WASHINGTON — French maritime-tracking company CLS is starting a 120 million euro ($139 million) effort to build, launch and operate a constellation of 20 small satellites for connecting Internet of Things devices at sea and elsewhere.

Facing competition from a growing number of venture-capital backed smallsat startups such as Canada-based Kepler Communications, Australia-based Fleet, and Switzerland-based Astrocast, CLS is starting a spinoff company called Kineis tasked with raising money from investors.

CLS is handing over responsibility for maritime IoT services to nearly 20,000 vessels connected through a CNES-built hosted payload network called Argos, to Kineis, giving the new company an early revenue stream, Kineis Director General Alexandre Tisserant told SpaceNews. CLS and CNES no longer view Argos, which relies on six payloads attached to civil space satellites from Europe, the U.S. and India, as competitive against smallsats, which can be placed into orbit much faster, he said.

“We are facing at CLS a problem that more new markets are emerging, especially in the IoT business, and with this kind of constellation we cannot today answer the needs of the market,” Tisserant said. “We have started, with CNES’ support to develop a new constellation with much more capacity and performance.”

Key differences between the Argos network and Kineis’ future constellation are that the smallsat system will enable two-way communications (Argos only receives uplinks), and will leverage newer, low-cost chipsets for user terminals, Tisserant said.

Kineis anticipates having its fleet of 25-kilogram, 16U cubesats in orbit in 2021. The satellites are designed to operate for four years in 600-kilometer orbits, and will have propulsion, he said.

Tisserant said Kineis expects to complete a study contract with Thales Alenia Space next month, leading to a contract to integrate the satellites. French aerospace company Nexeya is the supplier for the cubesat bus, and Syrlinks is tasked with payload production.

To woo investors, Tisserant said CLS’s three-plus decades of experience with IoT connectivity gives Kineis a jump over new startups. Combined with revenue from Argos, Kineis won’t need to use demonstration satellites to familiarize itself with markets and technology, he said.

“We think this is a big advantage considering the importance of the time to market,” he said. “Our challenge now is to convince investors that this advantage is a good one.”

Kineis has not yet selected a launch provider, he said.

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...