Apple has put together a covert team that’s working on new satellite technology that could send Internet services straight to mobile devices—bypassing wireless networks, Bloomberg reports. The company has about 12 aerospace, satellite and antenna design engineers working on the project. Apple’s goal is for the engineers to deploy their results within five years, according to people familiar with the project. Work on the project is still in the early stages and a clear direction and use for the satellites has yet to be determined. However, Apple CEO Tim Cook has shown interest in the project, Bloomberg reports.
Given Apple’s work on communications satellites and next-generation technology, the company’s likely goal is to beam data to user’s device and reduce dependence on wireless carriers as well as to connect devices without a traditional network, according to Bloomberg. It might also be looking at satellites to provide more exact location tracking for its devices, enabling better maps and new features.
There’s currently no indication if Apple plans to take on developing a satellite constellation itself or deploy equipment that would take data from existing satellites and transmit it to user’s devices. Apple declined to comment on the project.
Satellite projects haven’t found much success so far
According to Bloomberg, Amazon plans to deploy more than 3,000 satellites as part of a future constellation, but the industry has had little success to this point. Iridium LLC filed for bankruptcy protection 20 years ago while Teledesic scrapped its “Internet from the Sky” idea more than a decade ago. Facebook, SpaceX and Amazon’s more current efforts aren’t expected to generate revenue in the near future. Apple meanwhile typically doesn’t go into a new vertical 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,” Tim Farrar, a satellite expert and principal at TMF associates told Bloomberg.
Apple brings several experts on board
Apple has begun to hire new software and hardware experts for its satellite team—the company has been looking for engineers with backgrounds in designing communications equipment components. Apple also hired more executives from aerospace and wireless data delivery fields. Michael Trela and John Fenwick, former aerospace engineers who helped lead satellite imaging company Skybox Imaging before it sold to Google in 2014, are leading the team. Trela and Fenwick left Google in 2017 to start the new initiative at Apple, according to Bloomberg’s reporting.
The pair explored the possibility of developing satellite technology and examined the problem they wanted to solve during its first year and a half at Apple. Work began to intensify in recent months, but Apple’s efforts hit a roadblock when the satellite team’s prior leader, Greg Duffy, left the company. Since Duffy’s departure, Apple has hired people from the wireless industry, including engineer Matt Ettus, Bloomberg reports. Ettus created Ettus Research, which sells wireless networking equipment.
The company also hired Ashley Moore Williams, a former Aerospace Corp. executive who specialized in communication satellites and former Netflix executive Daniel Ellis, who oversaw the company’s Content Delivery Network. Ellis’ background includes building networks that can send content and information globally.
According to Bloomberg, the satellite technology work is just one special project Apple has in development. The company is also working on a virtual reality headset, augmented reality glasses, self-driving vehicle technology and more. Apple has expanded it research and development budget under Cook’s leadership, as it wants to bring more of the tech behind its products in house. Apple’s internal development goal could be a possibility if Apple’s satellite project is successful.