6 mins read 21 Aug 2020

Fleet wins grant to help explore sites on Earth and beyond

Fleet Space has received $275 000 from the South Australian Government to optimise mining exploration in collaboration with Adelaide-based mining company OZ Minerals.

Fleet’s ground station, opened in July 2018 in Red Banks Reservoir, Pinkerton Plains. Its job is to track and transmit data from nanosatellites in space. Credit: Fleet Space

A successful grant for space

In an age when industrial demand for more efficient, contactless and sustainable technologies is at its peak, the $2.9m funding pool provided by the Department of Energy and Mining Accelerated Discovery Initiative (ADI) is timely to say the least. 

Fleet Space Technologies is the only space-focused company that has won a share of the ADI’s first round of funding. Co-founded by CEO Flavia Tata Nadini and COO Matthew Pearson, Fleet has been tasked with developing large arrays of wireless sensors to remotely map terrestrial heat flow. The sensors will provide data on the geophysical characteristics of the region, thereby informing the viability of potential mining sites for Adelaide-based mining company, OZ Minerals.

Ironing out the mining problem

The Australian energy and mining sector is competitive, challenging and crucial to the national economy. 

To explore a site, mining companies utilise sensors that detect properties such as the thermal, seismic and metallurgical characteristics of the Earth's crust. Traditionally, these sensors are costly, labour intensive, and require deep drilling into the land, which disrupts the surrounding natural environment. While sensor data exists for many sites already, the Earth is a dynamic place, which means that the existing data is outdated and obsolete. 

Even when the data has been collected, the transmission of this data is difficult in remote areas where ground stations are sparse and connectivity is unreliable.

A drilling jumbo, used for underground mining. Credit: Creative Commons, via Holger.Ellgaard


This is where Fleet comes in. 

In partnership with The University of Adelaide and The University of Melbourne, Fleet is developing new needle-shaped heat sensors which are no larger than a bottle of hand sanitiser. They will be implemented in a large array at 10km intervals with minimal environmental disruption. While this project is almost completely Adelaide based, this technology is applicable worldwide.

Set to be deployed within the next few months, with results by the end of the year, the sensors will enable OZ minerals to locate heat flow anomalies associated with ores of uranium and Iron Oxide Copper Gold (IOCG). These elements are often found together due to the nature of mineral formation in the Earth’s crust.

Massive IoT for a massive revolution

Fleet specialises in the manufacturing of low-cost nanosatellites which work in tandem with the Internet of Things (IoT). Nanosatellites are defined as satellites that range from 1kg to 10kg in mass, and can include cubesats, which can range from a 10cm cube in size (1U) to something six times that size (6U). The IoT is a relatively new term that refers to a network of wirelessly connected devices which provide information to an end-user. It is predicted to revolutionise the way we monitor, survey and track things in our daily lives as well as in industry. 

Fleet's CEO, Flavia, aptly describes the emergence of IoT as an “industrial revolution”, predicting that “IoT will change the world in the next 20 years... in the way we live in our daily lives, in our buildings, cities and homes.”

Fleet specialises in ‘Massive IoT’, so named because of the sheer number of sensors involved, often in the millions. These sensors are generally more energy efficient than the average IoT sensor; in fact, Fleet’s sensors will be operational for years in the field. The tradeoff is that the transmission is low-rate, intermittent and potentially delayed between the sensor and the end-user, but these properties are of little concern when it comes to monitoring heat flow underground.

The applications of IoT technology are endless. In fact, they extend beyond the confines of Earth itself. According to Flavia, space scientists will be able to use a similar sort of sensor to better understand the terrestrial environments on the Moon and Mars, which is crucial for the future of human space exploration and even in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU) on these bodies.

If humans are to safely and successfully live on other worlds such as Mars, an understanding of the landscape and geology is crucial. Credit: NASA Johnson

The story of Fleet

Fleet was conceived in 2015 out of the vision that IoT would be a technological game-changer. That foresight has since enabled the company to go from strength to strength. “We started with early adopters, and now we are working with big enterprises in critical infrastructures. So it’s a big responsibility,” Flavia says.

With its impressive portfolio of achievements thus far, it may come as a surprise that Fleet is celebrating its fifth birthday only this month. The company prides itself on its agile and people-focused nature, with its 40 employees largely based in South Australia. 

In 2018 alone, Fleet launched four nanosatellites, and it plans to launch three more next year on a SpaceX rocket. Furthermore, in 2019, the company booked 3 million sensors on the IoT network to integrate into their remote sensing system. The grand goal, says Flavia, is to start mass-producing nano satellites, and to eventually have 100 Fleet satellites in orbit by launching up to ten at a time.

The Fleet team is a close-knit crew, headed by CEO Flavia Tata Nardini (front left), with COO Matthew Pearson standing behind her. The payloads shown are the Centauri 3 nanosatellite and its backup. Credit: Fleet Space Technologies

Launch as the rate-limiting step

With a nod to Australian rocket and launch companies Gilmour Space, Equatorial Launch Australia, and Southern Launch, as well as to New Zealand’s Rocket Lab which has already launched some of Fleet’s satellites, Flavia is optimistic about the future of launch in Australia. “It’s a big country and we have a lot of knowledge.”

However, with the rate of satellite production far exceeding launch frequency worldwide, she also acknowledges that “rockets are the bottleneck of our industry… we’re always waiting for rockets.”

Indeed, Flavia’s statement echoes the voices of many men, women and children who raise their hands at space forums and public seminars, wondering whether they will be able to witness an Australian rocket launching from home soil.

Fleet’s maiden voyage, on 11 November 2018. Proxima I & II Launched on Rocketlab’s It’s Business Time Mission. Credit: RocketLab, via Fleet

Some words for the aspiring

For the young and not-so-young citizens of the new space age, Flavia has some encouraging words: those who are passionate about pursuing a career in space should “just do it. It’s the most amazing industry.”

Furthermore, it may be reassuring to hear that innovation and lateral thinking are in fact encouraged, and even mandatory, when it comes to the exploration of new worlds:

“There are no crazy ideas in the space industry, just ideas… because [at the end of the day], people are going to Mars.”