Where are we now with satellite IoT? Alastair MacLeod, CEO of Ground Control, joins Ryan Chacon on the IoT For All Podcast to discuss the current state of satellite IoT. They cover trends in the market, the challenges of satellite IoT implementation, how far away true satellite coverage for IoT is, deciding if satellite connectivity fits your use case, what to ask when researching satellite IoT, and what to look out for in satellite IoT.
With an engineering background, Alastair MacLeod has spent the last 20 years in data/information services, deep tech, SaaS, and telecom-based roles, and since 2020, has ably led the 90+ strong team at Ground Control. He is a satellite IoT expert with a passion for solving remote connectivity challenges.
Interested in connecting with Alastair? Reach out on LinkedIn!
About Ground Control
Ground Control uses satellite and cellular technology to connect people and things – particularly hard-to-reach people and things. Their most popular IoT device is the RockBLOCK 9603, a compact, plug-and-play satellite transmitter. It’s used by systems integrators and product developers to add satellite IoT connectivity capabilities to hundreds of devices, from drones to data buoys to weather stations.
They’ve more recently launched the RockREMOTE and RockREMOTE Rugged; these devices use the Iridium Certus 100 service, which can be either IP- or message-based. Still designed for IoT applications, the Certus 100 service allows for much more data to be transmitted than the RockBLOCK, including compressed photographs, so it’s being used for security applications, and where multiple sensors’ data needs to be moved.
Key Questions and Topics from this Episode:
(01:45) The state of satellite IoT
(03:11) Trends in the market
(19:53) Learn more and follow up
– [Ryan] Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of the IoT For All Podcast. I’m Ryan Chacon, and on today’s episode, we’re going to talk about all things satellite IoT. So if you’re curious about the space, definitely recommend you check out this episode. With me today is Alastair MacLeod, the CEO of Ground Control.
They are a company that uses satellite and cellular technology to connect people and things. Great conversation. I think you’ll get a lot of value out of it. Before we get into it, we’d truly appreciate it if you would give this video a thumbs up, subscribe to our channel if you have not done so already, and hit that bell icon, so you get the latest episodes as soon as they are out.
But other than that, let’s get on to the episode. Welcome Alastair to the IoT For All Podcast. Thanks for being here this week.
– [Alastair] Happy to be here. Thanks.
– [Ryan] Yeah, it’s great to have you. Exciting conversation. But prior to getting into it, I’d love it if you could just do a quick introduction about yourself and the company to our audience.
– [Alastair] Absolutely. So, my name’s Alastair MacLeod. I’m pretty new to the IoT and satellite IoT world. Just joined late 2020. Our company, Ground Control, we specialize in IoT over satellite and tracking by satellite, so definitely there’s a market for this because that’s what we do for a living. And we are network independent.
So we make it our business to put the best solution together for customers, which is always, pretty much always based on satellite to some degree. And increasingly we’re doing more and more hybrid stuff with cellular. So, I think we’re in a, hopefully in a great position to talk about the topic today.
– [Ryan] Yeah I’m very excited to talk about it because we’ve had a couple companies in the past and experts on to talk about this subject, and it’s a very fast moving space and very exciting space, but I also think there’s a lot of uncertainty for people who are not close to the satellite connectivity side of things.
Really understanding where we are as a market and where we’re going to really start to understand the viability of it all. So, let’s go ahead and have you start by just from your perspective, how would you describe to somebody who’s new to this the current state of satellite IoT in general?
What’s available today? What’s the current state of the technology? Just high level it for us.
– [Alastair] Sure. It’s super available. Definitely available today and for an awful lot of use cases, it’s already, it already costs in. We- our entire lives is putting together solutions based on business cases where the primary form of connectivity is satellite. And in our world it can be anything from at the tiniest end, it could be a very small circuit board style device using incredibly little power, tiny door antenna, and capable of lasting for a year or more on a battery. And it might just be sending back a few bytes of sensor data every sort of day or two. And at the other end, pretty decent bandwidth connectivity for machine to machine to, I don’t know, control trains or do some pretty big, pretty important heavy duty stuff.
So it’s definitely there today. IoT over satellite’s definitely there today. Obviously as new technologies come to the table and some of those technologies will shift the economics, new use cases will come to the table as well. And obviously we think that’s super exciting.
