Lacuna Space IoT Satellite Constellation
In the timeframe of 2017, Lacuna Space Ltd. is a startup company, based at the Harwell Campus, UK (along with the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the new ESA Business Incubation Center named ESCAT (European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications). The objective is to develop an IoT (Internet of Things) system, an ultra-low cost tracking and sensor detection service for small amounts of data. The company is supported in ESA's ARTES program and by the UK Space Agency. 1)
Lacuna Space is part of the United Kingdom space industry and is located in the U.K. and the Netherlands. The satellite platform and initial operations were supplied by NanoAvionics and the antenna by Oxford Space Systems.
In 2019, Lacuna Space CEO Rob Spurrett says he’s well aware his 3-year-old startup is part of a cresting wave of IoT (Internet of Things) ventures seeking to deploy constellations of CubeSats to connect a world awash in smart devices. 2)
At least 16 companies are targeting the IoT market with smallsats, according to NSR (Northern Sky Research) analyst Alan Crisp, ranging from startups like Fleet and Kepler Communications to heavyweights like Eutelsat.
“Like many other people, we spotted a great opportunity to do IoT with small satellites,” Spurrett said. “The gold rush is on.”
Whether Lacuna Space will rise to the front is still to be determined. But Spurrett believes the company’s emphasis on offering the lowest price service will make it a winner.
“We’ve always been of the view that IoT is going to be a very low-cost application,” he said. “Driving cost out of the system is going to be absolutely critical. If you’re going to win this race, it’s going to be all about who can drive price the lowest.”
To find the lowest cost satellite system, Lacuna Space expects to have launched four different prototypes by the end of the year. The first, a payload that shared a platform with another IoT startup (SpaceWorks Orbital) launched in April aboard an Indian PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle). NanoAvionics of Lithuania supplied the bus.
A second prototype from British startup In Space Missions is booked to launch on a Rocket Lab Electron mission, Spurrett said. A third from Open Cosmos is scheduled to launch on an Arianespace Soyuz, followed by a fourth prototype from NanoAvionics paired with another PSLV, he said. All three upcoming payloads will have their own buses, Spurrett said.
Lacuna Space, in contrast to some of its competitors, aims to operate satellites that can directly pick up signals from LoRa-standard IoT sensors instead of having the signals transferred to a dish and amplified to reach space. Spurrett said this approach means Lacuna Space doesn’t have to build custom user terminals, but can rely on already fielded equipment.
The trade-off, Spurrett said, is that Lacuna Space’s satellites will need very sensitive receivers onboard to pick up faint signals from remote, battery powered devices.
Semtech Corp., a Camarillo, California, semiconductor and software company with more than $600 million in net sales, is helping Lacuna Space link LoRa-based devices directly to satellite gateways.
Lacuna Space will trial services with its prototype satellites so that it can decide on a constellation manufacturer in late 2020, Spurrett said.
The startup is building its own payloads, but outsourcing the satellite bus, launch and ground communications to the prototype providers, he said. The company plans to select from prototype builders for the full 32-satellite global constellation and will likely outsource ground communications for the system, he said.
Lacuna Space plans to operate its satellites around 500 to 550 kilometers, he said. Current prototypes suggest the final constellation will use 6U CubeSats with a mass of around 10 kg. They will also likely carry propulsion, he said.
Over the last few decades, we have seen an incredible rise in the flow of information by connecting people to the internet. 3)
LoRa (Long Range) Technology In Space
A significant number of customers across the globe in all market verticals want to receive short messages from their in-field sensors, such as temperature gauges, pressure sensors, gas sensors etc. over the internet. However, these are often in regions and locations that are currently unreachable by terrestrial IT networks, or are too sparsely populated for terrestrial networks to be economically viable. 4)
In order to serve these customers and their applications, Lacuna Space leverages existing LPWAN (Low-Power Wide Area Network) open standards), such as LoRa (Long Range) protocols and the growing ecosystem of low-cost sensors and service providers.
Lacuna Space uses LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites to communicate directly with these remote terrestrial sensors without the need for any expensive intermediate modem. This keeps costs low thereby improving the competitive offering to customers.
This project, with key developed technologies, demonstrates the ability to receive LoRa messages in space directly from the ground sensors which are located around the globe with trusted demo partners.
