Keeping Paul Safe – Satellites and the IoT

One my good friend’s dad loves to hike alone in remote areas near Yosemite. Let’s call him Paul. Paul has had some health issues, and my friend worries about Paul getting incapacitated while he’s miles away from the lodge where he stays. There is very limited cell coverage in this area. My friend wants his dad to carry some kind of device that would allow us to find Paul if he goes missing, or to allow Paul to call for help if necessary. With limited cell coverage in the area, a satellite-enabled device seems to be the only option.

One option would be a GPS-enabled Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) like the ResQLink from Artex.[1] PLBs can broadcast a distress signal to a global network of satellites on the 406 MHz frequency.[2] The satellite network is operated by the governments of Canada, France, Russia and the United States. The distress signal includes the most recently GPS location which can be forwarded to search and rescue operations. PLBs must be manually deployed, generally by extending an antenna and turning on the device. The advantage of a PLB is that there is no ongoing subscription fee. The disadvantage is the manual deployment requirement. What would happen if Paul fell and hit his head and couldn’t deploy the device? There would be no way to use the PLB to help find him.

Another option would be a satellite-enabled communication device like the inReach SE+ from Garmin.[3] The inReach connects to the Iridium satellite network which boasts 100% global coverage. The inReach supports 2-way text messaging and SOS distress signals and also allows location-sharing. It can be configured to send a location update to the central server at predefined intervals and that location stream can be shared with friends. This sounds perfect for Paul’s use case. The downside to the inReach is the expensive subscription requirement. The cheapest plan that tracks your location every 10 minutes is $34.95 a month.[4]

Milo Werner shared during lecture that we may expect 50 billion internet-connected devices by 2020. As the exploration of the keep-Paul-safe-while-hiking scenario has pointed out, satellite-connected IoT devices currently are either of limited utility or are extremely expensive. But satellite communications are the only option outside of densely populated areas. I imagine that only a small fraction of the 50 billion IoT devices in use in 2020 will be dependent on satellite communications. Without major advances in satellite technology to bring the price of use down, I expect the IoT have limited reach, confined to areas with strong cell coverage.






4 comments on “Keeping Paul Safe – Satellites and the IoT”

  1. Really nice post!
    There is always the question of cost vs reliability. Does Paul need something that is 100% reliable at all times with 99.9% connectivity at all times or an 80% solution makes the deal for him? For example when talking about reliability, it makes a big difference if you’re talking about a hospital vs a data center vs a school, the backups, the cost and the redundancy on the methods used will variate depending on the desire and the consequences. In Paul’s case, I am sure his family would love the 100%, the question is if Paul wants to spend the extra money or he’s good as is.

    1. Thanks for the comment Victor. I should have mentioned that Paul is extremely stubborn (he would say the same thing). His son is the one driving this… and he would like something that is 100% reliable. So they are leaning towards the Garmin.

  2. Thanks Adam.
    IoT lives in the end-user space – e.g. size-effective, cost-effective via economies of scale and component re-purposing, functional and versatile, fancy at times…; satcom, however, does really not. At least not today.
    In my opinion, the greatest impact of satcom in the future of IoT is in ensuring a connectivity that is selective, relatively cheap, fast, and reliable at higher layers of data aggregation. And thisis because given the extremely high expenditures associated with most satellite activities – e.g. rocket launch, space-compliance testing, or dedicated communication electronic, satellite technology cannot be brought down to individuals. In addition to that, satcom is about connectivity, and it is a value very difficult to marketize in a B2C environment.
    Does that mean that Paul is doomed? I do not think so.
    Satellites communications, with the help of photonic and fiber-optics are becoming cheaper, lighter, greener, and faster; to a point that, satellite operators – not to mention SpaceX, OneWeb, FB’s satcom program, and other clients – start to see satcom as a very interesting backhauling interface, further supported by HAPS, on-demand deployable cells, or hybrid satellite-mobile cells. In other works, the future of satellite towards IoT is in guaranteeing global coverage through seamless integration with our regular communication and networking infrastructure, while maintaining the QoS that we are used to.
    Imagine making a regular phone call at the top of mount Everest, or just a skype call from a plane. That is how satcom is meant to help IMHO, and then software will do the rest, including saving Paul.

  3. I thought it was interesting to look at the data service coverage limitation of the internet of things (IoT). In the case of Paul, who likes to hike in remote areas, connected devices would be of no use to him since the cell coverage will not reach the places where he is hiking. This example is particularly interesting because our guest speaker, Nick Colsey, stated that 67 percent of leading edge consumers think that smart-health devices are extremely or very appealing.1

    1. Colsey, Nick (2018), Remarks in MS&E 238 class, Summer Quarter 2018.


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