Proposed Starlink coverage as of November, 2019 (Image: SpaceX)

By Rhae Adams, VP of Strategy & Business Development

Starlink satellites before launch (Image: SpaceX)

Today, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket for the 76th time. For only the second time, inside the fairing wasn’t a customer payload, but 60 tabletop sized satellites attempting to bring about a revolution in the way internet is delivered to the planet. These (now) 120 satellites collectively form the beginnings of one of the largest constellations ever proposed: Starlink.

Internet Satellites: An Overview

Starlink is one of many so-called ‘mega-constellations’ proposed by a new generation of technology companies. Other competitors includes Amazon’s Project Kuiper and OneWeb, both who aim to build constellations of similar size and specifications.

There are, of course, satellite internet providers operating today (ViaSat and Echostar being the largest). There is also a history of failed attempts, most notably, a Microsoft-backed startup called Teledesic founded in the 1990s.

So what’s different about Starlink and others? And what makes them so sure they can succeed today?

One of the most significant differences between internet satellites operating today and the new constellations is location. ViaSat and Echostar operate what are called geostationary satellites, sitting about 35,000 km from the surface of the Earth. In space, location equals latency, which means today, it takes about half a second for a request to be beamed out to geo and get back down to Earth.

Starlink is attempting to match the latency of fiber by locating its satellites in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), or around 550 km from the surface, bringing latency to ~25 ms. To completely blanket the Earth, Starlink will need to grow to 12,000 individual satellites, more than 6X the total number of total operational spacecraft orbit around the planet today.

The ultimate goal: bring high-speed, low-latency, and affordable internet to the entire planet by 2027, with service in the US and Canada starting in 2020.

Mining & Metals: Thinking about the Next Decade

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of risks to such mega-constellations getting off the ground, becoming operational, and finding a customer base worth the billions of dollars required to build the infrastructure. How many constellations and which operators will succeed is still very much to be seen.

Rather than focus on the challenges ahead for SpaceX and others, it is worth considering what such a capability might provide to an industry all too familiar with operating globally in remote locations. According to First Mode’s analysis, there is likely such an insatiable need for bandwidth in the next decade that customers will exist everywhere. However, remote users will feel the biggest change to their internet connectivity.

At its core, Starlink hopes to solve two problems:

“Light can travel through the vacuum of space almost 50% faster than it can move inside a fiber optic cable.”

  1. A lack of affordable and omnipresent connection

  2. The lag between remote locations

Mining companies are no strangers to these issues, routinely running private fiber networks to isolated operations to enable technology like teleoperation and autonomous operations. Not only are these systems expensive, but they too are limited by the physics involved.

In fact, light can travel through the vacuum of space almost 50% faster than it can move inside a fiber optic cable. Once fully operational, this means that Starlink could move information around the planet at nearly the speed of light, overcoming the limitations of fiber. Having a more direct path also helps this issue, as the distance between nodes is much shorter in the proposed constellation.

High-Performance Communications Require a Hybrid Solution

Starlink is just an enabler for mining operators. As sites transition in the 2020s to more automated operations, there is a direct need for better reliability, coverage across the site, reduced latency, better accuracy and positioning, and with all of that, more bandwidth. All of these requirements justify the need for a high-performance communication solution.

While WiFi does a suitable job of enabling basic automation today, it is a technology that was never designed for outdoor coverage over the huge distances found in surface and underground operations. 4G and 5G bring considerable boosts to bandwidth and positioning constraints, but still rely on a physical connection for remote locations. Satellites require relatively low infrastructure investments by the site but are obviously not suitable for underground operations.

“To maintain coverage for all corners of an operation, architecting a system that makes use of all available technology, including WiFi, 4G, 5G, and satellite internet will yield the best overall performance.”

Starlink’s 4 phased array antennas, which communicate with Earth via ground stations (Image: SpaceX)

What is clear is that operators will need a hybrid solution, the complexity of which is likely to vary by location. Satellites are the clear winner in some cases, a partial solution in others, or even as redundancy to other primary sources. To maintain coverage for all corners of an operation, architecting a system that makes use of all available technology, including WiFi, 4G, 5G, and satellite internet, will yield the best overall performance.

This gives operators the flexibility to design a system that hits all of their needs, making use of the strengths each solution brings and mitigating the challenges. For example, a remote operation in Western Australia might use:

  • Satellite internet to perform data backhaul, increase bandwidth, and lower latency (avoiding fiber)

  • A local 5G network to communicate with autonomous equipment

  • GPS and 5G for precision positioning

  • Edge computing for onboard processing of data

  • WiFi for use in buildings / offices

  • A combination of technologies to bring redundancy to the site and improve reliability

Such a system would need input and hardware from a multitude of vendors, suppliers, and operators. While complex, it satisfies all requirements and enables the change the industry hopes to see in the decade to come.

Starlink Costs: A Preview

Sometimes, the biggest constraint at a site isn’t a technical one, but the overall cost. While there is no published price for service at this point, some information has been provided by SpaceX. This includes OPEX and CAPEX.

Traditionally, satellite companies have offered their services for around $5/MB, almost 5,000 times more expensive than a traditional ADSL link. Starlink hopes to not only match the $1/GB that is readily available, but to offer it for much less, close to $0.10/GB if Gwynne Shotwell’s projections are to be believed.

Once operational, users will also need to purchase a ground station to communicate with Starlink satellites as they pass overhead. Starlink uses what are known as phased array antennas (pictured right), which would communicate with Earth via user-purchasable terminals. Elon Musk, CEO Of SpaceX, says users will connect to Starlink with terminals that cost about $200 and can steer an antenna beam without moving parts. “It basically looks like a sort of a small- to medium-size pizza.”

If true, this could mean individual pieces of equipment could connect directly to Starlink satellites, bypassing the need for a local network altogether. Given the need for the terminal to see the sky, however, it is likely that redundancy provided by a local network would be required. Information about ground terminals is still scant at this point but does give a sense for size, scale, and most importantly, cost.

With a planned 9 additional launches (60 satellites in each) in 2020, it’s something the mining industry should be keeping an eye on. As more players enter the market and details about each are revealed, it may prove to be another tool in the industry’s quest for fully autonomous and safe operations.

Thanks to Loren for the edits!

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