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Swarms of smart nano-satellites may offer global connectivity

Sharon Gaudin | Sept. 16, 2015
Using artificial intelligence and satellites the size of a loaf of bread could be a game changer for space industry

NASA CubeSats
A set of NanoRacks CubeSats is photographed by an Expedition 38 crew member. Credit: NASA

One day we may have global connectivity -- even in the remotest parts of the world -- thanks to teams of tiny, intelligent, swarming satellites called CubeSats.

In an industry that doesn't like change and definitely doesn't like to rely on the latest and greatest in technology, CubeSats appear to be changing the game for the space industry.

And one of the things these cube-shaped satellites could be changing in the next 10 years is how to help people in impoverished or remote parts of the world get long-sought Internet access.

"I think we could use CubeSats for Internet connectivity," said Craig Clark, founder and CEO of Clyde Space Ltd. "If you're in an area of the world with censored Internet service, suddenly you have service that nobody can switch off." The service comes with "fairly low data rates and it wouldn't really be Internet yet because it's just one-way -- but eventually it will be two-way so you can ask for specific content."

Clark has been working with the folks at Outernet, a U.S.-based start-up focused on providing free content access via satellites that circle closely around the earth.

"They have the ideas for their applications and services, and we make their ideas a reality," said Clark, who was in St. Louis last week speaking at DARPA's Wait, what? Forum on future technologies. "It could be a game changer."

The challenge of getting Internet access to the two out of three people around the world who don't have access to a fast and affordable connection has been a major project for a lot of researchers, including some working at high-tech powerhouses Google and Facebook.

Google, for instance, has been working with high-altitude balloons flying around the globe on stratospheric winds about 12.4 miles above the Earth.

Facebook, which like Google would like to bring more people online so they can be added to their rosters of monthly users, is working with drones to bring Internet access to remote areas.

Small satellites, according to Clark, would be good for this usage because they're far less expensive to build and launch than traditional satellites and they can be used in intelligent "swarms."

Based in Glasgow, Scotland, Clyde Space is focused on designing and building small and micro-sized spacecraft systems. Right now the company is building about 4 CubeSats a month, but Clark hopes they'll increase production to five to 10 per month by this time next year.


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