With plans to offer commercial tracking services in North America in February, Orbcomm Global L.P. has two satellites in orbit and is beta testing its global data-only communication system.

The Dulles, Va.-based company is licensed to create a 34-satellite system to provide worldwide data and geolocation services. Applications include vehicle tracking and location, pipeline monitoring and two-way data transmission. The project is expected to cost $220 million.

“It is our plan to begin generating revenue as soon as we have production communicators,” said Orbcomm President Alan Parker. “That will be the real test of the service.”

Last spring, Orbcomm launched the first of its small, lightweight low-earth-orbiting satellites. While in orbit, one satellite required a software correction and transmission timing was changed in the second to correct noise interference. Both are performing well now in beta tests with resellers, said Robert Pizzimenti, Orbcomm executive vice president of marketing and business development.

Communicators are scheduled to be available in February from three vendors, Panasonic KME, Elisra Electronic Systems of Israel and Torrey Science Corp. of San Diego.

The system operates on the VHF band at 137-138 MHz. “That’s the most common frequency for radio communications around the world. Our subscriber equipment can be made less expensively,” Pizzimenti said.

With two satellites, Orbcomm isn’t quite ready for all-encompassing messaging, but it is ready to provide tracking service to the transportation industry.

For instance, Qualcomm Inc.’s OmniTracs division has contracted with Orbcomm to resell Orbcomm service to its OmniTracs customers. Qualcomm will have exclusive resale rights in some markets. Orbcomm’s service allows untethered trailer tracking. Currently, OmniTracs leases satellite time from a GE Americom geostationary satellite to provide tethered trailer tracking, meaning only the truck is monitored.

But trucks and trailers often have different owners. Trailer owners need to track their trailers independently of the truck. The Orbcomm data communicator, which sells for less than $1,000, attaches to a trailer. Torrey Science said proprietary technology allows the terminals to receive downlink frequencies without interference from the transmissions of nearby terminals.

In addition to satellites, Orbcomm has installed ground infrastructure in the United States, with gateway earth stations located in Arizona, upstate New York, Georgia and Washington state. The network control center is in Dulles and has passed more than 300,000 messages in tests so far.

“Software in the data device sends periodic messages to the satellite, which goes through the gateway relay station to the network control center. Information can be routed to the owner,” Pizzimenti said.

With two satellites, reports can be acquired eight to 10 times a day. With the full constellation, the communicators can report in real time, Pizzimenti said.

“Even at once a day, it’s an improvement over the current system,” Pizzimenti said. And the information goes both ways. Owners can send signals to communicators, asking the trailer to report its location. If a precise location is sought, the global positioning satellite system can be used. Orbcomm’s satellites provide less precise tracking.

“Untethered trailer tracking is becoming popular as the market goes to intermodal, such as having to track trailers (being shipped) on trains,” said Marilyn Jordan, OmniTracs spokeswoman. “Untethered trailer tracking opens a new area for fleets to better track their assets.”

Orbcomm is a 50-50 partnership between Teleglobe Inc. of Montreal and Orbital Sciences Corp., which built the satellites.

While the firm is licensed for 34 satellites, Orbcomm’s business plan calls for launching 28 satellites. In addition to the satellites already launched, the company plans to launch two satellites in polar orbit in late 1996 or early 1997, and three sets of eight satellites in 1997.


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