Sep 25, 2019
| 12 min read

Spotlight Series: Connecting IoT Intelligence Through Space

This series highlights the key insights and lessons from our Digital Leadership series of podcasts. We spotlight the important takeaways from our interviews in an accessible format. The following insights come from Flavia Tata Nardini, Co-Founder and CEO of Fleet SpaceStay tuned for the full podcast interview with Flavia, in the meantime, take a look at our full library of podcasts.

Could you share what in your background had attracted you to technology, and particularly what has led you to work in space tech?

It’s a story that starts from the beginning, I always wanted to work in space, it’s just a fascination of mine. I just loved space when I was a little girl, probably every kid loves space, but I was very obsessed. Then I kept going and I thought, ‘Okay, what else am I going to do?’ I was good in math, I was playing professional basketball, I was a bit all over the place, but I was very focused on space.

I did a lot of studying, I went for space engineering and aerospace engineering degrees, I realized I actually like engines, rocket science, I really loved them, they are super-amazing. That was more or less in 2008 when I started working at European Space Agency, and that was the time when most satellites were entering in the market quite aggressively, 10-11 years ago.

I wanted to build propulsion engines for small satellites, and that is where it all started, I grew this kind of love for small satellites. I worked in Europe for many years on them, on all sorts of missions, I loved them. I was focusing on the small propulsions that is the engine that allows you to bring them around, but this is where my technology love exploded I guess, I was fascinated about it then.

Getting involved in space technology, there’s an enormous range of disciplines, everything from obviously computer science, to propulsion engineering in motion, but also the physical understanding of how to create physical devices and satellites. What are some of the important developments that you’ve observed, which you think are maybe not as widely appreciated by many people, but that also might lead to new use cases and business opportunities?

You’re asking a good question. Space technology, I think a lot of people don’t understand what satellites are really for, it’s hard to understand the business case and how they are used. What is important to understand though is how technology impacts. Most of the satellites have been built in the past 50-years, we are talking about quite big satellites. So, imagine as big as a small bus, probably out of the room you’re sitting now, so pretty big satellites, usually built by governments, or big organizations, because as you can imagine building a satellite like this costs a lot of money.

Why do we build satellites so big? There is a specific orbit out there around the world that is called geostationary orbit, that is an orbit that allows the satellites to be on top of a specific part of the world constantly. So, I’m in Australia a very big country, some of these big satellites launched in the past year are launched in this orbit, and they literally move themselves with Earth, and always look at Australia. Geo, we call it geo, geostationary orbit, it’s pretty far from Earth, 36,000 kms +/- so you need a rocket to put it there, a lot of fuel, it’s an expensive exercise.

If you look in geo there are a lot of satellites and to put a satellite up there could cost depending on the satellite, in the order of billions to build and billions to launch. As you can imagine, it’s not an exercise that everyone can do. In the past 60 years these satellites are pretty big, because once you put a satellite up there it stays up there for 60 years, you want to make sure it’s a big solid satellite with many technologies in it. So, this exercise has always been in the hands of governments, of very big organizations, most of the time with a scope of defense. Defense Departments that are able to spend money on that; or, Earth observation, so taking photos from the top, always for safety, security, and sometimes communication, so giving the chance for a modern era to get safe communication.

What are some other changes you have seen?

Then we have seen another change in the past 20 years, I think is all driven by other technologies, electronics getting smaller, different ways to 3D print materials, different ways to construct, different understanding of other orbits. And a couple of companies like Iridium and others, this other constellation of satellites, a little bit smaller, still bigger, let’s say we’re talking about a pretty decent size, like a car, but lower orbit so closer to Earth, a couple of thousand kms, the closer you go to Earth the easier it is to launch, and the costs are less. But then what happens there is everything changes, if you’re not in an orbit where you see Earth all the time constantly, and you go lower so you’re saving costs, you cannot see every side of Earth, you’re in an orbit that goes absolutely crazy around Earth, we call it low Earth orbit. What it means is, you’re not just always seeing Australia, in one day you see the whole of Earth, it’s kind of exciting because we want satellites that can see everything.

Something else entered in the market, these are very small satellites as I was telling you, CubeSats, nanosatellites are very tiny, we’re talking shoebox, we’re talking $100,000 cost, maximum $2 million, order of monies are completely different. The idea was, ‘Okay guys, these are very tiny, we might have to launch a hundred of them to reach a good understanding of the applications, but at least we can try’. In software you call them MVP, Minimum Viable Product, when you have a billion-dollar satellite, that’s not MVP, that has to work. So, when you’ve got a couple of hundred thousand, you can launch it up there, see how it goes. Super interesting, super interesting, so, completely changing, it’s like little computers in space.

How does this apply to IoT use cases?

Internet of Things is a bit of a buzzword for a lot of people, but not for people that are in the market, so it’s all about application. If you look at what Fleet has done in the past four years, probably I’d separate them in three buckets; one is agriculture, one is energy in general, waste, mining, oil and gas, construction and things like that, and one is environmental. Let me give you a couple of examples from customers, then we can talk about it as well, just recent ideas. Recently we have deployed several sites in the US with a big agricultural company, and our partner Sensoterra they have sensors for soil. We are a big fan of giving the chance for the farmer to deploy a lot of things, so when you’ve got 500, 1,000, 10,000 pounds of soil it’s unbelievable what you can learn.

So, what we do there is a chance for the farmer to get all the soil data. Usually the soil data isn’t historical, so every year they use economies to get data, or once a year they have to get the soil, send it to a lab, do a lot of expensive exercises. So, when you combine soil motion sensors, they actually put out the sensors and we collect the data and send it through satellites. This is done with existing satellite networks, so the existing comm nets would have cost you thousands of dollars of sensors a month. For a sensor that cost $89 it’s just not worth it, the business model doesn’t stack up.

So, the operation in agriculture is very manual, very manual for everything, like irrigation, so crop check. Another big one I really like in ag-tech, we work with a company called Hostabee that they found this really cheap way that allows you to measure the condition in the beehive, and you would think, ‘Oh wow, what does space have to do with that?’ but beehive farming is enormous. And what people in the operation have to do is, just to give you an insight; they have to go there, open the beehive to see if it’s ready, the bees are impacted by the fact that we open and close, they are in what area he’s working and now we track. So, this part exercise is complicated.

But now technologies are coming. Now low-plant technologies are coming, and nanosatellites technologies are coming to solve that. It’s a very sweet spot in the economy in which enterprises can start deploying technologies they could not deploy ten years ago, for many reasons that we can discuss.

If you could share some of the products that you’re working on, the products and services that Fleet Space is offering, and could you talk about your technology and current offerings?

Yes, that is when it gets very interesting because we can discuss about all these high-level things, but what is the technology that is propelling all this momentum?

So, for people in the sector, IoT, there are probably three technologies that I see; I mentioned before to you that these companies and these enterprises always have the same problems for many years, so why now? I think there are three main technologies that have been happening in the past 10-years that are coming together to solve problems that were existing.

The first one is this LoRaWAN protocol. For us not in the sector, when we think about Wi-Fi or wireless  technology… maybe we think about Wi-Fi, so, the Wi-Fi that connects to our phone, amazing technology, 3G-4G, fantastic, and this technology that’s helped us for the past 20 years to connect all of us. Now is the time for a new revolution, that the Internet of Things revolution, and the Internet of Things revolution is the idea of all the billions of devices, everything connected, in smart cities and in the smart industry.

There are other nanosatellite players in the space, compared to Fleet. Technologies are very different, so Fleet is really doing something that no-one does, and I always say to everyone, either we are super-fast, or it’s the opposite, because we are leveraging existing protocols, and back-haul them through satellites.

Building your own protocol is hard work, if you look at LoRa it’s now got 50 million devices connected, it’s been built by an alliance of people like Vodafone, and Activity, and Cisco, so this is a brain coming together. As a startup you say, ‘I’m going to have my protocols, it’s going to talk to my satellite’, it’s a very close-loop environment that creates more mess. So, we said, ‘Okay, we’re going to leverage existing protocols, and back-haul them through satellites, and this is going to be a Fleet thing.’ No matter what’s going to happen in the next 20 years in the IoT revolution, if some protocols are going to win, we’re going to be able to back-haul them. If you compare us with other players in the area they all have and achieved their own protocols, so certain is an excise, it’s kind of Microsoft Azure Linux type of dilemma. So, Fleet does leverage these amazing protocols, and change is happening.

That was the other technology, nanosatellites, LPWAN technology, and the third one is our secret sauce to back-hoe low-plans through satellites you need edge computing, you need edge computing, because when you are in a mining web company, and you are handling a thousand sensors around you, and you need to back-haul all the data through satellites, it’s going to cost you an enormous amount of money. But the ability to do the vision in the field, this is where another amazing buzzword comes in, edge computing. What is it? It’s the ability to have enough computing power, and enough intelligence in a modem, in a field, to allow you to do automated decisions.

Fleet created an aggregator that we call the portal, that is able to connect in our thousands of sensors and do edge computing, and that is valid for every application. Now I’m talking with a customer about this new amazing camera, videos are expensive if you have to send data, you can buy some data there which will cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, no-one wants to do that. But if you’ve got videos with facial recognition, so with people counting, you don’t have to send so much data, that’s who really does the job.

 

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