs) Thank you.
Tell us about your history working with nanosatellite technology.
When I was working at the European Space Agency, my big passion, as a rocket scientist, was in the science side of building small rockets to handle nanosatellite launches, mostly with CubeSat, where one unit is 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters, and they can go up to 12 units. But when I left Europe and moved to Australia in 2012, I was looking for space-related activities, but the country doesn’t have a space program, as such, and there was only one serious space startup. So I got together with my two co-founders and we launched Fleet in 2015.
Currently, most nanosatellites, in the commercial space, are for Earth observation via photography, mapping (GPS), or satphone roaming. How is Fleet different?
We see ourselves as enabling the future of IoT via nanosatellite technologies. We are currently running pilot connectivity sensor programs in agriculture, transport, and oil and gas—on the ground—and will launch our first nanosatellites in 2018, with the entire 100-nanosatellite constellation hopefully online by 2022.
Transport is self-explanatory, as is monitoring sensors within energy facilities for oil/gas. But agriculture? Do you mean tagging cows?
(laughs) Yes. Partly.
Wow. Monitoring cows from space?
Yes, but not individually. We don’t do object-to-nanosatellite; it’s satellite-to-LAN, local area network. But yes, we’re already tagging huge numbers of moving animals, establishing virtual fences, for agriculture clients, as well as linking up sensors on shipping containers and oil/gas refineries.
So this is way beyond devices in the home asking each other if you’ve “Got Milk?”
Exactly. Let me explain further. This is all about innovation emerging from living through the fourth industrial revolution. Everything will become sensor-equipped, cities are becoming sentient, all things will be connected. Why? Because, by 2050 there will be 9 billion people living on the planet. That means access to water, and production of food—the basics—are going to become critical in terms of food production, processing, shipping, security, and so on. All of these processes are going to be overhauled and monitored/enabled by IoT in the next few years.
So why can’t you use Wi-Fi or 3G on the ground. What’s the benefit of using nanosatellites?
IoT requires a completely different infrastructure—it’s low bandwidth, a small data revolution, constantly-on monitoring, it’s just more efficient to cover very wide areas from LEO.
LEO meaning Low Earth Orbit?
Yes, we’ll be launching ours into 580 km. We’ll have 20 orbits, five in each, moving in different directions, including one in full Earth orbit, building up latency until we have a constant view of a very wide area on behalf of our clients.
What about logistics. Who awards licenses for LEO?
The ITU, in Switzerland, awards commercial frequency licenses and there are restrictions. Certain countries, within the all-Earth license, say ‘you cannot operate here,’ for example. We’re going through that now, the process is long, very complicated, very expensive.
So that $5 million Series A you raised end of 2016 from VCs will come in useful there.
(laughs) Yes, it will.
Which materials will your Fleet nanosatellites be made from, and to what dimensions: Similar to CubeSat (10 by 10 by 10 cm) or Terra Bella/Planet (60 by 60 by 80 cm)?
We’re still in the RD phase so I can’t tell you more than we’re settling on 12 units of 30 by 30 by 40 centimeters each. The beauty of nanosatellite technology is a lot of the components are what we call COTS —Components Off the Shelf—but then we own all the telecommunication pieces on the ground and going up to the payload, into space. The units will exist within a structure—which can be 3D printed—perhaps using titanium—in which, inside the units is an EPCB—electronic printed circuit board—each of the units has a task to do. That’s all I can say right now.
What’s the useful lifespan prediction for Fleet’s nanosatellites?
Probably at that altitude, a decade each. But I want to keep improving the technology, so I like the idea of replacing them more regularly so our clients get the latest innovations.
Another logistics question. How will you get your nanosatellites up to LEO? Are you building rockets too?
Ah, no. Most nanosatellites “piggyback” on existing launches, but then you’re subject to delays due to the main payload, so we don’t want to do that; we want dedicated launches. There are many players in this space and we’re talking to them all, including Rocket Lab in New Zealand.
What about Elon Musk’s SpaceX?
Yes, we’re going down to SpaceX this afternoon, in fact. I can’t say more than that.
Understood. So, will you be able to avoid the Kessler Syndrome of space junk?
Actually, I own two patents in this area from my time at TNO in The Hague, after I left the European Space Agency. One is a propulsion system mechanism that is inside one of the units which will—at the end of its lifetime—remove the entire nanosatellite and bring it down. We call this “de-orbiting.” It burns up safely, exploding on contact with Earth’s atmosphere and so doesn’t remain as space debris for 15 to 20 years in possible collision with others in the satellite constellation.
What’s your other rocket science patent in?
In utilizing hypergolic fuel systems—”green rocket propellant.” I’ve always loved the topic of space, I had my first telescope as a small child, and I believe we have a responsibility to make space tech greener and safer.
Final question. If Fleet is managing nanosatellite technology to handle the backhaul connectivity for IoT on Earth, do you foresee, in the distant future, you will use your satellite array to manage connectivity on outer world colonies?
Very much so. That’s the plan.