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Satellite gaining ground in M2M Communications

| October 27, 2012



Author: Joel Schroeder,
M2M Program, Inmarsat


Today’s scientists and researchers have access to massive amounts of computing power and an insatiable appetite for a constant stream of sensor data they can analyse. With the continuing demand for more real-time data from machine-to-machine (M2M) environments, there has been an associated surge of interest in the use of satellite communications.

Although many businesses use satellite to complement their existing fixed line and cellular communications, some are now opting for a 100 percent satellite network.

One reason is that satellite M2M services can be used to plug the gaps in terrestrial coverage, extending the reach to devices in more remote, unmanned locations. They can be used as a backup to traditional networks to ensure that mission-critical data continues to be transmitted during terrestrial network outages or when cellular networks are simply too congested.

Of crucial importance, L-band satellite services are not impacted by extreme environmental conditions. This dependability is one of the reasons for its growing popularity in regions that regularly experience acute climatic events.Additionally, the terminals operate with a high degree of pointing tolerance,so the network remains connected even if the antenna moves as much as 30 degrees.

Typical applications include connectivity for SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems on pipelines, smart metering concentrators, remote ATMs and point-of-sale devices, as well as fixed and mobile asset monitoring in other sectors, including, SCADA, and other fixed, remote asset monitoring in utilities, oil and gas, government, and transportation. Users typically require messaging of several bytes or real-time connections with data rates from 20 to 100 kbps. Inmarsat’s M2M services support messaging up to 10 KBs and IP data rates up to half a megabit.

One sector where satellite is being adopted for data backhaul of remote M2M is environmental monitoring. Like other industry segments, environmental monitoring organisations need new ways to gather, analyse and distribute field data faster and more efficiently.

Applications can be as varied as measuring climate and hydrology or air quality to ensure compliance with regulation,or helping produce growers manage their crops by analyzing soil temperature and saturation levels, amongst a host of others.

One organisation that has already conducted research using satellite communications is New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric (NIWA). NIWA’s mission is to conduct leading environmental science to enable the sustainable management of natural resources for New Zealand and its region of the planet.

NIWA’s National Centre for Environmental Information is recognized as a leading authority on environmental monitoring and observation, information management, and delivery of high-quality, robust, and inter-operable environmental data that can be used for many purposes. The EI Center oversees a network of environmental monitoring stations across New Zealand and beyond. These stations measure a wide range of environmental parameters including winds, atmospheric pressure, temperature, rainfall, solar radiation, river levels and many more.

“Historically we had to compromise on the location where we could do monitoring because one of the criteria was the need for affordable access to communications to use the data in a timely fashion,” said Graham Elley, environmental systems consultant at NIWA.

“We commonly stretched the use of terrestrial base communications to the point where we did not always have the reliability we required. With many remote and geographically dispersed stations, we then started to look to upgrade with BGAN satellite communications,” he continued.

Having used Inmarsat for several years for general marine communications, NIWA decided to trial Inmarsat BGAN M2M, a new two-way IP data service, designed specifically for backhauling data from machine-to-machine applications.

The trial was a success and BGAN M2M is increasingly being deployed. According to Elley, “This technology is empowering and is enabling us to consider changes to the way we undertake our work.”One of the important benefits of L-band satellite communications for NIWA is that the communications is not impacted by those same adverse weather conditions that NIWA needs to monitor.


According to Michael Bargh, environmental data operations manager at NIWA: “We had BGANM2M terminals under test, prior to deploying them in a project in the Fiji Islands, when a big snow storm hit. Although buried in snow all the devices continued to work perfectly and didn’t miss a single report. That gave us great confidence that those sort of conditions wouldn’t cause us problems in the future.”


The stations collect data every three seconds and regularly transmit data to NIWA’s server.While reliability and durability are mandatory, NIWA had other practical considerations to keep in mind, including the size of the terminal and its power consumption. The BGAN Hughes 9502 terminalsmet the organisation’s requirements for a small footprint and its low energy requirements mean NIWA can now leave the terminals powered on for 24 hours a day and reduce the size of its stationsolar panels.


Australian firm, Unidata, leaders in the field of technologies for environmental monitoring, introduced NIWA to M2M. For Unidata, IP-based integration was key. “The BGAN M2M installation experience was straightforward. We integrated the BGAN terminal easily with the Unidata hardware using a single Ethernet cable. We configured it using a standard browser and the wide number of menu options meant that interfacing from an IP point of view was easy too,” said Dave Moyle, senior engineer at Unidata.


Elleyconcluded, “The arrival of BGAN M2M is very empowering. A bird in the sky is worth ten in the bush now we have access to reliable communications.”



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