Industrial IoT Everywhere: Marrying Satellite, Services and Business Models

November 23, 2021

Written by Alex Lawrence

6GWorld recently had the fortune to catch up with leaders at very different young businesses. As we develop 6G, the industry can learn a great deal about what 6G may need to deliver, the shape of the industries it will be serving, and the forces these leaders see at play shaping the digital environment over the coming years.

In the second of a three-part series, 6GWorld spoke to Roel Jansen, CEO of Hiber, to explore the work they are doing on supporting global IoT services through spaceborne communications. Especially with the renewed attention that satellite communications is receiving from companies including Softbank, SpaceX and Amazon understanding how the environment is developing for companies delivering satellite-based services is particularly relevant.

“We focus on supporting very remote areas, like the jungles of Papua New Guinea or offshore platforms in the North Sea for Shell,” Jansen explained. Unlike many other companies, Hiber runs the gamut from sensors to connectivity, applications and data management. While the complexity of setting up enterprise IoT solutions can act as a barrier to customers, “all of a sudden it’s a no-brainer and a lot simpler for them”.

An Open Satellite Market?

The five-year journey Hiber’s taken reflects changes in the evolving satellite market. Initially they were focussed on connectivity and approached the owners of geostationary [GEO] satellites to gain wholesale access. “It was a very different industry to get a foot in the door,” Jansen noted. “To get access to wholesale you had to be a big player, like the army or maritime.” As a result, they were unable to lease spectrum.

Their response? “We launched four LEO [Low-Earth Orbit] satellites.” While this hardly seems to compare to the constellations Musk and Bezos are putting into orbit, the result was twofold.

Firstly, Hiber was able to deliver services. However, “LEO satellites cross every point on the Earth once per day. Applications are different from if you want to send data every 15 minutes. You need to be specific about use cases,” Jansen pointed out.

The other impact was more significant, in terms of the relationship with other satellite companies. “Having satellites gave us a seat at the table,” Jansen said. “All at once we had access to their connectivity too, and then it becomes more of a commercial decision whether we keep building our own satellites or lease that spectrum from the likes of Inmarsat.”

Service Types

“We’re very specific with our services and applications,” Jansen explained, “We’re making use of narrowband right now.” This is because there are some very necessary services that need to be delivered affordably in remote areas.

As a relatively young company they have some early services, as well as ideas for how to expand them over the next few years.

Firstly, a sensor system for remote monitoring; currently for monitoring remote oil and gas wells. “We have sensors for pressure and temperature, which are put in areas where there may be a risk of explosion if things go badly.” These connect over LoRaWAN to a gateway outside of any danger zone and then up to a satellite. “It doesn’t have to be oil and gas,” Jensen clarified, “Any sensors that are stationary and can remain in the 10-kilometer range of that gateway can be supported. But our first entry point is oil and gas.”

The other is for mobile asset tracking and monitoring, consisting of a device the size of a sandwich box. “You slap that on top of a car or an excavator or other asset and it connects directly to the satellite and to the dashboard”. The device has sensors for measuring speed, vibration, temperature, location and more. “We are now implementing asset tracking in Mozambique, on 30 vehicles to start with. Those vehicles travel in an open pit mine, and every now and then they travel to another location. The owners often just don’t know where the asset is, or sometimes they are stolen, or they are not in place to be allocated to the right project. From that perspective we are solving something that could not be solved before.

“It’s the same for river barges on the Amazon. The owners just don’t know where they are. They might be somewhere on the river, not officially being used. These things are still happening these days and we’re trying to solve them.”

A critical thing to note here is that the scope of the work – tracking 30 vehicles, for example – is something affordable and accessible for companies who aren’t huge global corporations, and are services which pay for themselves versus, for example, the risks of lost vehicles. This implies a level of democratisation in industrial IoT which can get companies and staff all around the world familiar with the IoT. The next version will add in more sensors, and possibly enable clients to connect other sensors over LoRaWAN or Bluetooth. “Then our clients need not stay in logistics or mining but all of a sudden we can branch out into more sustainable measures, like weather stations or a well – a water well – to check it’s working.”

Small Data Is Beautiful

For now, the data packages used have to be small to be affordable for satellite connectivity. “Think about 32 bytes or so from a sensor every five to 15 minutes,” Jansen advised. This is due to wholesale prices in the satellite industry. With the advent of new satellites with increased data capacities “the price is dropping, but you can manage near-real-time IoT right now, not real-time.”

Happily, as can be seen, applications can be managed even with minimal data. Moreover, there are ways to make the most of these narrowband connections.

“Since we developed our own satellites, we also developed our own protocols to communicate with them… in such a way that we can send in a low-data and low-power way to the satellite,” Jansen explained. “We’ve transplanted those protocols to the 3rd-party satellites, which means we own the way we communicate with the satellites.

“Our rivals make use of standards like narrowband IoT with more overhead in the connectivity… We can put more devices in a certain area than anyone else because we communicate more efficiently with the satellites.”

Over time, Jansen explains, the company strategy will be to work in the opposite direction from traditional terrestrial network deployments, and act as a complement to them, starting in densely built-up areas and working out. “If we can add connections to other terrestrial options, such as 4G and 5G, we can all of a sudden move to more rural areas, not remote, where people go in and out of connectivity… In that sense, we’re more ‘outside-in’.”

This kind of approach will be a welcome development for countries with a relatively low population density, or with large rural populations. As pointed out in this article, 5G (and previous generations) do not natively support non-terrestrial connectivity. If one of the foundations of 6G will be true omnipresence then pathfinders such as Hiber can suggest an evolutionary course for services to get there and be adopted, in parallel to the technology evolutions taking place behind the scenes.

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