Figure 1: IoT (Internet of Things) technology demonstration (Lacuna Space Ltd,)
Table 1: Overview of some tracking applications
The delivery to the customer consists of LoRa data messages transferred from ground devices via the Lacuna network servers to the customer servers. The Lacuna network server acts as a message broker, directing messages to their recipients based on the message meta data. It is a store and forward service where the timeliness of new messages to the customers’ premises is driven by the number of satellites and ground stations contacts. This project uses one satellite to demonstrate both the technology and the full end-to-end message delivery. Scale up of increased location revisit and timeliness of data to a customer is easily analyzed.
Figure 2: Project: Internet of Things Technology Demonstration (network diagram valid as of 2018), image credit: Lacuna Space Ltd.
The satellite payload is a very sensitive Internet of Things (IoT) receiver. The role of the product is to receive IoT messages, demodulate and store them, and then relay them to the host spacecraft data downlink for transmission to a ground station.
The product consists of a self-standing hosted payload, occupying less than one unit of a standard CubeSat unit (1U) and for this project it is accommodated on a 6U host satellite platform. The main components of the product are a deployable antenna, the RF digital system and the power supply / regulation unit. The antenna was stowed during launch and then was released for nominal operations.
This IoT payload in space is an industry enabler. This technology and system breaks down barriers to entry and allows customers to incorporate a low-cost remote monitoring system. Current solutions utilize high-bandwidth expensive satellites which are overkill for customers needs and often outside of their financial means. IoT from space creates a whole new ecosystem of entrepreneurs who are able to deliver cost effective and reliable data services to customers with remote monitoring networks anywhere in the world.
Figure 3: Lacuna Space receiver Gateway prototype device (image credit: Maria Kalama/Lacuna Space)
Figure 4: ISRO's PSLV C-49 takes off from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota on 7 November 2020 with nine customer satellites from Lithuania (1), Luxembourg (4) and USA (4) were launched under a commercial arrangement with NewSpace India Limited (NSIL). PSLV-C49 is the 2nd flight of PSLV in 'DL' configuration (with 2 solid strap-on motors). Besides being the 51st launch of PSLV, today’s launch was also the 76th launch vehicle mission from SDSC SHAR, Sriharikota (image credit: ISRO) 9)
• December 1, 2020: A novel helical antenna that sprang from a container the size of a tuna can is now operational in orbit. Developed by Oxford Space Systems in partnership with ESA, this origami-inspired antenna is equal in length to the shoebox-sized satellite hosting it, part of a growing constellation of nanosatellites providing Internet of Things services around the globe. 10)
- This operational satellite from UK company Lacuna Space, was launched on 28 September into low Earth orbit. After launch, it underwent a series of in-orbit tests to establish it as part of Lacuna’s IoT (Internet of Things) network.
- As a 3-unit ‘CubeSat’ built up from standardized 10 cm boxes, the satellite is smaller and cheaper than traditional satellites, but can still pick up signals from battery powered ground-based sensors, small enough to hold in the palm of a hand. The mission is targeting Internet of Things applications such as agricultural and environmental monitoring as well as equipment and freight tracking – aided by its high-performance helical antenna.
Figure 5: CubeSat with helical antenna (image credit: ESA)
- This new antenna took shape through an ESA R&D project, supported by the UK Space Agency through ESA's General Support Technology Program (GSTP), preparing promising technologies for space and the open market.
- “The Internet of Things is going to be one of the catalysts for the green revolution we all want to see – helping us monitor everything from air and water quality, to assessing pollution levels around factories, rivers and cities," remarks UK Space Agency Chief Executive Graham Turnock. “These green technologies are being made possible by cutting edge inventions by UK space companies, like this new Oxford Systems antenna.”
- “Until this project, no European-made antenna of this kind was commercially available,” explains project technical officer Benedetta Fiorelli of ESA’s Antennae & Sub-mm Waves section.
- “Having identified this gap in the market we proposed addressing it to various funding schemes, and it was GSTP that gave us the chance to take the idea forward. The result, little more than a year after the project started, is a tangible product already operating in space.”
