IoT in Space: How Tiny Devices are Making a Huge Impact

19-06-2023 | By Robin Mitchell

IoT devices have long been beneficial for remote control, gathering data, and empowering AI, but just like most technological developments, their advantages are far greater than engineers had originally anticipated. Now, researchers around the world are turning to data collected by IoT devices to help with research, including in the field of astronomy. What technological developments have helped increase the capabilities of IoT devices, how are astronomers turning to IoT devices, and what does this mean for the future of IoT devices?

How have IoT devices changed over the years?

If you take an IoT device from a decade ago and compare it to a device on the market today, you may struggle to see any immediate differences. Chances are, both devices would look similar, housed in a small plastic enclosure, USB charging port, and some indicator LEDs. However, a closer inspection would start to reveal numerous differences, with the newer device having more sensors, more advanced IC packaging, and more up-to-date connector technologies such as USB-C.

Going even further into such an inspection would reveal a significant difference in computation power, with newer devices being clocked in the hundreds of MHz, integrating multiple cores, and having access to far more peripherals. At the same time, it is highly likely that the energy consumption of the newer device with be significantly lower, meaning that the performance per watt will be an order of magnitude better.

As such, what would see is that in a mere decade, technological advances in electronics allow for devices to be significantly smaller, integrate more processing power, and last longer. However, it is not just the hardware that has significantly improved; the software that such devices have also dramatically changed. For example, devices of the past would often be restricted to gathering raw data from sensors, doing some minimal processing, establishing a connection with a remote server, and streaming this data. By contrast, modern IoT devices are running some kind of operating system, processing vast amounts of data, making intelligent decisions, and then sending data to remote servers.

Recently, researchers from MIT have developed a new miniaturised wake-up receiver that consumes microwatts of power and can wake up an electronic circuit using terahertz waves. This development could revolutionise the design of IoT devices by enabling extended battery life and smaller, more secure systems. The wake-up receiver is ten times smaller than others currently available to engineers and uses terahertz waves, significantly shrinking the size of the receiving components. This device also incorporates a low-power authentication system which prevents unauthorised wake-up when detecting similar terahertz signals. The entire authentication process consumes only a few extra nanowatts of power, making this device highly energy efficient. 

Recent advancements in IoT, Machine Learning (ML), Artificial Intelligence (AI), distributed computing, and data communication technologies have opened up a vast range of opportunities in many scientific fields. These innovations have also enabled many opportunities in the space industry. For instance, the successful Mars landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover on 18 February 2021 represents another giant leap for humankind in space exploration. Emerging research and developments of connectivity and computing technologies in IoT for space/non-terrestrial environments are expected to yield significant benefits in the near future. 

How are astronomers utilising IoT devices?

The increasing capabilities of IoT devices have undoubtedly been tremendously beneficial for numerous industries. For example, one industry that has massively benefited is AI due to the need for training data, and the large amounts of data gathered by IoT devices globally have been perfect for such learning models. 

Another industry that has benefitted from the advancing capabilities of IoT devices is industrial machinery, as large installations can be connected over a single network with thousands of devices, providing valuable insight into every industrial process. 

But while IoT devices have certainly been helpful in the immediate applications that they have been deployed in, there is a growing trend of IoT devices being used in more unorthodox ways. One area that IoT devices are starting to be used in is scientific research, with one area of particular interest being Astronomy.

In a recent study published in the journal Sensors, researchers demonstrated how IoT devices can be used to monitor and analyse astronomical phenomena. For instance, IoT devices equipped with light sensors can measure the brightness of stars and other celestial bodies, providing valuable data for astronomers. These devices can also be used to detect changes in the Earth's magnetic field, which can provide early warning signs of solar storms and other space weather events. This is just one example of how IoT devices are revolutionising the field of astronomy, enabling researchers to gather data on a scale and at a level of detail that was previously unimaginable. 

