Australian startup set to revolutionise remote satellite connectivity

02 Nov 2017

Author: Myles Gough

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An Adelaide-based startup with a growing fleet of small satellites and patented signals processing software plans to help businesses in remote locations worldwide affordably access the Internet of Things.
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Armed with shoebox-sized satellites in low-Earth orbit, power-conserving electronic transmitters, and sophisticated signal processing software, a disruptive Australian startup wants to open the floodgates for remotely-located businesses around the world to capitalise on the Internet of Things (IoT). 

The IoT, a network of small, data-collecting sensors and transmitting devices embedded into physical objects, enables businesses to mine new data to improve operations. But several barriers, including the cost of connectivity, have kept remote businesses from reaping the benefits, says Alex Grant, the chief executive officer at Adelaide-based Myriota. 

“Our challenge at Myriota has been to provide connectivity anywhere on the planet, to get the price right for businesses, and to make sure we can extend the battery life of satellite-linked devices,” the electronic engineer says. 

Grant says there is huge international demand for connected IoT devices across agriculture, shipping and transport, resource extraction, environmental monitoring, utilities, maritime security and defence. 

“For us, the game is absolutely global,” he says. “We have a network of satellites that have global coverage and a business that only makes sense if it’s a global offering.”  

Connecting millions of remote and mobile devices

The name Myriota, a combination of the words myriad and iota, symbolises huge numbers of very tiny things. “That’s our focus,” says Grant. “Massive scale connectivity to millions of small devices.” 

Grant says the ability to embed a plethora of IoT devices on remote assets, ranging from irrigation systems on farms and utilities infrastructure, to freight containers making transoceanic voyages and even soldiers on faraway battlefields, will help users access previously unavailable intelligence. This can help them reduce risk, save money and improve productivity.   

After being spun-out of the University of South Australia (UniSA) in 2015, Myriota secured a A$2 million investment from Canadian firm exactEarth, which uses satellites to track maritime vessels. It has since begun trials overseas and domestically, where it’s working with farmers on rural cattle stations, and with scientists on the Great Barrier Reef collecting data from weather stations, buoys and robotic vehicles. 

In June 2017, the innovative firm was named Best Industrial IoT Start-Up Company at the world’s largest IoT summit in Silicon Valley, further cementing its reputation as an emerging game-changer in the field.  

Solving the vexing problem of remote connectivity

While remote satellite connectivity is possible, the ongoing problem for businesses has been the prohibitive cost of “always-on” coverage, says Grant. This is particularly problematic if a business wants to deploy tens of thousands of devices, which only communicate with satellites intermittently.  

“Furthermore, existing satellite communications equipment is quite power-hungry, so batteries only last days or weeks at best,” says Grant.   

Myriota’s system solves these problems. It comprises a specially designed, matchbox-sized piece of electronics, which is interfaced with a sensor (such as a pressure, temperature or GPS sensor). This battery-powered device has a radio antenna for transmitting data and is physically connected to whatever object or machine is being tracked or controlled.  

The device, which can withstand extreme conditions, spends 99.9 per cent of the time asleep to conserve power, explains Grant. It only wakes up to speak to the satellite when it’s passing overhead, which means the battery can last 12 months or longer.    

Low-cost satellites, called CubeSats, catch the signal from the device, along with signals from millions of other devices. The aggregate signal is beamed down, through a network of ground stations, into the cloud. This is where the real engine of the Myriota system revs into action: a patented signals processing software untangles the readings, delivering actionable data to the end-user. 

It’s this clever software, says Grant, that allows Myriota to use low-power transmitters and to process millions of simultaneous signals with a constellation of CubeSats.  

For startup success, technology must be world-leading 

At a first glance, Adelaide may not seem the obvious choice to headquarter a globally-focused startup, but Grant says the city has built “extensive capability” thanks to the state’s space, electronics and defence sectors. It’s also where he’s spent the bulk of his career. 
 
Grant completed his undergraduate studies and PhD at UniSA, investigating ways to make wireless communications faster, cheaper and more reliable. Following a postdoctoral position at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, which plugged him into a vibrant international research community, he returned to UniSA in the late 90s, joining its Institute for Telecommunications Research. 

In 2004, aged 32, Grant became the youngest professorial appointment in the university’s history. But academic life wasn’t his only passion. He wanted to merge scientific breakthroughs with practical, commercial applications to improve people’s lives. 

His first startup, Codha Wireless, pioneered a vehicle-to-vehicle communication system for collision avoidance, which mitigates interference from radio wave reflections. The life-saving technology is now integrated into numerous production automobiles worldwide, and could feature prominently in self-driving cars of the future. 

That entrepreneurial experience taught Grant a valuable lesson: “To be successful as a deep technology startup, your technology has to be the best in the world at what it aims to do.” 

After more than six years of development, with funding from the Australian Space Research Program and extensive commercialisation support from UniSA, Grant is confident that Myriota’s product has achieved that rare and formidable distinction.