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This article was contributed by Brian Gilmore, director of IoT product management at InfluxData.
Successful space exploration and the establishment of human life on other planets will require a highly sophisticated digital infrastructure. The intersection of various data technologies in combination with IoT will be key in unlocking the next wave of opportunities in space.
Journeys to space have become “cool” again, in part due to the news and hype surrounding the billionaire space race. Besides their seemingly endless supplies of money, there is something else helping us unlock new opportunities in space: data. This is the side of space travel the everyday news consumer rarely thinks about, yet one that is vital for the engineers who are working to make it possible.
Space missions produce enormous volumes of highly critical spacecraft telemetry, data from scientific experiments, and biometric readings from the astronauts and “space tourists.” Effectively putting that data to work is a moonshot in its own right; networking, storage, visualization, and analytics are all pushed to the limits by the unique requirements of space travel and planetary exploration.
And while the digital infrastructure required for space travel to take off is coming together, the intersection of various data technologies in combination with IoT will be key in unlocking new opportunities.
Scaling digital infrastructures for space technology
There is little shared digital infrastructure between our world and low-Earth orbit. Significant investment in Earth-facing technologies from startups such as Loft Orbital and Spire are opening the door to “space-as-a-service” models, delivering communications, custom payloads for research projects, and more. These satellites provide an important tier of extra-terrestrial compute and communication for those here on Earth.
As we look to the future — one where we base operations on the moon, Mars, and beyond — it will be critical to dedicate sufficient computing power, data storage, and communications links are in place and ensure the reliability, security, and sustainability of this infrastructure. After all, five-nines availability may not be sufficient in the vacuum of space.
Wide open (data) spaces
Most of the initial work in space will relate to exploration and the establishment of industrial infrastructure. Building out the launch pads, laboratories, and living spaces required for human life will require big machines akin to those in the largest mining and oil exploration installations here on Earth. On the moon or Mars, however, the uptime, availability, and performance of this equipment will be more critical — a spare part might be millions of miles away. Like on Earth, data — especially that related to operations and maintenance — will be key to monitoring equipment performance, optimizing the energy and other materials required to operate.
For example, by using the time-series record of the sensors and actuators attached to machines, we can anticipate downtime and use a parts supply chain strategy to deliver (or more likely, 3D print) parts and materials in a just-in-time manner. Capitalizing on incremental improvements in production quality, human safety, and downtime reduction can have enormous payoffs. After all, space isn’t a learn-as-you-go environment. System inefficiencies and unreliability aren’t just an inconvenience or expense, they end missions – and potentially lives.
Harnessing IoT and edge technologies to fuel space travel
It is precisely this “no-downtime” requirement that will drive the sensorization of everything in space. Current IoT and Industrial IoT technologies will provide the foundation for the early work, but innovation in robotics, machine-to-machine communication, environmental and occupied spaces will need to accelerate to consider the timelines driven by an inhospitable environment. IoT technologies in space will need to be self-commissioning, system-aware, and likely far more autonomous than even the most advanced smart vehicle, building, and factory technologies we have on Earth today.
Aside from the giant leap in today’s IoT and Industrial technologies, space travel also requires us to reimagine supervision with technologies at the edge. To outsiders, today’s launch, orbit, and landing operations appear oddly similar to early NASA missions. Dozens of engineers huddle together in mission control centers, reading and reporting telemetry from onboard sensors and control logic. There are still minutes-long planned communications blackouts, and exciting eruptions of cheers at each successfully completed mission objective.
This format very much fits the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) model of industrial controls affiliated with Industry 3.0. As we’ve found here on Earth, human-in-the-loop automation models don’t always scale well. Slowly, edge-deployed near-autonomous systems are taking over the first level of monitoring, decision-making, and control of our industrial processes, with engineers focusing less on primary telemetry and more on higher-level aggregations, forecasts, and key performance indicators. While machines and algorithms drive the process and make decisions at intervals impossible for the human operator, the engineers tune and optimize at the system level for performance, efficiency, and quality.
Space becomes the new network edge
It is clear that successful space exploration and the establishment of human life on other planets will require digital infrastructure more capable than what we use on Earth today. And it will all need to run seamlessly in a paradigm where Earth-bound technology trends like “the cloud” barely apply. It needs to be hybrid, high-availability, managed from anywhere, and for the benefit of humankind, both “out there” and “down here.”
Considering our struggles with digitalization here on our home planet, we may be further away from this ideal than we are from Mars itself. We should probably get going.
Brian Gilmore is the director of IoT product management at InfluxData, the creators of InfluxDB. He has focused the last decade of his career on working with organizations around the world to drive the unification of industrial and enterprise IoT with machine learning, cloud, and other truly transformational technology trends.