Nicole Russo, VP Product Management at Myriota, on Direct-to-Satellite IoT

3rd Jul 2024
Nicole Russo, VP Product Management at Myriota, on Direct-to-Satellite IoT

The integration of IoT and the space industry is occurring on several levels. Direct-to-Satellite IoT in particular is opening possibilities in use cases where using other telecoms technologies were considered either too expensive or too difficult. IoT pioneer Myriota was one of the first to commercialize Direct-to-Satellite IoT solutions, and their VP Product Management Nicole Russo spoke to Orbital Today about how this connection looks these days.

OT: How did Myriota come about?

Nicole Russo: Myriota comes from a really strong background in telecommunications expertise. The research was done initially at the University of South Australia, in the Institute for Telecommunications Research. The founders have deep expertise in the development of telecommunications protocols, particularly for satellite communications and the needs of IoT.

There was a real gap. Satellite technology itself is nothing new, but it’s very expensive and it’s very high power, making it incompatible with the requirements of IoT, and that’s what they set out to solve. They started with a market problem that they knew they could solve, and developed the communications protocols about ten years ago. We were one of the first to demonstrate connectivity of its kind, direct to satellite, for IoT. We’ve been running the commercial network now for five years or so, culminating in the Flex Sense, which is our latest product.

OT: I’m really curious about how you can get the satellite to pick up a signal that’s at what, a couple milliwatts maybe, at 400MHz.

Nicole Russo: It’s a challenging problem, given the high power nature of traditional satellite communications. One part of the equation is the use of LEO satellites rather than GEO satellites, which gives you a smaller gap to close. Another is the probabilistic nature of the protocol. Rather than having a handshake between the device and the satellite, which is inherently quite energy consumptive, the Myriota module maintains an internal calendar of when the satellites will be overhead. At the right time, it can turn on and transmit. This enables our modules to remain asleep for as long as possible, thus minimizing power usage.

This creates a hard problem to solve, because with millions of deployed devices, you get this layering effect of signals. That’s where the true power of our protocol comes into play. We’re able to take a big chunk of bandwidth that contains many, many signals, all overlapping and mixed in with other kinds of interference, pick out individual messages from the noise and deliver those to our customers at the other side.

OT: What is your satellite constellation like?

Nicole Russo: Our constellation is a mix of our own satellites and assets from our Space-as-a-Service partners. One of our early investors, exactEarth, enabled us to use their assets to test and demonstrate the technology in the real world, which gave us a significant competitive advantage. This meant that from really early on, we were testing in the field, using real space infrastructure.      .

Building and launching your own satellites is very costly, very high risk and can be a distraction when your core mission is to deliver the best data connectivity for IoT. For this reason, we’ve gone down the path of complementing our own assets with Space-as-a-Service to develop a robust and flexible space infrastructure.

OT: I previously read that you were looking for a total constellation of about 50 satellites. Do you still feel like you need that number to say you have your entire network?

Nicole Russo: The more assets you add, the better your service gets in performance and in terms of resilience. I think the important part of any satellite constellation is diversity. So, we will continue to add satellites both from our partners and our own. We don’t need 50 to get to the level of service that we were aiming for, but it definitely helps in making sure that when you do have things like solar events, that your network is as resilient as possible.

OT: What were some of the other nuts to crack while this was being developed?

Nicole Russo: One of the things we learned early on is when you start working with your commercial customers, you’ve got your die-hard makers who want to get their price point down as low as possible. So, they want our module. They’re not interested in us providing more than that.

But there’s a segment of the market for which the hardware development process is expensive and time consuming. It can be a dark art, especially when it comes to creating high performing RF systems. It’s not necessarily something that IoT solution providers want or need to do.

We went down the path of building a device that would allow them to skip that part and we had some early success with our previous product, which was our Sense & Locate. But we also learnt a lot during that process about how it needs to be easy to deploy. It needs to “just work”. When people take it out of the box, they want the option of having the firmware preloaded for them, and they want more interface types on the same device. We took all those learnings and built them into the product.

Understanding the market requirements and trying to hit as many of those as possible with one device is really challenging. You need to make deliberate choices about which use cases you’re going to target.

What we’ve come up with is really exciting. We’ve gotten really great feedback from our customers so far; they appreciate that it’s very flexible. It means that they can buy one device and if their customer needs tank level monitoring, pollution monitoring for soil or water, or they want to monitor the open and closing of a toilet door, they’ve got the hardware for the solution. They don’t have to create five different devices to meet their customer’s needs.

OT: How does deployment change now with this product? How does it differ from what it was like before?

Nicole Russo: One of the challenges is that when you take a piece of hardware and give it to your customer, the device is a little bit like a black box to them. They just want it to work. They don’t want to think about how they get the data, they just want to see the data flowing through to their end point.

We learned with our early devices was that it wasn’t as easy to maintain the device in the field as it needed to be. The idea is that people deploy those devices for five to ten years, change the batteries in the field. You had to open up the enclosure and expose some of the electronics. The idea is that people deployed those devices to last for 5 to 10 years, but customers still need to be able to easily update and maintain the device when it suits them. So you’ve got to accommodate that, such as having entry points to the device where you can change the battery without having to completely unmount the device. We added a Bluetooth interface so that people are able to configure the devices via a phone app, rather than having to plug it into a laptop.

Making it easy for them to understand what a good install looks like was one of the challenges. Less experienced installers might not realize the importance of a good sky view. The antenna needs to be pointing upwards, and with a view of as much sky as possible. These things seem obvious to us, but you cannot assume that knowledge is going to be in the field where everyday people are deploying IoT devices.

We’re creating tools around that deployment process to help our customers so that they’re getting success the first time. It costs money to install devices in remote locations, and if they have to send someone out to move them or change them or reconfigure them, that’s more money out the door. We take that really seriously, and are focused on delivering a ‘just works’ experience in the field.

OT: Regarding the May 10-11 solar storm, how was the network affected?

Nicole Russo: We saw impacts of that on network performance. The beauty of having diversity in our space assets, as we do, is that we can recover from such events really quickly. Our modules have a degree of self-learning at the edge. More repetitions can be sent to get the messages through.

I think the whole industry felt the impact. And we’re in a bad decade for this, unfortunately. All satellite providers need to be aware that this is going to keep happening. You can throw up your hands and say, “oh, well, that’s life. Space is hard.” But there are ways you can get around it as a provider, with diversity and redundancy in your space infrastructure and improving your protocols. And that’s how we’re dealing with it. It’s our job to get better at providing a stable service to our customers because it’s not their fault that space is hard.

I’m not going to say that our customers don’t feel any pain, they do. But what is important is that we’re building towards regenerative networks, with smart protocols and redundancy, so we can mitigate the impact of these events both in the sky and on the ground.

Thank you!

Orbital Today would like to thank Nicole Russo for taking the time to describe the current state of Direct-to-Satellite IoT, Myriota style, for us.

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