Swiss nanosatellites for vaccine distribution in remote areas


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If and when a vaccine against coronavirus becomes available, it will still have to be distributed. In addition to the questions of whether some countries will reserve the first doses for themselves and whether the population will overwhelmingly agree to receive the injection, there are also questions about the logistics of distribution. To remain effective, a vaccine must be refrigerated during transport. Assessing whether the cold chain could remain unbroken remains a challenge, particularly in developing countries.

In Renens near Lausanne, a start-up is working on a solution. Astrocast is the first Swiss operator of a low altitude satellite constellation. Similar to Elon Musk's Starlink, but with much smaller bandwidths and a smaller mesh of 80 satellites. "We don't have the whole solution," explains its founder Fabien Jordan. “But we will be able to gather temperature information from anywhere in the world that would be collected by sensors on vaccine packages."

How can we do that? With a set of technologies called the Internet of Things. Basically, it involves adding smart communication sensors to all kinds of objects. These connected devices are given a unique internet address. Equipped with sensors, processors and an antenna, they collect information about their environment, evaluate it, and transmit it. So it goes much further than the fridge telling you that there is no more milk or autonomous cars. Its applications are infinite: from watches or clothes that provide information on one’s health, to moisture sensors in the field to trigger watering, and from flood and fire detectors to the tracking of goods and vehicles...

Data collection is an important issue for the telecommunications industry. There is no point in using the huge bandwidth of 5G for streaming video to send a temperature reading every hour or the few bytes that an object's position represents. Dedicated networks that you probably have not heard of like LoRa and SigFox have been created especially for the Internet of Things.

They cover cells larger than those of mobile phones and they are much cheaper to operate, among other things, because they consume very little energy. Their deployment in populated areas is progressing well, but there is no reason at the moment to extend them to the more than 90% of the planet's rural or maritime areas that are sparsely habited or not at all.

Connecting the unconnected areas is the raison d'être of Astrocast. The founders of Astrocast, who come from the Swiss Space Center of the EPFL (Swiss Institute of Technology in Lausanne), participated in the adventure of the first Swiss satellite SwissCube in 2009. They created the company in 2014 to develop other nanosatellites as well as low-power electronic modules, communication protocols, and data encryption to offer a turnkey service to customers whose connected objects are particularly scattered: buoys in the oceans, cattle in the mountains of New Zealand and vaccines, etc...

Astrocast had already collaborated with the ICRC to track vehicles, water tanks, medicines, and other logistical elements deployed by the Red Cross in areas at risk. The start-up is currently in discussions with partners in the distribution of vaccines not only against coronavirus but also for other diseases. The company has already placed two demonstration satellites in orbit and is planning five launches by the end of the year.

Although targeting 80 satellites, it will already be able to operate commercially with seven. Each one is capable of collecting data from hundreds of connected objects every second during each flight over areas as large as France. A narrower mesh will simply make it possible to increase the number of connected objects and reduce the latency between different data collections.