Tuesday, August 11, 2020

What Next for Navigation and Communication on the Oceans as New System Takes Shape?

Musk Shapes Up for Low Orbit Technology Revolution
Shipping News Feature

US – WORLDWIDE – What is it about Elon Musk? Whilst the rest of us debate about electric and autonomous vehicles, he turns Tesla into the world's 'most valuable' car manufacturer, bypassing Toyota. With stock valued at almost $210 billion that means a company that has never recorded a profit overtaking a rival that sold thirty times more cars last year with 1000% more revenues.

Musk has his own, sometimes controversial, opinions. He dismissed hydrogen fuel cells just as everyone else was starting to accept the technology ('mind bogglingly stupid' no less), but his SpaceX corporation has seen off the competition which foundered for lack of funds and now his latest idea is to use the group, with which he plans to colonise Mars, for another fund raising venture.

So what you say? So the guy is launching the odd rocket. Not so, up to now Musk’s operation has sent over 500 into space and now he is basically the only man in town. Whilst the likes of Sir Richard Branson tells every year how Virgin Galactic is just about ready to roll, SpaceX has permits from the US authorities to send 12,000 out there, and now he’s asked the relevant UN telecommunications agency via the US Federal Communications Commission for another 30,000!

Now all this activity building a ‘constellation’ of satellites must have a purpose you say, and indeed it does. Whilst almost everyone on a budget uses SpaceX to fire their technology at the heavens, this time it’s Musk whose diddy little 260 kilogramme satellites are being stacked into his own re-useable Falcon 9 rockets and deployed to serve his latest programme, Starlink.

The purpose? SatNav and Broadband the answer, something to which I hear you say; 'But surely, we already have those?' Well yes, but not everywhere, as anyone who travels on the open oceans or to some of earth’s farthest flung reaches will tell you, communications from above can be more than a little unreliable at times. With satellites orbiting at 35,000 kilometres above the earth they each cover large swathes of the planet, and not always comprehensively.

Starlink craft are less than 2,000 kilometres up, and now are scheduled to circuit at just 550, meaning clearer, faster comms and (so they say) no ground based infrastructure to cause problems (that’s a puzzling statement as Starlink apparently uses ground based transceivers).There is however a drawback, and it’s not a little one. Whilst the higher a satellite the more coverage it can offer, a lower orbit results in a restricted window of coverage, hence you need many more satellites to achieve overall availability of the signals. That’s thousands flying around as opposed to less than ten for global coverage.

As you would expect the Starlink profile is a slick piece of marketing, ticking all the boxes. Space junk? Don’t worry, no long thousand year deorbit, the small units are steered into a suitable course when defunct and worst way still burn up within 5 years. No concerns either we are told with crashing into any of the multiple trash we have surrounded our planet with. The US Department of Defense itself supplies debris tracking and the Starlink units autonomously take avoidance action, a la Tesla..

The PR then takes on a Superman feel, ‘Starlink is the first krypton propelled spacecraft ever flown’ (we didn’t make that up). So what does this mean for the ocean shipping industry? Although there is talk of this being an expensive option aimed at the yachts of billionaires it is hard to see how that will pay for itself.

More likely we feel that the extent of the broadband signal could mean a price war, Musk’s company will need a very long list of customers and, Tesla aside, most investors would look for a fair return. The broadband market grows ever stronger and the world needs competing satellite navigation systems for security, Britain has enough concerns over this issue as Brexit looms.

Despite the public being allowed to use the current EU programmes Galileo and EGNOS, the UK can no longer use Galileo (including the future Public Regulated Service (PRS)) for defence or critical national infrastructure, nor have any part in further development. Latest UK government information on this can be seen here.

One point to note is that there is an interdependence in this Starlink constellation scenario between the US authorities and the interests of Elon Musk. Starlink intends to include military purchasers within its client portfolio and Washington will be watching closely with the first part of the service due to become operational over the Northern US and Canada this month.

Photo: Starlink satellites in space stacked into a SpaceX delivery rocket for deployment in different locations and orbits (think of an Uberpool with extra-terrestrial delivery points). A normal payload is sixty satellites.