From Farming to Physics: The Wide Variety in Applications for Smallsats

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Credit: Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2017), processed by ESA,CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Since 2012, smallsats have received increased attention: more than 1,000 small satellites were launched between 2012 and 2017. The boom in Earth observation data companies and the potential for telecommunications and science missions with small satellites, as well as interest from both commercial and government organizations, are proving the wide applicability of these tiny spacecraft.

Certain end-user verticals are beginning to benefit from the data and technical possibilities provided by small satellites. Here, we have outlined some of these applications and their unique developments.


Enhancing the Work of Farmers

The rise in small satellites and Earth observation missions are helping the agricultural technology industry, also known as agtech or agritech. Satellite imagery allows for precision farming, helping farmers gain insight into the growth of crops and the status of their soil. Satellite images can also provide detailed information on how many acres have already been harvested, as well as being able to get a good sense of the health of crops and when they are ready for harvest. If any issues arise, even on a large scale, farmers can raise the alarm about crop failures, preparing people elsewhere about potential scarcity for certain products. The big data provided from satellite images could potentially increase a farmer’s production by 5-6%.

While monitoring crops and soil are important, keeping an eye on the weather is not something to forget about. Awareness of certain weather patterns or developments could assist farmers in decision-making on the best time to start growing or harvesting crops. Earth observation data can also assist farmers in determining when their crops need watering, and by how much.

Many companies are currently providing data from space to farmers, including Earth-I, Greenspin Agri Planet, and Rezatec, among many others.


Connecting the Unconnected and Providing Improved Connectivity

Telecommunications have long been enhanced by the satellite industry. As small satellites are being implemented for a variety of applications, the telecommunications industry is also looking at how constellations in low Earth orbit (LEO) could be used to increase connectivity globally. Areas of development include providing broadband to certain areas on Earth to narrow the digital divide, as well as improved maritime and aviation connectivity.

Recently, several satellite manufacturers that manufacture large, geostationary orbit buses have started to move towards smaller satellites – a move resulting from operator requests. Dario Zamarian, group president at SSL, expects a growth in the demand for smaller satellites for commercial and government applications, including telecommunications. Other ‘conventional’ telecommunications satellite manufacturers are following suit, including Boeing and Thales Alenia Space. There also appears to be growth in interest in small satellites from telecom operators.


Overcoming Physics Challenges and Making Science Missions More Inclusive

In August 2018, NASA announced it is going to increase its use of small satellites for science missions as part of a $100 million small satellite project.

Earlier in the year, the agency announced it was calling on scientists in the space community to come up with technology ideas about how to incorporate telescope technologies into smallsats, the Astrophysics Science Smallsat Studies. Another NASA project is Mars Cube One, a technology demonstration smallsat intended to carry out navigation and communication experiments.

It can be tricky to miniaturize technology for science missions. However, as pointed out by Physics World, the development of smallsat science missions allows for students and government agencies to become involved in such missions. Many of the current large missions are extremely expensive, placing them out of reach of countries or organizations that have fewer funds available for projects.

So, what’s next? It is expected that the smallsat market will continue to grow over the next decade. The growth in these missions is likely to enhance many more areas, such as intelligence and disaster management. With the growth in smallsats, certain challenges must be addressed in the coming years, such as the launch bottleneck, as well as the potential issues that come with launching a large number of smallsat constellations into LEO.