Let’s Make ‘Off The Grid’ A Thing Of The Past

Editor’s note: Chris Wake is the director of business operations at Spire.

We live in a world where there are nearly as many cell phone subscriptions as people on Earth, where we can instantly see a real-time view of streets or buildings halfway across the planet, and where our TVs, homes and cars get smarter by the day. The level of connectivity that we currently enjoy could barely have been imagined even a decade ago, and yet the reality is that even today we are connected to less than one-quarter of the entire planet.

The satellites that we rely on today for data have an impact on everything from weather prediction to supply chain logistics to manufacturing, and generally only collect information from major land masses. This leaves three-fourths of the planet, covered primarily by oceans and remote areas, as uncharted territory. What sort of unknown unknowns exist off the grid, just out of reach?

Off the grid

Most people would be shocked to know that when you travel farther than 50 miles from any coastline, you lose your connection to the modern world. Outside of this 50-mile range, no land-based signals can reach your devices due to the physical curvature of the Earth. Our current satellite systems cannot deliver reliable data on what’s happening to the thousands of ships, planes and other objects traveling on or above the Earth’s oceans. The implications for this lack of data are immense.

How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean. Arthur C. Clarke

Sadly it took the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and Air Asia 8501 to awaken the world to the reality of just how disconnected our planet is. These tragedies prove that even current airline-tracking technology, including radar and land-based receivers, are unreliable and outdated. In this case, financial ramifications were immediate and visible as travelers, unwilling to risk their lives for a cheaper plane ticket, canceled or switched travel plans to avoid these particular airlines.

Large and erratic gaps in data caused by our current satellite systems not only make it difficult to track airplanes filled with valuable lives and cargo, but actually make it easy for nefarious traffickers to move illegal shipments such as drugs or weapons past borders without any regulation. The maritime industry deals with this reality every day. The first thing that a modern pirate does upon boarding a ship is turn off all navigational systems and the Automatic Identification System (AIS) transmitter. Traditional satellite systems will then take hours or days to register a problem, if they register any problem at all. By the time authorities receive news about an attack, the pirates could have already fled with captives and stolen cargo.

In the last decade, piracy alone has cost the global economy almost $18 billion per year. According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirate attacks along the waters off Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore have nearly doubled this year compared to two years ago. Armed gangs hijack small tankers; steal cargo; kidnap victims; and sometimes murder ships’ crews. Without near real-time data, enforcing maritime security is incredibly difficult, and attacks will continue unabated.

More than 80 percent of global trade transits via shipping containers on oceangoing vessels. The uncertainty caused by being “off the grid,” and the associated risks send ripples all the way through the supply chain and directly to you (the consumer).

In December 2014, congestion at the Port of Los Angeles caused ships to be rerouted to the Port of Oakland, which then resulted in unexpected congestion in the San Francisco Bay that eventually impacted the entire West Coast. The pain of waiting for those goods and supplies was passed on directly to the businesses that were reliant on shipping and eventually transferred to consumers who felt a similar pinch at the register. That is the cost of not having the right data.

CubeSats: A better solution

AIS has become ubiquitous and is mandated by the maritime industry. While companies like ExactEarth, ORBCOMM and Spacequest are implementing AIS receivers on satellites to attempt to close data gaps in ship tracking and extend the range of AIS across the oceans, their satellite-based AIS solutions rely on small networks of large satellites to cover the whole Earth, which results in data gaps that cause severe problems for everyone from farmers to Wall Street bankers.

Their offering is similar to slowly updated snapshots over the ocean as opposed to the immediate data flow we’re accustomed to from services like Google Maps and Waze. There is better data behind your $5 drive across town than there is behind the trip that a $100 million crude oil tanker makes from factory to storefront across an entire ocean.

The good news is that a change has begun. A number of advancements in hardware development and big data have inspired a small cadre of companies like Planet Labs and Skybox to reimagine the satellite and its uses. Arguably the largest and most important shift in reimagining the satellite is the move toward standard form-factor, shoebox-sized satellites called CubeSats.

Unlike conventional satellites, CubeSats are created at a fraction of the manufacturing cost and can be sent into orbit in constellations of 20-50 (or more) satellites at a time. Taking a cue from consumer hardware, CubeSats can also receive software updates at the rate of our iPhones, dramatically speeding up the innovation cycle. With more satellites working in tandem, data is gathered from every point on Earth more frequently with gaps measured in minutes rather than hours and removing the erratic gaps we see from traditional satellites.

Making decisions today that are reliant on shipping data requires the ability to cope with more questions than answers, even when there are billions of dollars on the line. Where is my shipment? Do I have enough excess stock on hand to avoid losing sales or shutting down production? Will customers cancel their order if production is halted and timelines slip? Will these factors make or break revenue?

The new approach to satellite development and data collection offer a means to answer many of these questions, and create measurable impact, providing both a financial and social safety net for the shipping and airline industries. Consider that port authorities and companies will not only know where their cargo is located, but increased access to data will lead to less congestion in ports and higher probability that cargo arrives on time.

Whether responding to suspicious activity or saving cargo and human lives during rescue operations, this level of data access also decreases illegal shipping activity and provides Coast Guard personnel with valuable time and intelligence. In the same vein, airline transport and travel will become safer and more reliable.

The ripple effect

As constellations of CubeSats take shape, they will open up our previously narrow understanding of what is occurring across the planet. Although the direct positive benefit for industries like shipping, logistics and supply chain are easy to see, there are a number of industries that are impacted indirectly through their reliance on these primary players.

Insurance companies and the financial markets are among the most vulnerable. Maritime insurance providers have very limited insight into accidents at sea — collisions, oil spills, lost cargo due to weather, spoilage and more are all outside of the realm of current data collection. With increased access to real-time data, the likelihood of overpaying on claims dwindles tremendously.

Similarly, financial markets will no longer be forced to make decisions with limited access to hard data, a critical point of failure when you consider that there are billions of dollars of investment and trades made in companies that rely very heavily on maritime and aircraft shipping of goods and supplies.

Everyone from small Silicon Valley startups to McDonald’s, and to all of the bankers, Wall Street professionals, and impact makers in between need better information about what is happening in global systems like shipping and air transit if they hope to be certain in the decisions that impact their balance sheets.

For the first time in history, breakthroughs in satellite technology will provide us with global coverage and will do so in a surprisingly cost-effective manner. Ultimately, 2015 will be the year that we look back on and remember what it meant to be truly “off the grid.” And we remember just how uncertain that feels.