A New Zealand company has been the first to commercialise a new generation of satellite networks that offer broadband from above.
Two new global satellite networks launched in 2020 for planet-wide internet: Elon Musk's Starlink, and Swarm, founded by NASA alumni Sara Spangelo and Ben Longmier and backed by various US venture capitalists.
Starlink, still in a pre-commercial phase, has launched about 1000 satellites so far. Musk has permission for 12,000 and is angling for up to 30,000 to offer regular internet - Netflix, web browsing and so forth - to punters over every inch of the planet at speeds of 50 to 150Mbit/s (or the same as land-lubbing, lower-end fibre and fixed-wireless plans) for US$99 per month, with latency of 20 to 40milliseconds (latency, or lag, has made some satellite internet poor for two-way connections; 20 to 40ms would be quite usable). The Musk network will have two groundstations in NZ.
Swarm, by contrast, is offering low-cost internet for the Internet of Things (IoT) - or smart devices that need to be connected to the internet, from smart power meters to moisture meters in soil on remote rural farms.
The US startup has utilised a mix of SpaceX, Vega and Rocket Lab flights to get its micro-satellites (each weighs just 400g) into low-earth orbit.
It launched its first 12 commercial satellites in September, another 24 in November and will have 72 circling the planet by January. By the end of next year, Swarm's swarm will be 150-strong, with all of its birds circling the globe in a pole-to-pole orbit, giving the planet-wide coverage as the Earth spins on its axis.
Right now, a smart device can reach a Swarm satellite eight to 12 times a day, depending on laititude. With more Swarm satellites in orbit in the New Year, and more spread out, that will increase by the end of January before hitting once per minute by the end of 2021.
Swarm describes itself as the lowest-cost two-way satellite network on the planet. Its standard data plan costs US$5 a month, which covers 150 kilobytes of data (puny in human terms, but enough for some 750 machine-to-machine messages in the world of IoT).
Waikato company LayerX has been working with Swarm for a year, and in October had the distinction of facilitating the first commercial transfer of data over Swarm's satellite network.
LayerX specialises in the Internet of Things. Its founder, Bruce Trevarthen, previously ran ZeroOne, which developed and hosted AllBlacks.com, and created mobile gateways for the company then known as Telecom, where he also spent his early career as a dev team lead.
Trevarthen - an amateur beekeeper himself - quickly realised the IoT would suit commercial apiculture, where he's landed multiple clients. Three of the biggest, Comvita, Atihau Whanganui and Moutere, have in turn become some of Swarm's first users, via LayerX. A fourth, Pouatu Mānuka, is in the process of upgrading. It's a case of Swarm helping the swarm, if you will.
In their chase for pure product, top-tier commercial honey operations often helicopter hives into remote areas with heavy concentrations of mānuka.
From there, "it's all about the flow," Trevarthen says. A hive is either "on the flow", or gaining weight, indicating the bees are doing their job, or "off the flow", indicating the bees are getting high on their own supply, or at least consuming more of their product than they are collecting.
Previously, operators "were farming blind, dropping a hive then checking on it five weeks later", Trevarthen says.
In the age of the IoT, sensors can relay the weight of a hive multiple times a day.
Other sensors can monitor rain, acoustics and more, allowing a beekeeper to remotely gauge if, say, bees in a particular hive have exhausted mānuka flowers in the areas and resorted to clover, diluting their output, in commercial terms.
Farming has been another area of early interest for Swarm's technology in NZ - especially around irrigation monitoring.
Where a farmer can only draw water from a river once its volumetric flow reaches a certain level, time is money. A sensor linked to Swarm's network via a Controller Gateway - like the one built by LayerX's sister company ModuSense - can send a message to a farmer's phone when a river reaches the required flow, or the gateway can send a message directly to an irrigation system to switch it on. LayerX is partnering with Hydrologic for projects involving water volume and quality sensors.
A LayerX gateway, which costs about $1000, is designed to aggregate data from various IoT sensors - which it connects to wirelessly via Bluetooth - then sends small bursts of data to Swarm's network of satellites. Swarm, in turn, can relay that data to a beekeeper's computer a few kilometres away, or anyone anywhere on the planet.
The cost of the small bursts of data that sensors send to Swarm's network runs to around 10 cents each. LayerX offers a $255 per year plan that covers its dashboard software and all cellular and satellite data. Trevarthen says the equivalent short-burst service from established satellite giant Iridium would leave little change from $500 per month.
The LayerX gateway supports both satellite and cellular connections and can flip between the two depending on which is cheaper. Both Spark and Vodafone NZ are building low-power, low-cost IoT networks. LayerX is a Spark IoT partner, but the gateway is equally compatible with Vodafone NZ.
Swarm is also selling a "Tile" modem for US$119, but Trevarthen describes it as analogous to buying a graphics card for a PC.
Developing the gateway was tricky. Reaching through the noise to communicate with a micro-satellite the size of a paperback some 600km above and moving at a rapid clip is no mean feat.
And the LayerX founder says being one of the first in the know about connecting to Swarm is creating business opportunities. He's already talking to potential clients across the Tasman. He sees global opportunities opening up "to leverage our proven expertise to help other businesses" whether they want to buy LayerX's gateway, or want to train-up to be a Swarm partner.
Meanwhile, one-time budding astronaut, Swarm co-founder and CEO Spangelo is full of praise for her company's New Zealand partner, which is located just outside The Tron.
"Delivering product excellence means ensuring customers get everything they need and removing any barriers to success," she says.
"The LayerX team are huge champions of Swarm and are wonderful partners to work with.
"We are thrilled to have such a knowledgeable team that we can rely on to jointly support our customers and improve Swarm integration and IoT connectivity outcomes."
It's not just nice polite words, either. Swarm has just made LayerX a "global integration partner" and is billing the New Zealand company as an IoT incubator, which its customers can lean on to help develop their internet-of-things ideas, or get up and running on its satellite network faster.
"It's a global pipeline of opportunity," Trevarthen says.
If the plan comes together, "suddenly the entire globe is lit up [with internet access], rather than the 10 per cent today," Spangelo says.