Beyond Starlink: Cow tracking and smartphones show the future of satellites

At CES 2023, industry representatives sketched out a vision of the future where satellites power more than ever.
Mike Brown
Cow in a field.
Cow in a field.

Clara Bastian/iStock 

The future of satellite technology could involve more cows than expected.

At the 2023 Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2023) in Las Vegas on Thursday, representatives from the industry explained how cheaper, more prevalent satellite technology could enable more devices to get connected than ever before. That means greater internet access — something that SpaceX's Starlink has helped to bring to a wide audience. It could also mean more unique benefits, like better resource tracking — including cows.

"Today, there are four million devices connected to satellites," Rick Somerton, President & CEO of eSAT Global, said at CES 2023. Somerton explained that it's "not a lot," especially considering how many Internet of Things device projections expect to see billions and trillions of connected devices in the world.

The comments, which paint a vision of a future of widespread satellite-connected devices, came at the same conference that Qualcomm gave satellite connectivity a big boost. The Snapdragon Satellite chip will enable high-end smartphones to connect to satellites for connectivity from almost anywhere — even outside of emergencies, unlike the iPhone 14.

While consumers are likely familiar with Starlink's efforts to get rural computers connected to faster Wifi, it's not the only way the industry is set to get more devices connected. Here are three ways the industry is set to bring on more devices:

1: Cow tracking

It may sound unusual, but Somerton explained at CES 2023 that cheaper satellite tracking could enable farmers to better track cows.

"We believe we can put a tag on the ear of a cow, it'll cost $10 per year, looking at on average $100 per year to ranches," Somerton said.

That would enable producers to better track the complete supply chain. It could lead to more efficient farming, as bigger data sets help farmers understand how to improve outcomes.

Beyond Starlink: Cow tracking and smartphones show the future of satellites
An Apple iPhone 14.

2: Smartphones

Apple impressed consumers when it debuted a limited form of satellite connectivity on the iPhone 14 last fall. The feature means that users can contact emergency services when they have a line-of-sight view of a satellite, even without cellular service.

That may help explorers in difficult situations, but Somerton predicts people will be able to have "WhatsApp-like conversations" with future versions of the technology.

It's something that may already be bearing fruit at CES 2023. Qualcomm's Snapdragon Satellite promises broader support for high-end smartphones, using Iridium's 66-strong constellation to provide the service. The chip is expected to debut in Android-powered smartphones in late 2023.

3: Smartwatches

Holding up his watch, Somerton noted that smartwatches are also ripe for connecting to satellite constellations. While these devices have traditionally used Wifi and cellular connections where available, satellite connectivity would enable explorers to contact emergency services and other important contacts when away from these services.

SpaceX Starlink may have brought higher speed and power latency satellite internet to multiple countries, but declining prices and more prevalent technology may bring these connections to more planes than ever.

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