Swarm Vs. Iridium: Which Satellite IoT Service Is Right For You?

In a world where it seems like everyone’s face is glued to a device screen, the idea that wireless service might be anything other than universal seems just plain silly. But it’s not, as witnessed by vast gaps in cell carrier coverage maps, not to mention the 70% of the planet covered by oceans. The lack of universal coverage can be a real pain for IoT applications, which is a gap that satellite-based IoT services aim to fill.

But which service is right for your application? To help answer that question, [Mike Krumpus] has performed the valuable work of comparing the services offered by Swarm and Iridium in a real-world IoT shootout. On the face of it, the match-up seems a little lopsided — Iridium has been around forever and has a constellation of big satellites and an extensive ground-based infrastructure. But as our own [Al Williams] discovered when he tested out Swarm, there’s something to be said for having a lot of 1/4U Cubesats up there.

[Mike] picked up the gauntlet and did head-to-head tests of the two services under real-world conditions. Using the same Swarm development kit that [Al] used for his test, alongside an Iridium dev board of his own design, [Mike] did basic tests on uplink and downlink times for a short message on each service. We couldn’t find specs on the test message length, but Swarm’s FAQ indicates that packets are limited to 192 bytes, so we assume they’re both in that ballpark. Iridium was the clear winner on uplink and downlink times, which makes sense because Swarm’s constellation is much smaller at this point and leaves large gaps in coverage. But when you consider costs, Swarm wins the day; what would cost over $1,500 with Iridium would set you back a mere $60 with Swarm.

The bottom line, as always, depends on your application and budget, but [Mike]’s work makes it easier to do that analysis.

Review: Hands On With The Swarm Satellite Network Eval Kit

If you have devices out in the field, you probably want to connect with them. There was a time when that was hard to do, requiring telephone wires or specialized radio gear. Now cellular data is prevalent, but even cellular isn’t everywhere. If you have the cash, you can pay a number of satellite companies to carry your data, but that’s generally pricey and has its own challenges.

The age of satellite constellations is changing that. Of course everyone by now has heard of Starlink which is offering satellite internet via numerous satellites that are much smaller than traditional telecom satellites. But they’re not the only came in town.

A company called Swarm has put up a constellation of 1/4U cube satellites in low orbits. They offer a ground station that uses an omni antenna and a subscription access program for small amounts of data. They sent us a unit to review, and while I haven’t used the system in a real project yet, the kit was pretty impressive.

About Swarm

Swarm tile device
The Swarm Tile is made to mount on a PCB

The Swarm “tile” is a tiny radio that can talk bi-directionally with small satellites in low Earth orbit. The little unit is made to mount on a PCB, can control its power consumption, and talks to your system via a standard 3.3V UART connection. It does, however, require a small antenna and maybe even a smaller antenna for its GPS module. Small, in this case, is about a mid-size handy talkie antenna. There is a half-wave antenna that doesn’t need a ground plane and a shorter antenna that does need a ground plane.

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Use Jedi Mind Tricks To Control Your Next Drone Swarm

Controlling a single drone takes up a considerable amount of concentration and normally involves wearing silly goggles. It only gets harder if you want to control a swarm. Researchers at Skolkovo Institute of Technology decided Jedi mind tricks were the best way, and set up swarm control using hand gestures. 

We’ve seen something similar at the Intel Booth of the 2016 Makerfaire. In that demo, a single drone was controlled by hand gesture using a hacked Nintendo Power Glove. The Skoltech approach has a lot of innovation building on that concept. For one, haptics in the finger tips of the glove provide feedback from the current behavior of the drones. Through their research they found that most operators quickly learned to interpret the vibrations subconsciously.

It also increased the safety of the swarm, which is a prime factor in making these technologies usable outside of the lab. Most of us have at one point frantically typed commands into a terminal or pulled cords to keep a project from destroying itself or behaving dangerously. Having an intuitive control means that an operator can react quickly to changes in the swarm behavior.

The biggest advantage, which can be seen in the video after the break, is that the hand control eliminates much of the preprogramming of paths that is currently common in swarm robotics. With tech like this we can imagine a person quickly being trained on drone swarms and then using them to do things like construction surveys with ease. As an added bonus the researchers were nice enough to pre-submit their paper to arxiv if any readers would like to get into the specifics.

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Learn Programming From Ants

Humans and insects think on a different scale, but entomologists study the behavior of these little organisms, so they’re not a complete mystery. There isn’t much intelligence in a single ant or a cubic millimeter of gray matter, but when they all start acting together, you get something greater than the sum of the parts. It is easy to fall into the trap of putting all the intelligence or programming into a single box since that’s how we function. Comparatively, itty-bitty brains, like microcontrollers and single-board computers are inexpensive and plentiful. Enter swarm mentality, and new tasks become possible.

[Kevin Hartnett] talks about a paper researching the simple rules which govern army ants who use their bodies as bridges when confronted with a gap in their path. Anyone with a ruler and a map can decide the shortest route between two places, but army ants perform this optimization from the ground, real-time, and with only a few neurons at their disposal. Two simple rules control bridge building behavior, and that might leave some space in the memory banks of some swarm robots.