Studying deep space stellar phenomena and identifying habitable planets requires extremely large telescopes with expensive optics mounted at the tops of mountains. In the case of objects that are far beyond our galaxy, radio telescope arrays are utilised to amplify the weakest signals that can often span the globe, something that requires vast amounts of land.

For observations of meteors and satellites, it turns out that small telescopes can be perfectly adequate, and in some cases, even simple security cameras found on the side of buildings are more than enough to provide useful data. However, trying to constantly monitor the sky with hundreds of cameras dotted around the earth constantly is not only expensive but difficult to maintain. Furthermore, it is common for many major meteor impacts to occur in unpopulated areas, making it difficult to get data.

But, thankfully for researchers, the mass deployment of IoT devices is providing astronomers with a new opportunity. In the case of IoT devices integrating cameras (such as doorbells and CCTV), 24-hour monitoring and streaming to cloud services almost guarantee that such devices pick up any atmospheric activity, including meteors. Furthermore, as such devices incorporate geolocation, researchers can combine data from multiple devices to determine the speed and direction of meteors and other stellar phenomena.

Other sensors commonly found in IoT devices include microphones and accelerometers, both of which can be highly valuable to astronomers. While smaller meteorites burn up entirely on entry, others can either explode in the air or hit the ground. 

Microphones can be ideal for detecting these explosions, and the combination of multiple devices along with timestamps can help researchers determine the altitude at which the explosion occurred. Accelerometers can be beneficial for detecting ground vibrations in the event that a meteorite hits the ground, as well as air bursts if a substantial shockwave is produced.

In the context of space exploration, IoT technologies are increasingly being combined with computing and large-scale data processing capabilities powered by AI and ML technologies. For instance, one of the key visions of the fifth/sixth generation (5G/6G) mobile networking technologies is to realize a Space, Air, and Ground Integrated Network (SAGIN). This integration of IoT technologies with existing space-related technologies is creating new opportunities for future space exploration and travel—“Internet of Things in Space” 

Of course, it isn’t just astronomers who can benefit from large-scale IoT devices already in existence; geologists and meteorologists can also take advantage of such devices. In the case of geologists, the widespread of accelerometers in deployment can be helpful in detecting tremors and pinpointing fault lines, while meteorologists can utilise environmental sensors to record local atmospheric data, including temperature, humidity, and air pressure.

How would research use of IoT devices change the industry?

If IoT data were made publicly available to researchers, it would undoubtedly help accelerate scientific advances across numerous disciplines, but it could also be beneficial in empowering advanced monitoring and warning systems that could identify potentially dangerous meteors, record major scientific events, and localised weather fronts. 

For example, it could be possible to develop localised weather systems that warn drivers of areas that are particularly dangerous due to strong gusts, heavy rain, or poor visibility. Another example would be early warning systems for building stability, whereby IoT devices detecting tiny tremors in the structure of a building can alert occupants of a potential collapse.

But the value of IoT data for secondary purposes could also open up IoT devices to a new economic model whereby data access can be sold. Not only does this provide researchers with a cheap option for generating data (as opposed to deploying physical devices), but it also provides a revenue stream for device owners. This would incentivise IoT device owners to both deploy more devices and share data, thereby increasing the desirability of IoT devices globally.

 In fact, the future of IoT in space exploration could involve the creation of an 'Internet of Space' (IoS). This concept, as described in a Mouser Electronics blog post, involves deploying tiny computer-equipped devices, known as femtosats, in low orbit around the Earth. These femtosats, powered by microcontrollers like the Intel® Quark™ D2000, form a networked mesh of sensors that can monitor for asteroids and other Near Earth Objects (NEOs), collect data on solar activity and cosmic rays, and even potentially detect stray alien ships. This network of IoT devices in space could provide continuous monitoring over Earth, offering early warning of potential asteroid impacts and collecting valuable data on our space environment. The development of such a system would represent a significant advancement in our ability to monitor and understand our space environment. 

There is no doubt that IoT devices provide some major benefits, and the ability for researchers to utilise IoT data to further their respective fields is truly exciting. 


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.