5 mins read 03 Apr 2021

Fleet Space launches its Fifth IoT nanosatellite into Orbit

Fleet Space Technologies has successfully launched its fifth Internet of Things (IoT) nanosatellite while also applying for a $5 million grant under the Federal Government’s Modern Manufacturing Initiative (MMI).

Fleet's Centauri 3 nanosatellite. Credit: Fleet Space

Late last month, Fleet Space launched its latest nanosatellite, the Centauri 3, from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand on a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle, “They Go Up So Fast”, alongside three other Australian payloads. This is Fleet’s fifth IoT nanosatellite, and 25th payload, to enter low-Earth orbit (LEO) since the company’s inception in 2016. 

Building on the Adelaide-based company’s previous satellites, Centauri 3 will be able to deliver a much greater number of signals and messages over any given time, making it an extremely valuable service to customers around the world. 

It sports a lightweight, 3D-printed beam-steering antenna which was manufactured in Switzerland due to its highly specialised design. In addition, it runs on a computer server driven by artificial intelligence, all confined in a 6-unit CubeSat (the size of a shoebox).

A satellite for industrial infrastructure

Rocket Lab launched its Electron rocket, carrying several Australian payloads including the Centauri 3. Credit: Rocket Lab

As part of what will eventually be a constellation of 140 satellites, its job will be to link remote sensors on Earth which continuously monitor critical infrastructure in real-time, including mine sites, gas pipelines and electrical pylons. 

Fleet has formed partnerships with multiple organisations that manage this infrastructure: for example, the company is already set to monitor over 700km of pipeline owned by the Australian energy company SEA Gas. While it is easy to take our energy infrastructure for granted, the upkeep of such extensive networks is labour-intensive and costly. Using Industrial IoT technology, tiny remote sensors can communicate with LEO satellites like the Centauri 3, eliminating the need for a human to travel long distances to the site, thus reducing overhead costs and introducing more efficient risk mitigation strategies that can provide real-time data.

“The Centauri 3 nanosatellite, our fifth commercial nanosatellite and our most advanced payload yet, will be joined by two more this year and a further 16 during 2022 and 2023,” says Fleet Space CEO and co-founder, Ms Flavia Tata Nardini.

Fleet has partnered with the the South Eastern Australia (SEA) Gas Pipeline System which runs from Adelaide to Port Campbell in Victoria. Credit: Energy News Bulletin

“The Centauri 3 nanosatellite, our fifth commercial nanosatellite and our most advanced payload yet, will be joined by two more this year and a further 16 during 2022 and 2023,” says Fleet Space CEO and co-founder, Ms Flavia Tata Nardini.

This plan is just the beginning: Fleet hopes to be part of a satellite constellation numbering not in the tens, but in the hundreds. To offer a reliable Industrial IoT capability, the company believes that 140 satellites would be required in total, which may generate a lifetime revenue of \$1.82 billion according to Flavia. 

Because of the friction between LEO satellites and the particles in the atmosphere (albeit thin), in addition to degradation of the battery and equipment within the payload itself, 50 of these nanosatellites would need to be replaced every year. With such an ambitious goal ahead and a high turnover rate of satellites, it is no surprise that Fleet now aims to broaden its horizons.

Applying for the MMI Grant

Fleet aims to quadruple the size of its team by 2024. Credit: Fleet Space

To increase its manufacturing capability, Fleet Space Technologies has also applied for a \$5 Million grant from the Australian Federal government under the Modern Manufacturing Initiative (MMI). 

An initiative by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, this grant would allow Fleet to become a major satellite manufacturing hub. Part of this plan would be the construction of a new factory with more than twice the current floorspace for research, development and manufacturing of cutting-edge nanosatellites. Staff numbers would also quadruple, from 31 to 128 in the next three years.

“Our manufacturing rate is very low,” says Flavia. “Australia lacks many of the manufacturing capabilities its industry needs to build satellite payloads and the satellites themselves. And we certainly can’t produce them in volume. We want to establish these manufacturing capabilities here in Adelaide so that we can kick-start Australia’s space industry.”

It is not only the number of satellites but also the wider local space and technology industry that would benefit from winning this grant.

Hopes for a home-grown manufacturing industry

“At present, every satellite launched by an Australian company is hand-made, and many of the components come from overseas,” says Flavia. This includes the aforementioned antennas, such as that of Centauri 3, as well as the highly complex circuit boards (Printed Circuit Board Assemblies or PCBAs), which need to be 26 layers deep to serve their intended purpose. Currently, Australian companies can only make 12 layers.

One of Flavia’s objectives is to redirect the entire development chain back to home soil, which means making the antennas and the PCBAs in Australia. 

“Winning this grant would mean Fleet Space and its partners can develop and manufacture the smartest parts of future satellites right here in Australia and provide an Australian service to a worldwide customer base,” says Ms Tata Nardini. “Only a handful of companies worldwide such as SpaceX and Airbus have the capacity to mass-produce satellites. We can join them if we move quickly.”

To be a leader in nanosatellite design, prototyping and manufacturing means shooting for the stars, and Fleet Space is demonstrating its ability to do so, both literally and figuratively.