Making Sense of Satellites: Remote Sensing, Communications, and PNT

April 3, 2017
Chad Anderson
Kelsey Tollefson
April 3, 2017
Chad Anderson
Kelsey Tollefson
Executive Editor
John Lenker

Satellites form the backbone of both the space and communications industries, and are vital in our daily lives. Satellite services are increasingly in demand, and technologies are evolving. As such, satellites are big business: In recent years, satellites, their ground operations, and associated manufacturing have accounted for 62% of space industry revenue.1 In 2015, that translated to over $208 billion. From this broad landscape, the satellite segment can be broken down into three functional subsegments of technology: Communications satellites, Remote Sensing (or Earth Observing) satellites, and Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) satellites. Within these subsegments, there are many opportunities for companies, from small startups to established players, to demonstrate their value to both industry partners and commercial consumers. 

Related Reading: Satellite Constellations Vision Finally Being Realized

Startups are devising new commercial services for communications satellites.

Image credit: Boeing

The first major subsegment of the satellite industry is communications. Communications satellites account for half of all satellites currently in operation,2 and facilitate global internet, telephone, and radio transmissions for both commercial and military end users. In 2015, consumer satellite services generated over $100 billion in global revenue.3

Most commercial telecommunications satellites are deployed in geosynchronous orbit around Earthsome 22,000 miles above sea level.4 In comparison, consider that the International Space Station is located in low-Earth Orbit (LEO), approximately 300 miles above sea level. Communications satellites therefore require some seriously heavy hardware in order to deliver their services to end users across the globe. Relaying data from the space-based transponder (from where it sends the signal) to the ground segment (where it receives the signal) necessitates massive antennas and powerful processorsThe satellites must also be equipped with propulsion, telemetry, and control subsystems.5 Put together, this all adds up to a large piece of extremely expensive technology that’s also costly to deploy—not to mention operate and maintain. While manufacturers such as Boeing have streamlined their satellite bus frameworks in order to reduce weight and costs,6 communications satellites still come at a hefty price. 

However, as with many things space, there are ways to play in the satellite game without building and launching massive spacecraft. Space Angels Network-funded startup ventures Analytical Space and Kepler Communications have developed innovative ways to capitalize on the booming communications subsegment. Analytical Space and Kepler each rely on shoebox-sized cubesats to enhance or supplement existing commercial communications relays. Analytical Space is developing a network of cubesats that will use optical communications (lasers) to boost data throughput for existing communications satellites, thereby offering a cost-effective way to improve satellite operations.

Kepler’s business model is focused on M2M (machine to machine) communications, and the enticing promise of an Internet of Things (IoT). Kepler is proposing a global constellation of cubesats that will enable the constant monitoring and tracking of devices anywhere on Earth. Kepler’s vision—and IoT in a larger sense—would have huge implications for a wide variety of industries, from international shipping and logistics, to smart agriculture, to remote telematics and intelligent transportation. Satellite M2M networks and IoT connectivity will be big business in the years to come: According to Northern Sky Research, satellite-based M2M/IoT annual revenues are expected to reach $2.5 billion by 2023.7

Startups are at the forefront of an Earth-observing Renaissance.

Image credit: World View/TechCrunch

After communications satellites, the next subsegment of note is Remote Sensing satellites. These Earth-observing (EO) satellites use imaging technology to generate up-to-date and often highly-detailed pictures of our planet’s surface. EO satellites are distinct from telecom technologies in a few key ways. They are usually smaller, since they don’t require as much processing power as commercial communications satellites: In fact, most next generation EO satellites are based on the cubesat form factor.8 EO satellites are also deployed in LEO, much nearer the Earth’s surface than many commercial communications satellites, often orbiting only about 300 miles above sea level.9 This enables higher-resolution images of the planet’s surface, using much smaller apertures.