– [Ryan] Absolutely. I think naturally that’s the progression we see with a lot of different connectivity types as they come into the IoT space and see their app- the how applicable they are and what they’re doing, what they enable and so forth. So from a market standpoint, what are some of the key trends that you’re seeing in the satellite space. Obviously we’re seeing the convergence of a lot of different, or maybe combining different technologies on the connectivity side to enable use cases. I’ve talked to people about satellite and LoRaWAN, satellite and cellular, obviously you mentioned that when we first started, jumped on here, but what other trends are you seeing and how much of it is would you consider like hype?
– [Alastair] Well, it’s great you mentioned those two. Because I think at the moment, my view is the market, the real market for technology today is a little bit less dynamic than people would have you believe with the hype. So you’ve- there exist the use cases for small amounts of data, small form factors, small antennas.
At the other end, you’ve got your backhaul, which is what you were describing, LoRaWAN backhaul or cellular backup. Those are current markets. Those are happening today. There’s a lot of noise in the market at the moment though, as well. In the last few years, of course, everybody’s learned the difference in LEO and GEO.
But now people are throwing around terms like CubeSats and there’s a lot of new networks out there. And of course, the next big thing over the horizon is- that’s being talked about today is 5G convergence. But the reality is today there’s some great technology out there, but a lot of the stuff that you- that people are talking about, I think is in as a practical proposition, it’s probably still somewhere between five and 10 years away to achieve scale adoption. That’s not to say that nothing will change in the next five, but I, in my view, technologically speaking, I think probably we’re in a more of a plateau than a steep growth or a steep sort of change phase at the moment. So existing network operators like Iridium, like Inmarsat, some of the more established entrants that are just making waves in new parts of the market like Swarm. These are realities today and they’re great technologies.
Obviously beyond that, we’ve got a plethora of new entrants, LEO operators, some big names like OneWeb, some small names that until they start launching satellites, no one’s heard of. So for me, the- it’s a, trading wise it’s a stable period, but looking to the sort of the near future, it’s crazy exciting.
There’s a lot happening.
– [Ryan] When it comes to talking about satellite IoT from an implementation standpoint, or even just conversations you have with people who have a lot of questions, what are some of those kind of key challenges or hesitations that people bring up when it comes to is satellite connectivity right for my use case or why, maybe it is, but there’s hesitation to adopt, from a cost standpoint, to what is the true coverage that it has, how interoperable is it? What are some of those challenges? And maybe those three could be addressed directly, but if you have anything else that’s worth mentioning, I’d love to get a sense of what you think.
– [Alastair] Sure. Those are great questions, right? The, I guess the challenges come in different forms. From a, from our point of view, one of the most concurrent, the biggest concurrent challenges is the hype versus the substance. There are some operators out there now who are really good at promoting what they’re doing and what they’re planning to do.
And even if those technologies are totally not suited to IoT, which is very much the case in some instances. We probably get asked, I won’t mention the name, but we probably get asked more often about a certain satellite network than any other thing, even though it’s really quite inappropriate technology for IoT. So that’s the first thing is people are hearing noise about satellite, which they weren’t five years ago, right? It was this sort of thing in the background. Then in the- I guess the next one along the challenge curve is because it’s much less well understood. Once people start to get their brain around it, the first- their start point quite often is they know what they do with terrestrial, it must be the same with satellite or fundamentally, it’s just a different means of communicating. But other than that, surely it’s the same. And in reality, in today’s world, a satellite, it’s still a little bit specialist.
I don’t mean it’s super complicated, but there are some fundamentals of satellite coms, which are different, right? It costs more money to send a byte of data 2000 kilometers and back than it costs to send it 150 meters to the nearest cell tower. And so those unit economics are gonna be with us for a while.
And as long as they are, then you need to adapt how you implement IoT and a satellite to make sure that your business case works. So that’s the next one. And then beyond that, we get into technical challenges. So, bandwidth and power are always an issue. The mindset of a terrestrial network is you plug it in and it works.
If you want to put it in the middle of a field and connect it up to a sensor network, you might not be able to plug it in at all. And the amount of bandwidth that you can send these days, we’re just used to ubiquitous, like if it’s 10 megabits per second, it’s slow. It’s a slow link, right?
In satellite, if it’s in satellite IoT, if it’s 10 megabits per second, it’s a really fast link. So you’ve got that to adjust for. And then to the one which to be honest, we get asked about the least now but it’s gonna come more in the next few years is the point you made about interoperability. At the moment, the convergence in practice is limited to technology A alongside technology B.
So we’re doing more and more- I’ve got a couple of projects going on at the moment where we are backhauling LoRaWAN gateways, where our solution is a hybrid satellite cellular terminal. So it’ll use the least cost routes. If cellular’s available, it’ll use that. If it isn’t, we use satellite.
