Hiber's push for global IoT connectivity
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:
Coen Janssen, co-founder of Hiber

Philip Mason talks to the co-founder of Hiber, Coen Janssen, whose company is using satellite technology to enable IoT connectivity in the remotest areas of the planet

As regular readers of Land Mobile will know, there are an ever-increasing number of use-cases being developed around both so-called ‘smart cities’ and the IoT-related technology that will ultimately enable them.

Having said that, as potentially beneficial as the technology undoubtedly is, there has always been a danger that those benefits will ultimately be determined – at least to a degree – by postcode lottery. Or to put it another way, smart cities are a very fine idea indeed if you live in a city. What if you are in the jungle, sheltering in a tent in the middle of the Sahara, or crossing the ocean?

One company looking to increase the global IoT footprint in more remote areas is Hiber, specifically through the deployment of its ever-expanding constellation of small (or ‘nano’) satellites. These are aimed at providing what its co-founder Coen Janssen refers to as “low power, short data” on a low-cost basis, to help replicate the kind of functionality enabled by the likes of LoRa and Sigfox in the big cities.

Finding the pain points
According to Janssen, the story of Hiber (which is named for reasons we’ll get into later) began several years ago, in parallel with the transformation of the space industry from what he calls a “bureaucratic institutional market” into a “commercial market” due to the increasing feasibility of small satellites.

At the same time, he and his partners were also becoming increasingly aware of initial IoT deployments that had started to take place in a smattering of test-bed cities across the world. They also sensed that only a comparatively small number of people would likely be able to take advantage of the technology, with around 90 per cent of the globe lacking the requisite connectivity to make it fly.

Going into greater detail regarding the early days of the company, Janssen says: “Our first step before we started to do anything was to go to the market itself to discover where the pain points were, after which we essentially decided to build our own satellite constellation. We approached approximately 100 potential customers in the first instance to find out what they needed.

“Following that, we launched our first two satellites at the end of last year, with the final phase of network roll-out taking place as we speak. We have a global service ready to go live.”

As mentioned, the idea behind Hiber isn’t to replace the likes of Sigfox and LoRa – something which would clearly not be feasible – so much as to provide a complementary solution, enabling the roll-out of use-cases in remote areas of the planet. As such, it provides a comparable rate of data, using the company’s own modems as an intermediary between the device and outer space. (Or, as its website insists on summing it up: “Teeny weeny satellites, mahoosive coverage.”)

Describing how the technology operates, Janssen says: “It’s essentially a one-way, store-and-forward system, with the satellite passing overhead at certain intervals to send and receive the information in question. Between those times, the communications node basically goes into hibernation mode, hence the name of the company.”

He continues: “Every satellite that we launch has global coverage and as such, sees every part of the Earth at least once a day. With that in mind, over the next 18 months, we want to be able to go to once per hour [in terms of the relaying of data from individual nodes], which will obviously require the launch of more satellites. To do that, we have to place the satellites in a number of different complementary orbits.

“Step one is actually getting the network live, after which we’ll launch more satellites – probably about 12 – with an emphasis on providing an increased level of service in Europe, America and Russia in the first instance. That’s what our customers need, and that’s where they expect us to be.”

Oh, bee hive!
While it would be wrong to suggest that the aforementioned smart city use-cases are becoming predictable in terms of what is being put out there, they do generally relate to a fairly defined number of generic work areas. These include – in no particular order – air-quality monitoring, parking, public safety and so on, all of which naturally enough tend to mirror the concerns and requirements of relatively similar urban environments.

By contrast, when it comes to IoT up a mountain, use of the technology seems to be much more site-specific, and by extension much more task-specific. Again, this is something which is hardly surprising given the sheer variety of potential environments in which businesses find themselves operating once situated outside of the confines of the concrete sprawl.

According to Janssen, there are several potential use-cases in the current Hiber conversation, with a core one being deployment on sea vessels. Elaborating on this, he says: “The bigger ships generally tend to have satellite connectivity already on board, so we’re mainly concentrating on smaller ones, for instance as used by fishermen. There’s something like five million boats involved in commercial fishing around the world, and the main market we’ve identified at the moment is Indonesia, which requires its fishermen to sign up to a vessel-monitoring scheme.

“The scheme tracks where fishing boats go as well as what they catch, which helps to decrease illegal activity while increasing protection for marine areas. For it to be effective on smaller boats, systems need to be able to measure and store the GPS location of a vessel several times a day, which is where Hiber comes in. Again, that’s short, low-power, low-cost data.”

He continues: “Another example is the monitoring of bee hives, of which there are something like 80 million located across the world. The bees living in about 60 million of those are involved in cross-pollination [ie, the pollination of one plant by another of a different variety], and as such have to be moved around every six weeks or so.

“It’s important to keep track of them when they move to a new location, but – given that bees are also dying at an alarming rate – it’s also good to know what the temperature is of the hive, as well as what sound they’re making. Both of those are really good indicators of whether the bees are likely to remain alive.

“Thinking of both those use-cases in particular, the lovely part of our solution is that it’s direct-to-satellite, which means that you don’t need any additional infrastructure on the ground, although we do have a gateway solution available. The idea is to go directly from the node on the ground to the satellite, which means it can be deployed anywhere in the world.”

As effective as the Hiber solution (or Hiberband to give it its proper title) undoubtedly is when the nodes are located in the open, the product is clearly as limited as any other similar solution when it comes to indoor functionality. Operating in UHF at 400MHz, the signal can’t go through objects such as concrete walls, although foliage thankfully isn’t an issue.

According to Janssen, Hiber is in a “prime position” to monetise its technology, if for no other reason than he doesn’t see any other “true competition” working to the same high-volume/low-cost model. (Indeed, the start-up has just signed a memorandum of understanding with satellite behemoth Iridium, on the basis that the latter can’t deliver the same service.)

So, what’s next for Hiber (other than all those extra satellites)? Given the ever-increasing appetite for data analysis, could that be a way to add even more value to the product?

“As I said before, we’re now looking to multiply our market share across the planet, so the next step could be increasing our number of offices to one on almost every continent,” Janssen says. “We’re currently based in Amsterdam, and already have locations in Delft [also in the Netherlands], and in Maryland in the US. In terms of diversifying into data, it’s not something we’re currently looking at – our purpose is simply to integrate modems into the customer’s application and provide the connectivity. We don’t even know what’s in the message which is being transported.”

To demonstrate the wisdom of this approach, Janssen tells the story of a Vodafone board member whom Hiber asked to join its advisory board when the company first started. “He asked the same question that you did,” he says, “and we told him that all we wanted at that point was to build a sustainable model around the connectivity aspect, and we might think about data later on. He eventually came on board, saying that connectivity is the least sexy model but it’s the only way to make money.”

In an increasingly crowded marketplace, Hiber looks likely to add genuine value by offering something completely new.

CV – Coen Janssen
Coen Janssen is the director of business intelligence for, and one of the co-founders of, Hiber. Described by the company as a “special innovator with a never-ending appetite for pioneering yet sustainable projects”, Coen has a background in both aerospace and investments.

He started his career in aerospace and technology, acquiring a degree in aerospace engineering from the Delft University of Technology, before working for the CTO of NATO’s Communications and Information Agency. He began the founding process of Hiber in 2015.

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