The Earth-observing satellite subsegment has seen a major influx of new players—and with them come new business goals, new capital being raised,10 and new ideas in general. Planeta Space Angels-funded venture, is one of these new players. Since their founding six years ago, Planet has grown from a three-person startup into the owner and operator of the world’s largest private satellite constellation. While current EO networks—which usually comprise a handful of large, high-resolution satellites, like DigitalGlobe’s constellation—must be “tasked” to image areas of interest, Planet’s fleet of 144 cubesats is capable of imaging the entirety of the Earth’s surface within a single day.

Related reading: Planet’s Nanosat Fleet and India’s Historic Launch

World View Enterprises, another Space Angels-funded company, has a unique solution to meet demand for precision Earth-observation. World View provides a near-space alternative to remote-sensing satellites through their Stratollite technology. World View’s innovative high-altitude balloons can be deployed in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, thereby offering localized remote sensing capabilities without the need for costly rocket launches. World View’s Stratollites can fly a variety of trajectories, or simply maintain their position over areas of interestThis flexibility, coupled with low-cost launch and rapid deployability, make World View’s Stratollites ideal for a variety of remote sensing applications. 

Precision PNT satellites to support future infrastructure.

Image credit: / U.S. Department of Defense

While startup ventures have made headway into both Earth-observing and communications satellite subsegments, the positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) subsegment presents a unique barrier to entry for commercial companies, since the data is currently provided by governments as a basic public service, for free. PNT satellites are a specialized subset of the industry, and provide ground segments with up-to-the-minute positioning and telemetry data in exacting detail. Networks of PNT satellites form Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS).

PNT satellites have historically been owned and operated by government agencies. The United States’ PNT satellite constellation—the now-ubiquitous NAVSTAR Global Positioning System (GPS)—became fully operational in 1993.11 Russia’s GLONASS was declared operational the same year.12 Until very recently, these were the only two global GNSS systems on the planet. 

In recent years, other countries have been developing their own GNSS capabilities. China’s regional BeiDou is now toe-to-toe with GPS in terms of accuracy,13 and has been steadily launching satellites in order to gain a global foothold.14 The European Union’s Galileo system (currently being tested in orbit)15 is another navigation option, and is expected to be fully online by 2020.16

While the world’s current GNSS systems are all government-run, there is still room for evolution within the PNT subsegment. Satellite industry heavyweight Iridium launched their own GNSS-type service—the Satellite Time and Location (STL) network— in May of 2016.17 Iridium’s service leverages their extant low-Earth orbit constellation by partnering with Satelle to deliver a viable, privately-owned alternative to government navigation systems.18 In the years to come, there will be opportunities for other companies to develop high-precision, commercial PNT services—such networks will become crucial infrastructure for next-generation intelligent transportation systems (such as autonomous vehicles, air traffic management, and other applications). 

Related Reading: Toyota, Kymeta, and the Future of Intelligent Transport Systems

Commercial satellite companies are poised for major success in the years to come. 

Satellites have become critical infrastructure for modern societies. Aside from facilitating day-to-day consumer connectivity, satellites also provide a connection to our planet—giving us a bird’s-eye view of our home in space. As cultures and countries grow more interconnected, demand for advanced geospatial intelligence capabilities is on the rise. Government interest is certainly a factor in the increase of both PNT and remote sensing satellite deployments. Precision PNT and remote sensing technologies are crucial for city planning; emergency response and disaster preparedness; monitoring of assets and agriculture; and countless other civil applications. Satellite navigation is also an economic boon to countries with established networks.19

While satellites have historically been owned and operated by governments, militaries, and venerable corporations, start-up ventures are re-imagining the value network of the satellite industry. Thanks in part to forward-thinking companies like Planet, World View, Kepler, Analytical Space and others, a new era in satellite applications is upon us. In all three functional sub-segments of the satellite industry—communications, remote sensing, and even PNT—there is still a tremendous amount of room for growth and innovation.

There’s never been a better time to get involved in commercial space. If you’re ready to start investing in private space companies, we invite you to apply for membership to Space Angels.


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