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Israel’s mini-satellite startup offers big coverage at low cost

NSLComm’s jack-in-the-box antennas unfold in space, aiming to serve the half of the planet without internet access

NSLComm’s antenna unfolds in orbit, allowing greater coverage for lower cost (NSLComm)
NSLComm’s antenna unfolds in orbit, allowing greater coverage for lower cost (NSLComm)

Cherry tomatoes planted in an Israeli desert this coming spring will have three main ingredients to help them grow: soil, water, and sensors communicating with a new kind of antenna carried by a tiny orbiting satellite.

Researchers at Ramat Negev’s experimental facility in the western Negev desert in southern Israel will surround the tomato plants with sensors that connect to a satellite antenna created by NSLComm, an Israeli startup. The sensors will upload data monitoring the soil and light conditions to the satellite, to be launched in 2021. Researchers will compare the results with sensors connected by regular local wireless networks.

If it proves successful, the experiment will pave the way to providing tech solutions — not just in agriculture — for the almost half of the world’s population that, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), remains without internet. The lack of coverage prevents billions of people across millions of square miles from accessing communications that most of the developed world now takes for granted, including GPS, web-based apps like WhatsApp and much of what the average smartphone can offer. Telemedicine, autonomous vehicles and streaming video remain elusive dreams.

Farmers in remote areas cannot use the increasing number of agricultural tech solutions, like soil sensors and image-collecting drones that promise to increase yields and save water, said Yuval Kaye, a researcher who heads the vegetable agriculture division at Ramat Negev Research and Development, whose technology is used across the globe to improve crop yields and save water.

“You can go to the developing world, or even to the United States or Australia, and you will find that many areas, including many important agricultural areas, are not covered by any network,” Kaye said.

NSLComm, based at Airport City in central Israel, hopes to change this by equipping tiny satellites 13 inches in length with unique folding antennas that offer fast, reliable and affordable communications even in the most remote places on Earth.

“The need to have reliable communication is more important now than ever,” said Raz Itzhaki, a nanosatellite expert who spent two decades at Israel Aerospace Industries and is the co-founder and CEO of NSLComm. “We believe everyone has the right to be connected.”

NSLComm has developed a satellite antenna that unfolds into a dish shape only after it has entered orbit, allowing the use of nanosatellites, which are much smaller and less expensive than regular space payloads.

“We are trying to do to satellites what flash drives did to floppy disks,” Itzhaki said. “Usually, a large dish requires a large, costly satellite. We overcame this by folding the dish into the satellite and only deploying it in space, where it can be used to communicate with airplanes, ships, or anything below. It can also provide IoT communications for applications such as agriculture and asset tracking.”

Typically, dish-shaped antennas for the transmission of data require large satellites, about one meter tall and one meter wide and weighing at least 300 pounds. Their size protects and supports the technology from the excessive shaking and turbulence that occurs during takeoff. That partly explains why satellite communication is expensive compared to cellular and broadband networks.

NSLComm’s folding dish is kept secure inside the satellite during launch, and only comes out when it reaches space, allowing the use of nanosatellites.

“The antenna comes out like a jack-in-the-box,” said Daniel Rockberger, NSLComm’s other co-founder and chief engineer, who has worked at Israel Aerospace Industries and on a NASA moon mission.

At just 20 pounds, 33 centimeters long and 10 centimeters wide, the nanosatellites are about 10 times lighter than standard satellites, and can be built and launched for about one-tenth of the cost.

NSLComm’s unfolding antenna allows the use of satellites as small as 33 centimeters in length (NSLComm)

The company, founded in 2015, is close to entering the commercial market. It recently signed agreements with Ramat Negev to develop network communication solutions for precision agriculture, and with York Space Systems, an aerospace company in Denver, Colorado, to develop affordable satellite communication systems.

NSLComm plans to launch a second satellite in 2021 to expand its pilot projects and eventually make it available for commercial use. The private company is backed by Jerusalem Venture Partners, Liberty Global Ventures, and OurCrowd.

Faster and more affordable satellite communication could also help spread much-anticipated 5G mobile service to more areas. According to the latest ITU data, overall global internet user penetration stands at 53.6%. That figure drops to 47% in developing countries, and to just 19.1% in the world’s least developed countries.

“Our emphasis is on places with no connectivity or where connectivity is weak,” Rockberger said. “But this can really be used for anything, in any sector, where connection is required.”

NSLComm says it is starting with precision agriculture because the sector is particularly in need of better network connectivity. The company sees a wide global market, including in the United Arab Emirates, which recently signed a normalization agreement with Israel. The company also hopes the partnership with Ramat Negev will expose them to markets in the US after the Ramat Negev regional council recently signed an agreement with the city of Yuma, Arizona, to expand research collaboration — an agreement initiated by NSLComm.

The company also hopes the agreement with York, a leading developer of small satellites — known as a “bus” — that could carry NSLComm’s folding antennas, will help it reach a wide variety of clients.

“Through a combination of our S-CLASS bus and NSLComm’s state of the art communications technology, we believe our satellites will fill the need for faster satellite communications around the world,” said Michael Lajczok, vice president of mission solutions at York.

“NSLComm is proving that in space, size matters,” said OurCrowd CEO Jon Medved. “NSLComm is providing the highest performance and highest bandwidth in the smallest satellite package, which will forever transform the way we look at satellite communications.”

To find out more about NSLComm, click HERE.

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