Building an Internet for Machines

Jay Zaveri
Jun 5 · 5 min read

In less than twenty five years, the Internet has evolved from a fledgling network of less than twenty million users to over three and a half billion users today. Over this time, the quality, accessibility, affordability and availability of the Internet has improved dramatically — for the most part. We can stream movies on our phones, video chat with family and friends halfway around the world, navigate ourselves from almost any point to another, see and check the weather in real time from a phone in our hand. And yet, everyone faces those frustrating moments when they have no connectivity or poor connectivity — and life still goes on. A few minutes of these periodic breaks in an otherwise acceptable quality network is something any human can probably live with.

Courtesy: Statista

But what if the Internet needed to work on every part of the planet? What if the electric grid went out or disaster struck and the Internet still needed to work? What if the network needed to be secure end-to-end so our critical systems remain safe? Today, these questions are even more important than ever — we have over twenty billion devices connected to the Internet that are not phones, tablets or personal computers, with as many as seventy five billion by 2025. These devices include mechanical control systems in our supply chain, industrial and manufacturing infrastructure; vehicles and modes of transport that need connectivity all the time; the UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and USVs (Unmanned Surface Vehicles) that operate in remote areas or at higher altitudes; the containers and cargo that travel on planes and ships; the agricultural sensors and machinery that monitor and harvest the food that feeds the world; and the rescue equipment and transportation vehicles needed in disasters. A network that meets the needs of these machines running our infrastructure anywhere on our planet would be very different than the one built for human needs. So, what would it take to build such an Internet?

Courtesy: Statista

Machines and their Needs

After working with partners in maritime, agriculture, logistics, defense, energy and emergency services we’ve learned that machine-run systems differ significantly from human-focused systems when it comes to connectivity:

  1. Remote and rural areas: the existing network is built to serve urban areas (where human density is concentrated) however there is a critical need for connectivity in remote areas where machines are often more prevalent. Today, only 37% of the world’s surface is connected. In a world where machines and industrial devices are often remote or mobile, it’s important to have global coverage.
  2. Security is critical: In a world where most routing resources are heavily shared, the security of critical machines is paramount. Shared routing infrastructure doesn’t work very well when it comes to enabling privacy and security — digital encryption and physical access.
  3. Low power and miniaturized communication systems: Transmitting information with low power from small devices on the surface of the planet is important in the context of machines. Also, limiting the energy used for communication enables power to be used for computation and the primary function of the devices.
  4. Low cost is important: To connect more than 50 billion devices so they can transmit only as much information as functionally required with low latency and high reliability is difficult enough, but it’s also critical we connect these devices at 1/10th the cost of the current network.
  5. Works with existing infrastructure: integrating with infrastructure that is already deployed, both at the hardware and software level, brings a convenience that can make “dumb” terminals into smart devices.

Solving for global, affordable connectivity with the above objectives is difficult, but immensely valuable if solved. Founded in 2016, Swarm Technologies is building a constellation of satellites to tackle this very hard problem. They’re already beginning to connect cars, collect data from remote sensors, run agricultural equipment, track containers and packages, and provide emergency services to vehicles, cities, and people.

The Swarm Network

The Swarm network consists of three simple but powerful components:

The Swarm Architecture [Copyright © Swarm Technologies]
  1. SpaceBEE: this is essentially the world’s tiniest satellite, one that can fit in your hand. But don’t let size fool you, this satellite can communicate with devices slightly bigger than a postage stamp from anywhere on Planet Earth. In order to make this possible, Swarm has already launched seven fully operational SpaceBEEs into Low Earth Orbit and plans to launch more than 150 in the next year. This will enable all these machines on the ground to reach a Swarm satellite at any time from literally anywhere on the Earth’s surface (land or water) or in the sky.
  2. Tile: you know that little device slightly larger than a postage stamp that connects to any SpaceBEE or network device? This is the Tile. It is low-powered and can talk to a SpaceBEE in Low Earth Orbit. It can be integrated into sensors, devices, machines, and control systems; stuck on to cargo systems or objects; and carried by humans on safety missions.
  3. Connect: a Swarm Connect is a transceiver that can aggregate messages from several sensors or Tiles and relay them up to a SpaceBEE and vice-versa. The Connect device can also act as a ground station to receive downlinked messages from satellites. When connected to the public Internet, WAN, Intranet, LAN, a Swarm Connect can relay messages and information anywhere in the world.

Swarm’s architecture provides an end-to-end secure, private network to machines, available in any remote area on the planet at relatively low cost — exactly what a secure and reliable Internet for Machines should be.

We’re extremely proud of the work Swarm is taking on: Connecting pumps in sub-Saharan Africa so clean water is available to every village; connecting self driving vehicles so they can be safe and secure; connecting farm equipment so that every grower in the world can track the movement of goods so they arrive on time; providing connectivity in post-disaster scenarios; or reporting an oil leak in a remote pipeline. And they are just getting started!

You can find more about Swarm here.

Jay Zaveri

Written by

Partner @socialcapital

Social Capital

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