Apple Inc is striving to find new ways to beam data such as internet connectivity directly to its mobile devices. According to people familiar with Apple the Tech Giant has a secret team working on satellites and related wireless technology.
Consequently Apple has about a dozen engineers from the aerospace, satellite and antenna design industries working on the project. With a lofty goal of deploying their results within five years. According to Apple insiders the work on the project is still in its early stages and could be abandoned.
As a result a clear direction and use for satellites hasn’t been finalized. Still, Apple Chief Tim Cook has shown interest in the project, indicating it’s a company priority.
Development of a satellite constellation
Apple’s work on communications satellites and next-generation wireless technology means the aim is likely to beam data to a user’s device. As a result mitigating the dependence on wireless carriers. Also eliminating linking devices together without a traditional network.
Apple could also be exploring satellites for more precise location tracking for its devices. Thus enabling improved maps and new features.
It’s not clear if Apple intends to pursue the costly development of a satellite constellation. Apple may simply focus on-the-ground equipment that would take data from existing satellites and send it to mobile devices. Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Boeing are some of the biggest satellite makers. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.
Facebook, SpaceX and Amazon future constellation
Amazon.com plans to deploy more than 3,000 satellites as part of a future constellation. However, the industry is littered with failures. Iridium LLC filed for bankruptcy protection in 1999. While Teledesic abandoned its “internet from the sky” plan more than a decade ago. Newer efforts from Facebook, SpaceX and Amazon are a long way from generating revenue. Apple rarely enters new categories without a clear way to make money.
“The lessons of prior failures like Iridium, Globalstar and Teledesic are that it’s really hard to find a viable business plan for multibillion-dollar satellite communications projects,” said Tim Farrar, a satellite expert and principal at TMF associates.
In recent months, Apple has started hiring new software and hardware experts for the team. Consequently seeking engineers with experience in designing components for communications equipment. The company has also hired additional executives from the aerospace and wireless data delivery fields.
The team is led by Michael Trela and John Fenwick, a former aerospace engineers. They both helped lead satellite imaging company Skybox Imaging before it sold to Google in 2014. The pair led Google’s satellite and spacecraft operations until leaving together in 2017. They begin a new initiative at Apple, Bloomberg News reported at the time.
Aerospace focused on communication
During their first year and a half at Apple, Trela and Fenwick explored the feasibility of developing satellite technology. Also understanding the problem they want to solve. In recent months they have started intensifying work on the project. The effort suffered a setback earlier this year when its previous leader, Greg Duffy, left Apple.
Duffy, was the co-founder of camera startup Dropcam, which Google acquired in 2014.
On his LinkedIn profile, Duffy said he worked on projects involving “satellite communications, wireless, and home products/technologies.” He declined to comment more specifically on his work at Apple.
Trela and Fenwick still work within Apple’s hardware engineering division. However they now report to Riccio’s lieutenant in charge of iPhone engineering.
The team has recently added people from the wireless industry. Including engineer Matt Ettus, who now helps lead the initiative, people familiar with the team said. Ettus is one of the foremost names in wireless technologies and created Ettus Research, a National Instruments-owned firm that sells wireless networking equipment.
Apple has also hired Ashley Moore Williams, a longtime executive from Aerospace who focused on communication satellites, and Daniel Ellis, a former Netflix executive who helped oversee the company’s Content Delivery Network, or CDN. Ellis has experience in building networks that can beam content and information on a global scale.
The work on satellite technology is one of several “special projects” — an Apple term for skunkworks initiatives or development of major new product categories — under way at the company, Bloomberg reports.
Apples virtual reality headsets
As Bloomberg has previously reported, Apple also is working on a virtual reality headset. The headset is due to debut as early as 2021. Also augmented reality glasses for launch after that.
Apple is also expanding its in-house chip development, seeking to replace Intel Corp. as its Mac processor maker, and Intel and Qualcomm as the providers of its modem component for phones.
Under Cook, Apple has rapidly expanded its research and development budget, spending $16 billion in the 2019 fiscal year, an increase of 14% from the prior year, according to company filings. One of Apple’s primary goals is to bring more of the technology behind its products in house, which is what work on satellites could eventually enable.