Tyvak cubesat depiction
Eutelsat LEO for Objects, or ELO, will operate in a sun-synchronous orbit between 500 and 600 kilometers, testing nanosat Internet of Things connectivity with Sigfox. Credit: Tyvak depiction of a generic cubesat.

WASHINGTON — Global satellite operator Eutelsat of Paris is buying additional small satellites for a planned Internet of Things network, having decided to expand the envisioned low Earth orbit system before it has launched the first demonstration satellite.

Eutelsat ordered a cubesat called ELO, or Eutelsat LEO for Objects, from Tyvak International in March 2018. Eutelsat spokeswoman Marie-Sophie Ecuer said ELO is scheduled to launch in the coming months, but that more satellites are planned.

“We are already working on the follow-up to the nano-satellite we ordered last year, ELO, because we are convinced that low orbit satellites are particularly well suited to low-speed connectivity for objects,” she said. “The project we are working on includes a very limited number of satellites, which are currently being ordered.”

Ecuer declined to provide additional details on the satellite system.

Yohann Leroy, Eutelsat’s deputy CEO and chief technology officer, said in a September interview that a constellation would be a “natural follow-up to our first nano-satellite.”

Leroy expressed skepticism toward constellations designed for residential broadband internet connections like those of SpaceX and OneWeb, citing higher costs for broadband systems, and antennas as roadblocks.

“There are fundamental differences from a technical standpoint between the broadband market and the IoT market, which is a narrowband market,” he said. “The only way to transmit megabits per second with satellites that move through the sky is to have a tracking — and necessarily expensive — antenna on the ground. [For IoT], when you only need to transmit a few kilobits per second and not megabits per second, omnidirectional — and much cheaper — antennae [sic] are sufficient.”

Eutelsat operates 37 satellites in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the Earth.

Leroy said having satellites in a much closer low Earth orbit means the signal power needed to connect devices is significantly lower, because the signal doesn’t have to travel as far.

“This changes everything,” he said.

Other established satellite operators have partnered with startups to join the smallsat IoT wave. Iridium partnered with Dutch startup Hiber in September 2017 to work together on IoT services. Hiber launched its first two of a planned 64 satellites last year, one on an Indian PSLV rocket, and another on a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Thuraya, now part of Yahsat, partnered with Swiss startup Astrocast on IoT connectivity. Astrocast also has two of 64 satellites in orbit, one that launched on the same December Falcon 9 mission as Hiber, and another that launched March 31 on a PSLV rocket.

Leroy said Eutelsat was working with French IoT company Sigfox on integrating its ELO satellite service with Sigfox’s terrestrial network. Sigfox will also help test waveforms and frequencies on the ELO satellite, he said.

Ecuer declined to say if Sigfox will be a partner on Eutelsat’s additional LEO satellites.

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...