- CubeSats are growing in popularity because they draw maximum benefit from the latest miniaturized commercial-off-the-shelf components, to do more with less. But antennas are one satellite subsystem that cannot easily be shrunk down in size.
- “We hit hard physical laws that link the size of the antenna’s radiating element with the frequency being used,” adds Benedetta. “So it becomes a challenge to accommodate the antenna aboard a small platform and still do useful work. For instance many CubeSats use simple thin wires antennas deploying from satellite bodies.
- “But their performance is not optimal for Internet of Things type applications. Helical antennas are an inherently flexible design with many more parameters that can be tuned precisely as required – the antenna radius, number of spirals, pitch angle and so on.”
- Founded in 2013 and based at ESA’s Harwell space campus, Oxford Space Systems has its focus on small, light satellite booms and antennas, to be folded away tightly before launch then spring to full size in orbit, origami-like.
- “When we started working on deployable helical antennas we looked at which companies might be interested in that, and Oxford Space Systems was high on the list,” says Benedetta. “We engaged on the GSTP side while the company gained the support of their national ESA delegation, allowing the project to happen.
- “It’s a good example of the role ESA should play: we identify a technology gap while industry spots a market opportunity, then we support industry in responding to it. The bulk of the work was done by Oxford Space Systems, including physical properties, radio frequency and deployment testing – slowed down somewhat by this year’s COVID-19 restrictions.”
Figure 6: IoT ground sensor (image credit: Lacuna Space)
- Midway through the project, the company found a customer for their product, in the shape of Lacuna Space, a Harwell neighbor. Since then a second antenna has also flown, aboard another Lacuna CubeSat launched from India earlier this month.
- “Even if it was in our plan since the beginning, I was surprised when they told me,” says Benadetta. “Activity sped up significantly during summer due to this flight opportunity. In space terms that’s a fast turnaround to go from starting a project to a product working in space, so all involved are proud of it.”
- Sean Sutcliffe, CEO of Oxford Space Systems, comments: “This represents a key milestone for OSS as it continues to execute the strategy to be the leading global deployable antenna company for space. Not only is this our first successful deployment of an antenna, but our second successful hardware deployment this year and our fourth in total. We continue to develop and deliver our range of antenna products which give leading performance capabilities with low launch mass and small stowage volumes.”
- The satellite platform and early operations have been supplied by nanosatellite integrator NanoAvionics, with the payload developed and tested by Lacuna Space.
• November 9, 2020: Global connectivity provider Lacuna Space announced successful launch and communications with its fourth IoT (Internet of Things) gateway in space. The satellite, carrying a new generation of space gateways, was transported to equatorial low Earth orbit onboard the PSLV-C49 mission from India last Saturday. The mission will cover a geographic band around the entire globe between the 40th parallels North and South, stretching from Madrid all the way down to Cape Town. 11)
- We are continuing to push the boundaries of what’s technically possible with extremely low power IoT technology with each generation of IoT gateways we are putting into space,” said Rob Spurrett, CEO of Lacuna Space. “This latest one offers higher sensitivity and capacity for message reception from LoRaWAN® (Long Range Wide Area Network) devices. It also allows us to better cover regions around the equator offering more opportunities for our technology partners and IoT services providers across South America, Africa and Southeast Asia.”
- The satellite platform and early operations have been supplied by nanosatellite integrator NanoAvionics. Other key equipment was provided by Oxford Space Systems and Parametric in Switzerland. Service commissioning – the on-orbit checkout period – is underway and telemetry data is already flowing back. The mission is expected to enter full service before the end of the year.
Table 3: The story of two partners
• November 3, 2020: Lacuna Space adds the latest satellite to its demonstration constellation for the Internet-of-Things (IoT). The company completed in-orbit tests today, after being launched as a secondary payload on 28 September (11:20 UTC) by Roscosmos from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome into LEO at an altitude of about 500 km. With the completed in-orbit tests, the satellite is operational. 12)
- According to Lacuna Space CEO, Rob Spurrett, this satellite will greatly boost the Lacuna network capacity and extend customer trials to additional market segments. Examples for applications include predictive maintenance and tracking of heavy machinery in remote areas. Automating the dispatch of replacement parts, scheduling resources where needed and minimizing down time.
