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How a shoe-box sized satellite could transform logistics communications

Small, yet powerful satellites can now be deployed for just a fraction of the cost of more traditional satellites, potentially changing the way logistics companies access location and other data for assets. ( Photo: Reaktor )

As telecommunication giants begin moving large areas of the country to 5G cellular communications networks over the next several years, there is another technological breakthrough getting little attention that is lowering the cost of tracking and other communications vital to supply chains.

Low-cost, low-orbit satellites have gone from a vision to reality in recent years, and they are being increasingly used to support global tracking needs for logistics companies, especially in the maritime and air segments.

“When technology reaches a certain point of maturity, it becomes available to the [masses] and technology develops rapidly… we saw this with drones, robots and mobile phones,” Juha-Matti Liukkonen, director of space and new technologies for Reaktor, told FreightWaves. “The satellites are just a tool, and since the tool has become so much cheaper it has allowed us to expand the scope of services.”

Reaktor is a consulting company based in Finland. Established in 2000, the company has over 500 employees across five global locations – Helsinki and Turku, Finland, as well as Amsterdam, Dubai, New York and Tokyo.

“Our main job is to help customers build new business,” Liukkonen said. “Our customers in both the airline and maritime sectors approached us and complained about connectivity [problems].”

Those complaints led to the company’s venture arm helping fund startup Reaktor Space Lab, which makes low-cost satellites, often called “nano-satellites.” Reaktor, though, does not own satellites itself and serves only in a consulting role.

In the maritime industry, Liukkonen said gaps in tracking leave customers in the dark as to a ship’s location and port arrival. He said ships tend to speed to their destinations, only to sit and wait at ports because they arrived too early.

“The faster you go, the more fuel you burn, so if you can sail a little slower and arrive just in time, you can save a great deal of fuel and have less impact on the environment,” Liukkonen said. “These are the kinds of things you can achieve if you have connectivity.”

The problem, he said, is that cellular technology is limited in terms of global coverage and traditional, “old-school” satellites are large and expensive, leaving tracking to a single satellite that may orbit the earth on a daily or even weekly schedule.

“The traditional satellites don’t provide great coverage in [some] areas; this new low-cost satellite technology allows us to provide good coverage [everywhere],” Liukkonen said. “Because nano-satellites are very small, they are much cheaper to launch and get to orbit. The less weight you have, the cheaper it is to get into space.”

 Advances in technology have led developers to create satellites not much bigger than a shoe box that can be launched into orbit for as little as  million, less than 10% of the previous cost to do so. ( Photo: Reaktor )
Advances in technology have led developers to create satellites not much bigger than a shoe box that can be launched into orbit for as little as $1 million, less than 10% of the previous cost to do so. ( Photo: Reaktor )

The result is that more of these satellites can be launched at a lower cost, improving coverage. “You can start scaling from a [large] satellite to a number of smaller satellites,” Teijo Laine, system engineer of Reaktor, said.

“Common off-the-shelf electronics have become much more powerful and robust so we can now build these satellites from [common] components. We don’t need to use space-grade components,” Liukkonen added.

Liukkonen said that traditional satellites can weigh from hundreds of kilograms to tons, compared to the nano-satellites, which typically weigh 10 kilograms (22 pounds) or less. While satellites have been used for decades in communications and tracking, their cost was prohibitive for most companies. Advances in technology have helped reduce the size of the satellites and also lower their price, turning bus-sized satellites into something the size of a shoebox. The result is a total cost to build and launch a nano-satellite of between $1 million and $2 million, compared to a cost between $100 million and $500 million for the larger satellites.

This reduced cost opens up more possibilities than ever before, going far beyond just tracking ships across the ocean. They will be able to change the way the world – and logistics networks – communicate.

“In addition to connectivity, the amount of development, as with everything, is going to explode,” Laine said. “As more earth observation satellites come online, they will provide [access] to more data.”

While the satellites themselves won’t accumulate the data, they will help transmit it. For instance, the speed, power and capacity of 5G technology is impressive by itself, but it will not solve problems that exist with 3G or 4G communications – namely, if you can’t get cell reception now, you likely won’t get it with 5G either. Satellites can, and will likely, change that.

Liukkonen said there is no formal call for combining satellite coverage with 5G networks, but there is ongoing work to create standardization protocols to do just that.

“My personal view is that satellite technology will augment cellular networks, providing coverage where cellular networks currently can’t reach,” Liukkonen said.

Satellites will pick up the data signals sent by assets and transmit that data to its endpoint. That data could be location data or even something like engine diagnostic data. The nano-satellites will help facilitate that transmission.

“In the trucking context, for example, you can see what’s the state of the inventory in the yard of a Tesla factory,” Liukkonen said, before Laine quickly added, “Or how crowded a port is and how many containers there are.”

Satellites could also enhance everyday communications such as driver/truck-dispatcher interactions. If those communications take place over cellular networks, there may be times that a driver is out-of-touch because of the truck’s location. Is the driver still driving? Is there a problem with the truck? What’s the estimated time of arrival? With a satellite backup system in place, that communication link would never be broken and that information would continue to flow wherever the truck is located.

While it’s unlikely that any trucking or shipping company would contract with a satellite provider, Liukkonen thinks this new generation of satellites will eventually become part of the solution offered by data companies.

Currently, the technology is being used to track cargo ships and some airplanes, but Liukkonen sees more uses going forward, including the ability to eliminate the waiting problem for ships heading into congested ports, and the ability to speed air travel, not just for passengers, but also for cargo.

“Once that is available, U.S. airlines could fly over polar locations that don’t have current connectivity,” he said. That could shorten flight times across the globe as constant connectivity opens up new air routes.

The same capability could move into the trucking industry, which is becoming increasingly hungry for more accurate data. Gaps in transmission currently compromise the usefulness of that data, some of which could be vital engine or vehicle sensor data that can foretell an immediate problem that, without correction, may lead to days or weeks of downtime. They could also play a vital role in ensuring autonomous vehicles, which require constant connectivity, remain safe to operate.

“The bigger problem is actually [interpreting] the data,” Laine said, noting that the satellite won’t help in that regard. “The satellite is just one way of moving that data back and forth.”

Satellites won’t be interpreting new datasets, but satellites may soon ensure smooth communication channels for participants in the supply chain, with no significant increase in cost.

Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected].