This week I met with a company, who specializes in satellite communications, to discuss possible use cases for leveraging their services for IoT. The truth is, satellites open up a whole new avenue for the Internet of Things. As with everything else, satellites have their plusses and minuses. Let’s start with the minuses in order to get it out of the way. We can then devote the rest of the article to the pluses!
The minuses: Satellite communications is best used for transmissions that have a tolerance for low bandwidth and high latency. It’s like a cellular modem, only much slower and significantly more expensive. This makes it a difficult choice for time-sensitive applications, such as Voice Over IP and video conferencing.
The pluses: Satellite communications is reliably always available everywhere. These plusses are huge! From the Sahara Desert to the South Pole, a satellite is always available to get you connected, so that you can accomplish whatever task you need to do.
The key to leveraging the best satellites have to offer, is to find the sweet spot where you can take advantage of the plusses without being hindered by the minuses. (This is actually great advice for life, in general!) There are two basic applications for satellite communications: fixed devices and mobile devices. Each application can serve multiple industries. Let’s list a few:
- Fixed Devices
o Oil & Gas
o Residential Security
- Mobile Devices
Let’s discuss some of these industries and their respective use cases.
Oil and Gas
Pipelines may span hundreds of miles, and are most probably built in unpopulated areas where cellular connectivity is either weak or non-existent. Implementing an IoT solution over satellite communication can enable 24-hour monitoring and two-way control of your oil and gas pipeline. For example, imagine that you’re the director of an Alaskan oil pipeline, which runs from Alaska all the way down to Texas. The intelligent oil pipeline cha tbot may message you via text message, “An oil leak has been detected at Junction A in Montana. I have rerouted the flow to Junction B and alerted the local authorities. Would you like pictures of the affected area?” You respond incredulously, “Yes!” A few seconds later, you receive photos of the affected area and hop into the helicopter that just arrived to whisk you to your private jet, in order to personally survey the damage in Montana. You are so happy you chose satellite-based IoT technology for your pipeline project, or who knows what kind of environmental (not to mention financial) disaster you would be facing right now.
Like oil and gas pipelines, farmland may span hundreds of square miles in rural, unpopulated areas, with little or no cellular coverage. Today, farms rely on many IoT sensors that report on things from soil temperatures to rainfall levels. From air temperatures to humidity pressures. For example, as the director of a large organic produce farm in upstate New York, you receive a WhatsApp notification from your intelligent farm chat bot, “A frost warning is in effect for tonight. Would you like a link to the local weather report?” You think to yourself, “A frost??? In August?!?” After swearing under your breath and vowing to move to Florida, you respond “Yes.” Two seconds later you receive the weather report via WhatsApp and confirm that the chat bot was correct that there will be a frost, but only barely, at 31.5 degrees Fahrenheit. You quickly assess the vulnerability of your crops and command the chat bot to schedule the water sprinklers to turn on from 6 pm until 6 am in sections H7 and R3. It happens to be that those two zones are in a mountainous region at a high elevation (hence the early frost susceptibility) and no cellular coverage. Without satellite communications, you would not have gotten to the sprinklers in time and would have lost millions of dollars worth of produce!
Do you remember the old movies, when a burglar wanted to rob someone’s house, what was the first thing he would do? He would cut the phone line. There is always a scene of a woman alone in the house on a dark, moonless night (it’s always dark!) and a man is prowling around downstairs. She wakes up, hears something, and picks up the phone to call the police, but the phone is dead! The man opens the door to her bedroom and a loud scream ensues. Nowadays, we think we are safe, because we have cellular phones, and no one can just cut our line anymore. Or can’t they? Today, anybody can purchase a cheap cellular signal jammer. So, if someone targets your house, it’s not that difficult to “cut” your phone lines, and your cell phone will be rendered useless in a matter of seconds. Thankfully, you have a satellite-based panic button, where with just one push the police will be instantly summoned to your doorstep. It will also send out a group text to your family and friends letting them know that an incident has just been reported. As if that wasn’t enough, your insurance company may even give you a discount on your premiums! Let’s see where Hollywood takes this one!
In large countries, such as the United States and Canada, a trucker’s route can span thousands of miles, many of which have poor or no cellular connectivity. In today’s connected world, transportation companies need to know the vehicle’s location at all times, as well as the vehicle’s vitals. A satellite-connected truck can report back to headquarters statistics such as speed, gas level, oil and fluid levels, tire pressure, cargo temperature (i.e., for temperature sensitive cargo like food and medicine), and much more. Let’s say you’re a long haul truck driver, driving an eighteen wheeler cross country from New York City to Los Angeles. You’re carrying a full cargo of smoked salmon to your distributor in Los Angeles. Somewhere around Utah, your temperature sensor reports a problem with the refrigeration unit. To make matters worse, it’s over 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and there is no way your smoked salmon will make it to Los Angeles in an edible state. You have at most, five hours to find a solution before your $10 million cargo is destroyed! The problem is, there is no cellular service! Fortunately, your satellite-connected truck alerted headquarters who just arranged with their distributor in Salt Lake City, UT to accept an early shipment of your entire load. Your GPS automatically reprograms itself to Salt Lake City, and two hours later, your shipment is safe and sound.
In today’s highly connected world, satellite-based IoT communications is not just a nice to have, but a necessity with a real financial impact. As James Doohan was fond of saying, “You need the right tool for the right job.” In the examples mentioned above, the right tool was, indeed, able to perform the right job, most effectively.
My question for you is, what are you doing in your business to enable yourself to deliver world class solutions most effectively, without being hampered by outdated technology?
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