A simpler example of swarm mentality could be robots which drive forward anytime they sense infrared waves from above. In this way, anyone watching the swarm could observe when an infrared light was present and where it was directed. You could do the same with inexpensive solar-powered toy cars, but we can already see visible light.

We’re not saying ants should be recruited to control robots, but we’re not objecting to the humane treatment of cyborg bugs either. We’ve been looking into swarm robots for a long time.

Thanks for the tip, [JRD].

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Hackaday Links: March 11, 2018

Guess what’ll be wrapping up in just two weeks? The Midwest RepRap Festival, the largest con for open source 3D printing in the world. MRRF is going down in Goshen, Indiana on March 23rd through March 25th. Tickets are free! If you’re looking for a hotel, I can speak from experience that the Best Western is good and close to the con, and I haven’t heard anything bad about the Holiday Inn Express.

Want to go to a convention with even weirder people? Somehow or another, a press release for Contact In The Desert, the largest UFO conference in the world, ended up in my inbox. It’s on the first weekend in June near Cochilla. Why is this significant? Because the greatest people-watching experience you’ll ever see, AlienCon 2018, is happening in Pasadena just two weeks later. The guy with the hair from Ancient Aliens will be at both events. Why are they having a UFO conference where military planes fly all the time? Wouldn’t it be better to rule out false positives?

The entirety of Silicon Valley tech culture is based upon the principle of flouting laws and regulations. We have reached a new high water mark. Swarm Technologies, a ‘stealth startup’ working on ‘Internet of Things’ satellites recently sent up four 0.25U cubesats on an ISRO flight. The satellites were deployed and are currently in orbit. This is somewhat remarkable, because the FCC, the government body responsible for regulating commercial satellites, dismissed Swarm’s application for launch on safety grounds. As reported by IEEE Spectrum, this is the first ever unauthorized launch of commercial satellites.

The TRS-80 Model 100 was one of the first, best examples of a ‘notebook’ computer. It had a QWERTY keyboard, an LCD, and ran off a few AA batteries for 20 hours. It’s the perfect platform for a Raspberry Pi casemod, and now someone has finally done it. [thecodeman] stuffed a Pi into a broken model M100 and replaced the old LCD with a 7.8″ 400×1280 pixel display. The display is the interesting part here, and it comes from EarthLCD, part number earthlcd-7-4001280.

The Flite Test crew is famous for their foam board RC airplanes, but they have historically had some significantly more interesting builds. Can you fly a cinder block? Yep. Can you fly a microwave and have it pop popcorn? Yep. Their latest crazy project is a flying Little Tikes Cozy Coupe, the ubiquitous red and yellow toy car meant to fit a toddler. The wings are made out of cardboard, the motors — both of them — generate thirty pounds of thrust each, and you can weld with the batteries. Does it fly? Yes, until the wings collapsed and the Cozy Coupe plummeted to the ground. Watch the video, it’s a great demonstration of designing a plane to rotate off the ground.

Zooids — Swarm User Interface

What the heck is a Zooid? A Zooid is a small cylindrical robot, measuring 26 mm in diameter and 21 mm in height, weighting about 12g. Each robot is powered by a 100 mAh LiPo battery and uses motor driven wheels — and these things are snappy at a top speed of about 0.5m/s. Each Zooid is able to know if you touched it via capacitive touch sensing. It has wireless capabilities through an NRF24L01+ chip. So, what’s it for, you wonder…

zooids-swarm-robotics-thumbOne robot might not do much but the idea behind the Zooids is the introduction of swarm user interfaces, a new class of human-computer interfaces that involves multiple autonomous robots to handle both display and interaction. In a joint work between the Shape Lab at Stanford University (USA) and the Aviz team at Inria (France), researchers developed an open-source open-hardware platform for what they called “tabletop swarm interfaces”. The actual interface involves a swarm of Zooids, a radio base-station, a high-speed DLP structured light projector for optical tracking and a software framework for application development and control.

In the demonstration video we can see some examples of use of the Zooids. Could the resolution be measured as, erm, ZPI? Near the end of the demo we can see a new level of interactivity where the swarm quickly works together as a team and sort of fetch the user’s phone. Now, if they can be made to scour the house in search of our keys, that would be something…

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Drones, Swarms At War

Using drones in areas of conflict is not something new. As commercial drones get easily affordable, we see it all the time in the news, some soldier using a Parrot drone to scout ahead, above trenches or around buildings. That’s a new reality that soldiers have to get used to. It changes the battlefield, especially traditional ground warfare. There is also research in drone swarms, performing tasks in team for some time now. Some of them are really impressive.

And then there’s the U.S. Military Perdix drones. William Roper of the Department of Defense illustrate what exactly their capabilities are:

Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature. Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team.

Did we mention they can be released in mid-flight by a F/A 18 Super Hornet? That’s no piece of cake for any drone but Perdix is able to withstand speeds of Mach 0.6 and temperatures of -10 °C during release. In the latest tests conducted, three jets released a massive swarm of 103 Perdix drones, which after deployment communicated with each other and went on a simulated surveillance mission.

The Department of Defense announced the successful Micro-Drone demonstration and presented a video:

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