Tap sat app gap, yaps Inmarsat chap: Orbiting bird API opened to devs

Satnav to sat-have

Graphic depicting the Cluster satellite constellation in action. Credit: ESA

Satellite communications oldie Inmarsat is to open up its systems to third-party developers – and wants them to create new ways to use its communications grid to link ships, aircraft, and machine-to-machine data traffic.

"We have been providing global mobile connectivity for decades and want to leverage this position to facilitate the development of new applications, enhancing the way in which people interact with our technologies," said Michele Franci, chief technology officer at Inmarsat.

"Our new open technology approach, based on building blocks made easily available, will allow both new and existing partners to take advantage of our cutting edge technology, particularly Global Xpress, as a platform on which to build bespoke applications in new areas."

Franci was speaking at the first Inmarsat developers conference, being held in London this week, and appealed to the 350 coders present to find new ways to use the company's increasing bandwidth for commercial applications.

Inmarsat started in the 1970s as an international non-profit to link first the maritime industry, then aircraft and individual satellite phone users, using its network of 11 orbiting birds. It has since morphed into a commercial venture, but still provides free distress signal coverage around the world as a nod to its roots.

While bandwidth on its service was limited to GPRS speeds until recently, in Deecmeber 2013 it launched its first Global Xpress satellite using the Ka-Band transmitting on frequencies between 26.5 to 40 GHz. The new system can give download speeds of up to 50Mbps, albeit over a tightly focused area, and speeds of around 5Mbps with a broader range, and Inmarsat plans to loft two more high-speed birds in the near future.

Those fatter aether pipes mean there's scope for expansion, and Inmarsat wants to move away from its traditional markets in the marine, aerospace, and remote traveler markets and into new areas. In particular, the company sees machine-to-machine communications from internet of things as a potential goldmine.

The company faces competition, with firms like Orbcomm making a big push into the satellite IoT market. Looking longer term, both Google and Elon Musk are reportedly planning satellite internet provision systems and Inmarsat needs to get a head start in pushing itself into new areas.

That said, it can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – those new applications are going to have to be checked very, very carefully before deployment. Security fears about Inmarsat's basic system have been noted, although they are difficult to exploit in practice, but once third parties get involved that opens up a whole new area for hackers to delve into. ®


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