Autonomous vehicles.

China’s Geely joins the space race with LEO satellites launched for autonomous vehicles. (Photo by AFP) / China OUT

China’s Geely launches first batch of LEO satellites for autonomous vehicles

  • Geely successfully sent nine satellites last week into low earth orbit as it builds out a network to provide more accurate navigation for autonomous vehicles.
  • The company expects another 63 to be in orbit by 2025 and eventually plans to have a constellation of 240.
  • Increasing number of automakers are opting for satellite connectivity to power the next generation of car technology.

It is commonly known that autonomous vehicles generate a huge amount of data that needs to be responded with quick turn-around-time. In fact, Morgan Stanley highlighted that self-driving vehicles can actually generate as much as 40 terabytes of data an hour from cameras, radar, and other sensors—and would need much more than that to navigate roads alone.

Of course, most newer self-driving vehicles come with a modem under the dashboard and receive data via the same towers that serve your cell phone. However, coverage can be spotty—a huge downside for autonomous vehicles. That said, with terrestrial access to broadband being increasingly constrained, more internet service providers and even automakers are looking to the skies for connectivity.

The most recent venture into space is by China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, when it successfully conducted its first satellite launch last week, sending nine into low earth orbit (LEO) as it builds out a satellite network to provide more accurate navigation for autonomous vehicles.

According to a Reuters report, the self-designed and manufactured GeeSAT-1 satellites were launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

“With the launch, Geely becomes the second major automaker to have an allied space business. SpaceX, owned by Tesla Inc’s chief Elon Musk is at the forefront when it comes to satellites for electric cars. Musk has deployed more than 2,000 satellites that operate in LEO, which is about 350 miles from the planet’s surface, compared with about 22,300 miles for traditional satellites. 

Even Apple Inc is rumored to be adding satellite communications technology to the next-generation iPhone, which will allow users to make calls or receive and send messages in areas of poor 4G or 5G coverage. Such relative proximity allows LEO satellites to communicate faster with people and things on Earth, tackling space-based communication’s biggest drawback: signal delay. 

Although the existence of 5G networks is there, it is still constrained to only a certain area — which means the use of satellites is expected to allow autonomous cars to reach further areas. Chris Quilty, a space industry consultant and founder of Quilty Analytics, highlighted to Bloomberg that only 10% to 15% of the air surface is covered by cellular networks. Satellites may just be able to solve the need for real-time updates, especially on information to and from autonomous vehicles.

Geely started manufacturing satellites in October 2021, to create a high-precision navigation network that will guide self-driving cars.  Geely is even ambitious to use its low-orbit satellites to provide low-latency centimeter-level positioning service for other smart mobility applications such as automatic parking, and even low-altitude flights.

Geely also said its network of newly-launched satellites will also serve other commercial functions such as providing communication services at the Asian Games in September.

“The satellites have an operating lifespan of five years and will disintegrate in earth’s atmosphere without leaving any space debris,” the company added.