Three weeks before speaking at IoT Tracking Summit (Oct 20-21, 2020), Chris Gray, Vice President Emerging Technologies at Globalstar, shared with us some thoughts about his company, satellite communications, IoT and emerging GPS tracking businesses.
Chris, as a starter, can you tell me a bit about yourself, what was your career path before joining Globalstar and what is your role today?
I have been in the communications industry for 25 years now, starting out in London, England supporting messaging and automated telex solutions for secure business communications. I then joined Globe Wireless and worked there for 16 years in various roles ending up as the VP of Marketing and Business Development. That job took me to The Netherlands initially where we supported the commercial maritime industry with a HF global radio network for email. In most cases ships and the offices did not even know what email was or why they would need it, a very different world then! Now that is the norm of course.
I then moved to the US after just over a year in The Netherlands with Globe Wireless and we added satellite communications and we were agnostic allowing all types of satellite systems and technology to work with our onboard software and back offices. One technology that revolutionized the commercial shipping industry was our ability to enable cellular calls to be transmitted over the satellite link. We went from zero to 5,000 vessels in two years and was a great success with an average of 20,000 crew members a month using the service.
Now at Globalstar for over 6 years I have had several roles and currently I am the VP of Emerging Technologies dealing with business development, new ideas and longer term project and strategy, etc. IoT is the one area that everyone is talking about and something I am deeply involved in. A unique aspect of Globalstar is that not only do we have what is the traditional Business and VAR (Value Added Reseller) models but we sell and support a consumer market through our SPOT brand.
Globalstar has been around for more than two decades, can you sum up the history of the company?
The company has evolved as needed with the times. We are still a small company in the number of people: globally of around 300 and that allows us to be entrepreneurial even though we are a public listed company. We own and operate a constellation of 32 satellites along with a majority of the ground stations globally, we still have some Independent Gateway Operators in Australia, Russia and Turkey.
Globalstar is now on its second generation of satellites which finished launching in 2013. Having over two decades in the business allows us to have a very robust and reliable network and we look to see what our third generation will look like, but that is some time off. The key has always been the adaptability and innovation of the company to continue to challenge itself to continually improve with diverse users. We also have what we call our Band 53 which is the Terrestrial Use of our spectrum for a private LTE network. We recently got included in the 3GPP standard and what is interesting is that this is spectrum we have globally and harmonized, meaning it is the same frequency everywhere, very unique to Globalstar.
So, today what are the key products and services sold by the company?
Globalstar introduced several technologies during its time, it originally launched with a phone and data service providing full duplex. It then worked on a Simplex solution which was a “transmit-only“ small data packet hardware solution ideal for tracking and sensor information which has launched several chipsets and devices for third parties to build products as well as our SPOT brand of products.
Yes, tell us a bit more about SPOT...
Sure, with our SPOT devices we introduced an SOS feature and have so far completed over 7,000 rescues worldwide. We still average 2-3 rescues per day. We have also developed our 2nd generation of voice and data services built around a portable satellite hotspot and introduced a small two-way messaging device that provides SMS and SOS capabilities. We also have a partnership with Nokia on our Band 53 and that we are starting to see progress in now as hardware starts to roll out with the modem and frequencies included.
Obviously your communications coverage is almost global, but in terms of customers what are the key geographies you are serving?
We cover the land masses, coastal regions and some deep water areas, but not the poles. We use what is called a bent pipe technology so a device sees multiple satellites and those satellites will see one or more gateways on the ground. The advantage is being very low latency on the network.
That follows where our customers are, The Americas both North and South is certainly a big market for us, Europe is next, then Australia and New Zealand, Asia and the African continent. The African Continent and Asia we see these as big growth areas and we have some very exciting projects going on there.
More specifically on IoT, you have a product line called commercial IoT. For the year 2019 Globalstar reported in its financials almost 400K subscribers with 26% growth year over year. What are the products and services in this line of business and what are the largest use cases?
There are two sides to this business, the finished product side that Globalstar builds and sells either directly or via our partners and our chipsets that our VARs integrate into their own solutions. On our finished product we have two main devices in the IoT realm the SmartOne Solar a simplex device fully ATEX certified and once set up will run at least 8 years and ideal for those remote assets that need monitoring or tracking. Very popular in the Oil and Gas field as they can be safely used in a volatile environment and one of very few devices with such certifications.
The other device is a small SmartOne C this can be both battery-powered and line powered with battery backup. Both these products provide tracking, movement alerts you can add additional sensors to such as dry contacts to alert when doors are opened and closed, etc. These we see a lot in mobile asset tracking across multiple sectors. What is interesting is how these get combined with our SPOT devices for the lone workers or remote workers where not only are you wanting information from a remote asset but a person may also need to connect from that location many times with no other terrestrial coverage. With our chipsets we see people using them for animal tracking and sensor transmission usage on water or chemical tanks and this is a big growth area for us.
Globalstar ST 100 board used by Value Added Resellers
On asset tracking specifically, your latest product is called ST100, can you describe what it is, what it does and the market verticals where you see commercial traction for asset tracking?
Absolutely, the ST100 is a complete IoT board ready to go for rapid development by third parties. It is a revolutionary product idea for the satellite industry providing our satellite modem, satellite antenna, Bluetooth, Accelerometer, GPS receiver, Nordic nRF processor for firmware development, a serial connector and connectors for battery and solar or line power. For a VAR they can take this board, add power and plastics, update the configuration and it will work. We have several VARs that in just 6 weeks took the board and had a proof of concept in customers hands for field trials. It is, for satellite, very small and extremely lightweight. In fact, the original use case and design was for an ear tag to track cattle and we have several partners trialing this use of the ST100 now. But once we had the board finished we had a large number of other VARs see other market opportunities from tracking tools, an asset tracking device, we have a customer that is looking to take the Bluetooth and pair that with their existing sensors allowing them a fast to market new technology offering, pet tracking, endangered animals like elephants and Rhinos, oil and gas pipeline equipment, even wearable lone worker solutions. It has just come down to the imagination of the VAR community that we have.
Looking at the perspectives in the next 2-3 years in IoT, what are the key trends you see developing?
Looking at some of the key market areas that we are dealing with and hearing about such as agriculture and animal Welfare. This industry is starting to adopt technology much faster than in the past as a younger generation is taking over the businesses. They need to look at reducing costs, remote management of systems and animal health information, improve grazing of cattle and land use. All of this is usually in remote locations without a terrestrial solution and satellite is now becoming an affordable price point for an industry with narrow margins. Food sustainability for a growing human population will drive the need for better technology globally for crops, optimizing water usage, managing cattle and machinery. Outside of that I believe that identifying and locating potential natural disasters like forest fires or flooding with affordable remote sensors that can alert when there is an issue sooner perhaps than it would otherwise be spotted. It’s not there to prevent something, but in the case of flooding you could monitor up-stream the level of the river and if that starts to reach a threshold you can alert those further down that there is an issue and potential flooding problem heading there way giving them time to react. Of course, there are still the connected car / autonomous trucking opportunities, which really requires satellite complete coverage, plus the increase in remote and automated monitoring and control. All of these Globalstar and our VARS have solutions for.