IoT Tech Expo: Accelerating sustainability with satellites

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During this year’s IoT Tech Expo North America, we heard from Jat Brainch, Chief Commercial and Digital Officer at Inmarsat, about how satellites can accelerate sustainability.

Satellite technology has emerged as a powerful tool in driving sustainability efforts across various sectors. From revolutionising agriculture practices to reducing carbon emissions, satellites offer immense potential in advancing environmental goals.

In Australia, for instance, Inmarsat’s partner Farmbot is using satellites to monitor and optimise farm operations, eliminating the need for physical visits to remote locations. By leveraging satellite data, farmers can efficiently manage cattle, improve irrigation systems, and enhance crop yields—leading to increased food production and reduced wastage.

“Rather than shipping food from one location to another, we’re actually helping people to grow crops more efficiently in their home location. So we stopped the emissions twice: making the land more productive and stopping the food being needed to ship around the world,” says Brainch.

The smart use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices further complements satellite technology in achieving sustainability objectives.

IoT systems enable intelligent monitoring and analysis of agricultural processes, allowing farmers to make data-driven decisions to enhance crop yields and soil quality. This approach not only minimises wastage but also promotes local food production and reduces the need for long-distance transportation and the associated greenhouse gas emissions.

The energy sector is another area where satellite technology plays a crucial role in sustainability initiatives. With a significant portion of global CO2 emissions attributed to energy production, optimising energy generation and consumption is paramount.

By adopting satellite-based monitoring systems, Brainch explains that the sector can streamline energy production, reduce waste, and increase efficiency. This involves efficient utilisation of resources like oil and gas in transportation and optimising asset management to minimise leakage and enhance process efficiency.

However, the widespread adoption of satellite technology faces two main challenges: awareness, and concerns about sustainability.

Many stakeholders are unaware of the extensive applications and impact of satellite technology in driving sustainability. Addressing this issue requires collaborative efforts between organisations, NGOs, and international bodies to promote awareness and encourage the utilisation of existing satellite assets.

Moreover, concerns regarding the environmental impact of launching satellites into space need to be addressed.

Addressing environmental concerns

While satellite technology offers numerous benefits, the launch process itself relies on rocket fuel and generates significant emissions. Responsible satellite asset management is crucial to ensure these assets are utilised effectively throughout their lifespan.

Furthermore, regulating space activities and preventing the accumulation of unused or obsolete satellites is essential to avoid congesting the Earth’s orbit—leading to increasing collision dangers and impacting endeavours like astronomy.

To tackle these challenges, international cooperation is necessary to establish regulations and frameworks for sustainable space utilisation. 

“There are over 11,000 manmade objects orbiting in space. That number will get to over 100,000 by the end of this decade. That’s not just satellites, it’s monitoring systems, it’s space stations, it’s things that are actually changing the way we operate,” explains Brainch.

“That’s okay because there should be a value back into Earth, but one of the things that we’re also doing is thinking about how we can make that regulated in a way that doesn’t go too far and discourage assets being put in space.”

Governments, organisations, and stakeholders need to work together to determine ownership, accountability, and responsibility for space activities. By proactively addressing these issues, the sustainability of both Earth and space can be ensured.

“LEO [satellites] sit much closer to the Earth but you have to put so much more into the atmosphere to get the kind of coverage that we have at higher altitudes. What goes up eventually comes down, but normally what it does is burn up on re-entry,” adds Brainch.

“We don’t know entirely what happens and what the environmental impact is when those assets reenter the cyber sphere. So one of the things we’re looking at is something that is known as the Kessler effect … if we genuinely push up another 100,000 assets over the next few years, the atmosphere gets very, very congested and we don’t know what happens to the Earth’s ability to continue to cleanse itself.”

The Kessler effect, as a quick primer, was proposed by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler in 1978 and envisions a scenario in which the density of objects in low-Earth orbit due to space pollution is high enough that collisions between objects could cause a cascade in which each collision generates space debris that increases the likelihood of further collisions.

Achieving net-zero targets

Satellite technology has the potential to accelerate the journey towards achieving net-zero targets. By leveraging existing satellite assets and expanding their reach, significant reductions in carbon emissions can be achieved. The adoption of satellite technology in various sectors can contribute to carbon reduction goals, improve food production efficiency, mitigate hotspots, and improve human health.

“Full adoption of existing technology can bring that [net-zero] target forward by a whole decade. That reduces the impact on people, the environment, the efficiency of our food production systems, reducing the impact of high temperatures on people’s health, all of that is achievable today,” says Brainch.

“By taking the existing technology and pushing it out further, reaching more people, driving up adoption rates, utilising assets such as tracking of transportation, thinking about how we use monitoring tools to improve the yields of crops … that is a further reduction of four billion tons of CO2, bring net-zero to about 2040.”

Partnerships are also crucial in realising sustainability objectives. By collaborating and leveraging expertise, innovative solutions can be developed and implemented more efficiently, expediting the path to a greener future.

Inmarsat says its ELEVATE program is a prime example of such collaboration, bringing together stakeholders from the agriculture, logistics, maritime, and aviation sectors to drive sustainability efforts. By harnessing the power of satellite technology and partnering with like-minded organisations, Inmarsat aims to achieve ambitious environmental targets and create a more sustainable world.

By embracing satellite technology and fostering collaboration, we can harness its immense potential to accelerate sustainability, reduce carbon emissions, and build a more resilient and environmentally-conscious future.

Related: Jat Brainch, Inmarsat: On tackling modern challenges with next-gen connectivity

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