WASHINGTON — The space industry has at least 10 startups all wanting to use cubesats or other small satellites to help keep all manner of interoperable devices connected to a rapidly expanding Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem.
Among them is Fleet, an Adelaide, Australia-based company formed in 2015 that counts the French space agency CNES as one of its partners. Fleet raised roughly $3.8 million in a Series A funding round at the beginning of this year, providing capital to build two of a desired 100 nanosatellites for connecting industrial IoT devices.
Flavia Tata Nardini, Fleet co-founder and CEO, estimates the total constellation cost will range between $150 million and $200 million — roughly the price of building a single geostationary telecommunications satellite — with launch costs being the biggest variable.
“If you look at the old players, how many sensors they connected in the past 20 years, the number is so small compared to the IoT promise of 75 billion industrial IoT devices in the next five years or more,” she told SpaceNews. “We tried to create a solution that could actually connect a big deployment.”
The low cost of cubesats is enabling many startups to get hardware into orbit for just a few million dollars, substantially below the cost of larger spacecraft, but the path to success remains steep.
Pacôme Révillon, chief executive of Paris-based research firm Euroconsult, says these new companies “will certainly represent strong competition with a larger number of options for clients including for large scale deployment of sensors at a low cost,” but cautions “they will also face some challenges.”
“For example, premium segments can require a certain level of reliability, or sufficient refreshment of the information, etc.,” Révillon told SpaceNews by email. “As well, being deployed on a large scale by industrial players or leasing players in heavy machinery can require long trials.”
NSR senior analyst Alan Crisp is similarly circumspect.
“An estimated [greater than] 80 percent of the satellite [machine-to-machine] market in the medium term will be high [service-level agreement], low latency type demand,” he said via email. “High [service-level agreements] are one one of the key benefits of utilising satellite over terrestrial for M2M/IoT, so most other kinds of demand will lean towards terrestrial connectivity.”
Tata Nardini is confident that her company will be able to secure an early foothold providing services that are not latency sensitive, then build up to more challenging services as its satellite constellation grows. Fleet will differentiate itself, she said, by focusing less on large assets such as trucks and planes, and more on creating a “digital nervous system around the world to allow small package, big deployment and low cost.”
“This is our plan to enable exponential growth,” she said.
That plan includes developing user terminals on the ground and the radios inside the satellites to create an IoT infrastructure that does not exist today, she said.
“Nowadays we live in a world where you want the hardware to be connected to an app, like you use a FitBit. This is what Fleet is trying to do — bring the terminals that historically have been quite complex to buy and to use to a level of usability that is simple to implement and connect through a user interface. All this tech is what we develop and what we will sell,” she said.
Fleet + CNES
Tata Nardini, already has experience with smallsat hardware, having worked as a nanosatellite propulsion expert at the European Space Agency before moving to Australia. In 2014, she co-founded Delta-V, an accelerator for Australian space startups, and today is also part of a group of experts involved in Australia’s establishment of a national space agency.
CNES president Jean-Yves Le Gall called the the French space agency’s collaboration with Fleet “the perfect example” of how CNES can work with entrepreneurial NewSpace players.
“Fleet is a leader in the Australian NewSpace scene, building on the small satellite revolution to provide the world with innovative connectivity solutions,” Le Gall said in a Sept. 25 statement, adding that novel space-based connectivity “is also something we are looking into closely.”
“Joining forces with Fleet has therefore emerged as a natural development,“ he said.
CNES will track Fleet’s first two cubesats after they launch early next year. The agreement leaves room for further collaboration beyond the first two spacecraft.
Building the Fleet
Fleet’s first two satellites will measure 3Us (10cm by 10cm by 10cm), to be followed by larger 12U cubesats for the full constellation. Those larger satellites, Tata Nardini said, will have room for more payload and bigger batteries, enabling a longer spacecraft life. Compared to typically short-lived cubesats, Fleet expects its spacecraft to last 15 years. The first satellites will likely need quicker replacements, however, to keep pace with the evolution of IoT, she said.
“Growing the constellation is a matter for latency. It’s how many times you see the satellite. The beauty of industrial IoT and nanosatellites is that with two LEO satellites, you can serve several geographies. You are global from day one, and you can start providing real services,” she said.
Fleet plans to subcontract for spacecraft buses, and leverage commercial ground station services after building one dedicated antenna in Australia.
Fleet’s constellation will orbit 580 kilometers above Earth. The first two satellites are launching as secondary payloads via rideshare, she said, though Fleet wants to use dedicated launchers to get new satellites in space every few months when full deployment occurs.
By the end of 2019, Fleet hopes to launch another six to 10 satellites, Tata Nardini said, contingent on a successful Series B capital raise. She declined to say what spectrum the constellation will use other than that it will be at a low frequency.
Tata Nardini said Fleet is open to partnering with established operators — a development seen between Iridium and Magnitude Space as well as Thuraya and ELSE — but is more interested in working with dedicated IoT operators and cloud providers.