The Edge of Extraterrestrial Exploration

October 4, 2018

How edge computing will enable more powerful satellite communications

Strangely, satellite communications have always been extremely limited in potential. But that’s about to change – thanks to edge computing and the iot world.

If you’re not exactly familiar with how satellite communications work, here’s a quick explanation: any entity that wants to leverage satellite networks will need to use a satellite modem to transmit data from a specific location or item to one of the hundreds of satellites orbiting the earth. That entity also has to pay a satellite communications company to use those satellite networks, in the same way consumers pay for cell phone service.

From that perspective, it doesn’t sound that complex. However, there are a couple of complicating factors. First, it’s quite expensive to transmit data via satellites. Satellite operators take on enormous costs to install their communication protocols on each satellite, and the satellite modems themselves are not cheap either. When compared to cellular networks, which transmit signals from tower to tower, there’s a big difference in cost. Who would have thought operating gigantic space tech would be so expensive?

Also, the devices used to communicate with satellites aren’t very smart. They are generally programmed with only a few low-bandwidth protocols and can collect and send very limited data inputs up to satellites for transmission. There’s no processing power to take in various inputs, decide which ones are really necessary, and then package them up for transmission.

Advances in edge computing will enable cheaper, more actionable satellite communications, by giving new life to existing infrastructure. Here’s an example of how it will happen:

Edge compute devices + satellite modems = better data insights via satellite.

Consider how satellite communications work today to understand how they will improve in the future. Many of us who navigate road traffic each day use Google Maps or Waze to map driving routes, find out our estimated travel time, avoid wrecks and road closures, find the nearest Dairy Queen, etc. As we’re driving, there’s a constant signal on the screen of where we are located. This signal is sent from our devices to a satellite. Repeatedly it says, “here I am, here I am”. Until of course, you become fixated with texting George about lunch plans and “there your not”.

It might seem like business communications through satellites would be more complex than our driving example, but they really aren’t. That same “here I am, here I am” signal is all they are getting as well, it’s just for a different entity. Maybe it’s a trucking company that has hundreds of trucks, or an airline tracking airplanes as they circle the globe. Today, the highest level of data complexity transmitted is still just location-based.

Edge computing will enable more, higher-quality data inputs by supercharging the processing power of satellite modems in use today. Because of the way satellite modems are built, they simply can’t handle the level of bandwidth needed to provide more complex inputs. However, an edge computing device operating on an internet of things cloud platform paired with a satellite modem can provide much more sophisticated data insights.

Let’s say a global shipping company wants to track what’s happening with their shipping containers at any point in time. In addition to where the container is located, they’ll want to know which specific items are in each container, what the temperature is in the container, what the humidity or moisture level is (in case anything has gotten wet), and if any of the items have changed position (maybe turned over) since they were placed in the container.

Without an edge computing platform, all they know is where the container is at any point in time. They can’t find out the condition of the items until they have arrived, which could cause significant delays for customers if anything needs to be reshipped.

Imagine a scenario where sensors are placed in specific places throughout the container – inside, outside, and even on items themselves. These sensors collect data on all the inputs we mentioned and send them back to an edge compute device. The edge compute device then reviews all the data and looks for exceptions. Has the temperature changed a great deal? Has one of the items rotated 180 degrees? Any flagged data will be packaged in the appropriate satellite protocol and sent to the satellite modem, for transmission to the satellite.

Edge computing will create greater visibility for businesses worldwide.

With the addition of edge compute devices, satellite communications in the iot world will become much more robust. Instead of just a simple location signal, businesses will have access to a range of actionable data. Knowing whether an item in transit is damaged or missing can mean the difference between a fantastic and a terrible customer experience. It can help businesses save millions of dollars in unnecessary operational costs, and generate higher revenues in the process. The range of enterprise iot solutions that edge computing presents is truly endless and extends far past just satellite technology. How will it change your business structure?

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