• September 29, 2020: NanoAvionics, a multinational nanosatellite bus manufacturer and mission integrator, announced the successful launch of another Lacuna Space IoT satellite, and a third one being ready for launch at a later date. Operational communications with the nanosatellite in low Earth orbit (LEO) were established shortly after the launch. For this latest mission, NanoAvionics partnered with Germany-based Exolaunch, which provided the deployer and launch services onboard a Soyuz-2 rocket (Ref. 8).
Figure 7: Illustration of the second Lacuna Space IoT Satellite (image credit: NanoAvionics)
- Despite the ongoing pandemic, NanoAvionics and Lacuna Space, both based at the UK's Harwell space cluster, managed to complete all the steps prior to launch, from contract signing to testing and integrating the payload into NanoAvionics' M3P nanosatellite bus, within eight months. The payload, developed and built by Lacuna Space, consists of an IoT (Internet of Things) Space Gateway, able to receive and share data from small, battery powered sensors even in remote areas on the ground or at sea with little or no connectivity. The mission has been part-funded and supported by the UK Space Agency and ESA.
- Vytnis J. Buzas, CEO of NanoAvionics said: "Having previously worked together to build and launch the first nanosatellite for Lacuna Space's satellite system, I'm excited about this latest successful launch. Lacuna's IoT sensor and gateway technology has the potential to open a whole new world of smart applications and collaborating on this has been fantastic, and allowed us to optimise our technology for integrating IoT payloads, too.
- "In return, by employing a series of quality assurance tests and using our flight proven and standardised bus, we are able to combine high-quality performance with low cost and short integration cycles – a very attractive combination for our customers as shown by our continued business and revenue growth."
- This latest nanosatellite will join the Lacuna Network, which will provide a global internet-of-things service via a nanosatellite constellation in LEO (Low Earth Orbit) and autonomous sensors everywhere on Earth. Using LoRa (Long Range) technology, the de-facto standard for low power connectivity, to communicate with the Space Gateway and batteries similar to those in wrist watches, make the Lacuna sensors low cost, extremely power efficient and able to last for years. And the LoRaWAN protocol allows for the latest security features to be included in devices and across the Lacuna Network. Applications for IoT services via the Lacuna Network stretch from agriculture, environmental, wildlife and marine monitoring to asset tracking and mobility.
- Rob Spurrett, CEO Lacuna Space said: "The speed with which Nano Avionics has managed to get this mission integrated and launched is very impressive, especially given all the current virus-related constraints. Thankfully, the back-log of commercial launches is now moving and our next launch after this will be another NanoAvionics platform. On behalf of Lacuna, I'd like to thank everybody at NanoAvionics for their support and professionalism."
• July 17, 2019: Nanosatellite mission integrator NanoAvionics UK Ltd. and UK satellite communications provider Lacuna Space, both based at Harwell Campus Space Cluster, have signed a second contract to integrate the Lacuna Space LoRa®-based Space Gateway into NanoAvionics’ M6P (Multipurpose 6U Propulsion) nanosatellite bus which will be launched in Q4 2020 via PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) of ISRO. The two companies successfully collaborated on the Lacuna Space technology demonstration mission launched in April 2019. This new agreement will add a M6P-based satellite to join Lacuna Space’s internet of things (IoT) satellite constellation aimed at optimising the performance of the payloads and then demonstrating the system in tests with users in many locations around the world, to validate the performance of the pilot service. 13)
- “The M6P (Multipurpose 6U Platform) nanosatellite bus is ideally suited for IoT communications,” NanoAvionics chief executive officer Vytenis J. Buzas said. “We are excited to continue our relationship with Lacuna Space as it pioneers a new form of ubiquitous, low-cost IoT communications.”
- Lacuna Space is deploying a constellation of 32 nanosatellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to form the Lacuna Network. The LoRa-based Space Gateway on each satellite in the network uses the long-range LoRaWAN® communications protocol to receive short data messages from IoT devices on the ground or at sea. Because the satellites travel in 500-kilometer polar orbits, the Lacuna Network will provide ubiquitous coverage for devices in regions without reliable wireless coverage.