So there’s a lot of that hybrid side by side stuff, but- whether it’s direct to device, whether it’s genuine 5G over a single technology platform that works, whether it’s terrestrial or whether it’s bouncing the signal off a satellite. For me, that’s the stuff where I say we’re in the- for that to be a practical proposition, that’s economic and works well and scales, I think we’re in the five to 10 year category rather than the one to two.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. So to that last point you made, like how- in your, from your perspective, how far away are we from true satellite coverage for the IoT industry? Just how would you break an answer to that down? I know it depends on your use case, it depends on what you’re doing, what kind of data you need to send, but how would you answer that?
– [Alastair] Yeah, you’re right. I would say we are there with a hundred percent coverage for IoT. But it depends what the case is. I can probably answer it best by saying what will be enabled as these other technologies come on stream, right? Because by definition, those are the things that are not fully served with the technologies today.
The economics of space generally has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. The launch costs are about 1% of what they were 20 years ago, one or 2%. So that makes it cheaper and easier to put satellites into space. The manner in which these things are built, it used to be you build one satellite, you use rare earth elements and complex alloys, and you just hope to hell it doesn’t blow up on the launchpad.
Probably the wrong joke to make this week. But one of the CubeSat operators told me themselves that they, effectively they build their CubeSats out of parts you could buy from RadioShack, right? So all of those- but they just build lots of them and they know that a proportion will fail, but it doesn’t matter. If you throw a thousand satellites up there, and you only need 900 to run a network, then you’re good, right?
So those economics bring in cases that wouldn’t be there before. So the obvious ones are the lower value things that currently can be served by cellular, but the case doesn’t really work yet for satellites. It can either be super small, super low form factor, super low power type things, which is extending, let’s say the smallest lower power, those power services for radios or short burst data.
And you can extend downwards from that with some of these new, low Earth orbit specialist networks. But the big enablement will come when you can put one chipset in your device, and it won’t matter whether it’s talking to the network or the satellite. But I, again, I just see that further down the road.
And at the moment, once you get out of that sort of teeny weeny category, you’re only, every sort of message type, whether it’s messaging or streamed IP, every message type is served pretty much every bandwidth is served, and once you get above the top of IoT, you’re into Starlink and a hundred meg plus.
And, but then it’s arguably, it’s not really IoT anymore. So for me it’s all about the economics, right? The more things- as it was with cellular IoT and the general IoT world, right? The technology was available to send data over a cellular connection 15, 20 years ago. But nobody was putting SIM cards in fridges until it was almost free.
And I don’t- obviously direction of travel. I think we’ll see the same thing. In terms of the extent to which we see it, satellite, I don’t, personally, I don’t think in my lifetime, in the industry, let’s say five to 10 years, I don’t think we’re gonna see the unit costs come anywhere near this.
So I just think that’s not practical. But they will, but they will arrive at a point where plethora use cases, really exciting new applications that just can’t be met today will be able to be met. But as I said, it’s less to do with the technology type for me or the- and more to do with the economics.
– [Ryan] So so if I’m listening to this and I’m trying to assess whether satellite connectivity is a potential option for my use case, what are the things about a certain use case that make it more applicable to satellite connectivity being a fit right now? And at the same time, on the other side of that, what use cases are you seeing or characteristics of a use case are you seeing that kind of rule out satellite connectivity at this current state?
– [Alastair] I mean, it basically comes down to criticality, right? How important is it for you to talk to that device? How important is it for you to ingest that data in real time or near real time? How important is it for you to be able to turn that valve on or off? If it’s important, you can do it today.
You can do it anywhere on the planet. And the chances are that it’ll be economic. Where you would rule it out then if you likely the inverse of that is, nice to have stuff. Maybe you can wait. I’ll give you an example of where satellite technology is encroaching on an old business practice.
Just to give you a sort of a window on the- how these things can change. One of the things that satellite IoT’s been doing for a long while is in the renewable field, people have been using satellite connectivity to backhaul data gathering equipment when sites are being surveyed.
So you’ve got a field in the middle of nowhere with something measuring the wind and something logging the speed of the wind and the direction of the wind over a long period of time. Go back sort of five, 10 years, you had to put a guy in a truck, send him out to the field to unplug a USB stick from the data logger and plug in a USB stick.
Obviously that has its limits. Once you can put a low power piece of IoT technology in there and connect it via a satellite, you don’t need the guy in the truck anymore. And there’s your business case. So I think more of the same as new platforms come to the market, they enable different use cases and shift the needle on economics.
More of these use cases we’ll come across.