- “Satellites in the Lacuna Network will receive data directly from inexpensive battery-powered LoRa® IoT devices, even in the most remote parts of the world.” Lacuna Space chief executive officer Rob Spurret said. “Following the successful progress of our demonstration mission earlier this year, we are happy to be working with NanoAvionics in the further deployment of our constellation, thanks to support from ESA, UK Space Agency and our partner Semtech Corporation.”
- The NanoAvionics M6P is a first preconfigured 6U nanosatellite bus in the market, suitable for high diversity of commercial and scientific missions. Its standardised design and configuration allows shorter lead times and reduced costs. M6P incorporates a green propulsion system and enables missions once reserved for much larger satellites. M6P-based satellites can perform maneuvers necessary for constellation deployment, formation flights, drag compensation and orbit maintenance. When reaching end-of-life, the propulsion system will send the small satellite on a course to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere to burn up.
Figure 8: The M6P bus includes propulsion system capable to perform high-impulse maneuvers such as: orbital deployment, orbit maintenance, precision flight in formations, orbit synchronization and atmospheric drag compensation (image credit: NanoAvionics)
M6P (Multipurpose 6U Platform)
NanoAvionics’ flight-proven 6U satellite bus is based on a modular and highly integral design. It delivers extends payload volume and saves development costs for customers. 14)
M6P satellite bus enables customers to concentrate on the most important mission goals and deal with high-level mission implementation tasks only, such as payload development, integration, and support during the mission in orbit.
Figure 9: NanoAvionics M6P - the first pre-configured satellite bus in the market (video credit: NanoAvionics)
The standard configuration of the nanosatellite bus is optimized for IoT, M2M, ADS-B, AIS, other commercial and emergency communication applications, and scientific missions.
M6P bus includes propulsion system capable to perform high-impulse maneuvers such as: orbital deployment, orbit maintenance, precision flight in formations, orbit synchronization and atmospheric drag compensation. It results in extended satellite orbital lifetime uncovered new opportunities for the unique customer missions and significant savings on constellation maintenance costs.
The detailed subsystem specification of M6P is provided:
• Bus features:
• Payload controller:
• Power system:
• Flight Computer (Including ADCS functionality):
Caleb Henry, ”Lacuna Space aims to ride IoT wave with a
32-CubeSat constellation,” SpaceNews, 13 August 2019, URL: https://spacenews.com/
4) ”Telecom ARTES 4.0 Program,” ESA ARTES, 12 May 2020, URL: https://artes.esa.int
5) Annamarie Nyirady, ”India Will Launch 2 NanoAvionics Satellites,” Satellite Today, 27 February 2019, URL: https://www.satellitetoday.com/launch/2019/02/27/india-will-launch-2-nanoavionics-satellites/
6) Doug Mohney, ”NanoAvionics announces 2 satellite launch for 3 customers,” Space IT Bridge, 5 March 2019, URL: https://www.spaceitbridge.com/nanoavionics-announces-2-satellite-launch-for-3-customers.htm
7) Doug Mohney, ”India PSLV launch puts 28 commercial small sats into orbit,” Space IT Bridge, 1 April 2019, URL: https://www.spaceitbridge.com/india-pslv-launch-puts-28-commercial-small-sats-into-orbit.htm
”NanoAvionics launches second satellite for Lacuna Space’s
growing IoT satellite constellation,” NanoAvionics, 29, September
2020, URL: https://nanoavionics.com/news/
10) ”Origami antenna springs up for small satellites,” ESA Enabling & Support, 1 December 2020, URL: https://www.esa.int/Enabling_Support/Space_Engineering_Technology
11) ”Launch success: Lacuna Space continues to grow IoT constellation with an equatorial satellite,” Lacuna Space, 9 November 2020, URL: https://lacuna.space/launch-success-with-an-equatorial-satellite/
12) ”Lacuna Space puts another IoT Gateway in space,” SpaceRef News, 3 November 2020, URL: http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=56531
”Lacuna Space Signs Second Contract With NanoAvionics to Support
its Growing IoT Satellite Constellation,” NanoAvionics Press
Release, 17 July 2019, URL: https://nanoavionics.com/press-releases/
14) ”6U nanosatellite bus M6P,” NanoAvionics, 13 May 2019, URL: https://nanoavionics.com
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).