– [Ryan] Kind of as a tag along to this question, if I’m listening to this and am researching satellite IoT, and then I start talking to companies, what are the questions that those companies should be asking? So we’ve talked like a little bit of high level here about coverage, cost, how critical it is from a connection standpoint.
But what about reliability? What about security? What about these other areas as well? What are those key things that for somebody researching this for their own use should be really asking themselves or asking companies they talk to?
– [Alastair] Yeah, it’s a great question. Satellite IoT plays a big role in the continuity of service. So in overall equation of reliability, if you like. Even just by adding it as a redundant backup, you already take your, potentially take your system from three nines to five nines.
So, reliability’s a big question. Security, we probably get asked a lot about that at the moment. What- there are a number of technologies, some more than others, where you can create a really secure setup because you’re ruling out a lot of the pieces on the ground that would otherwise be susceptible to attack.
So satellite networks can be, if they’re well designed, they can be really secure. And as an example there in our country, in the United Kingdom, there are more and more regulations around utilities and protecting utilities from being hacked and so on. With the global threat level being always on the increase, and satellite’s got an increasing role to play there by taking as much as possible as far away as possible from terrestrial networks and in- and from the public internet in particular. So security’s a good one. And then I would say 90% of IoT applications, there’s usually, we usually come down to a question about practicalities. Power becomes a big one.
Again, people are just- when you are in the sort of the today world of IoT, most of the things that you’re talking to are plugged in. One of the things that makes satellites so great is it works everywhere in the world. The arctic tundra, you can still send back a temperature reading if you really wanna do that.
And but then, again, power becomes a thing because you haven’t got anything to plug it into. So coverage obviously will by deciding what coverage you want, that’ll narrow down the field from all the operators to the one that’s right for you. Cost of course is always a factor because it just is.
And there are massive ranges still even today. Big differences in cost between different types of operators based on the service class you want and so on. Lots to think about, and it’s a pretty interesting space, but I’d say, go talk to an expert. We’re a long way from the point where it’s plug and play like it is with cellular.
It’ll always be worth talking to an expert, even if in the end you take some advice and then you do your own thing, I would say talk to an expert first.
– [Ryan] Perfect. One of the last things I want to ask you before we wrap up is as we move forward with this technology, what are you most looking forward to, excited about? What can our audience be expecting happening over, or changing, over the next, let’s say 6, 12, 18 kind of months?
Or is that too short of a time period in this space? And we should be looking further out from a horizon standpoint, from- to pay attention to the real movement?
– [Alastair] Yeah, I think if you want excitement, you probably have to look a little longer. There’s always something fun happening in this industry, right? But the, in terms of tectonic shifts, the big one that we’re all waiting for clearance to happen is the Inmarsat-Viasat combination and that could bring some very interesting stuff. We recently became a big partner of- an official partner of Inmarsat IoT, their ELEVATE program. So we are very excited to see where that goes. But that’s, that should certainly happen in the six to 18 month period or sooner. But then for us, because we do play this agnostic card, like whatever’s out there, it’s great technology, we want to get involved with it. We’re obviously watching very closely all these startup networks and there are so many of them. And to see how that field shakes out, where the capital gets allocated, there’s no doubt there’s room in the space for more technologies and more different classes of services and so on.
But to what extent these sort of sole players raise the capital and make it on their own versus they combine them, make it on their own versus they get acquired. I think if you were to look at the timeline between now to five years out and see how does that competitive ground shift and what does it look like five years versus now?
I think five- it’ll look pretty different five years from now, I think. And it- there will be a ton of new things that you can do, which will be super exciting.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. Alastair, thank you so much for for the time. I appreciate you jumping on here and talking about some very relevant conversations. I get asked all the time about the satellite IoT space, and it just seems like everyone’s really paying attention to the viability of it for particular use cases. Obviously other connectivity suits other use cases really well, but satellite is gonna come in and enable potentially a lot of different things. We’re still relatively early, but a lot to be excited about as we head forward. So thank you for coming on here and sharing your insights.
For our audience who wants to learn more about Ground Control, follow up on anything regarding this conversation, what’s the best way they can do that?
– [Alastair] Simplest way is to head to the website, groundcontrol.com, all one word, groundcontrol.com. Or I mean they can get in touch with you, Ryan, and you can pass on our contact details.
– [Ryan] Absolutely.
– [Alastair] Happy to chat to anybody.
– [Ryan] Perfect. Thank you again so much. I really appreciate your time and excited to get this out to our audience.
– [Alastair] Pleasure. Thanks for your time. See you again.