New Government Airborne Applications Drive Need for Unique Satellite Capabilities

By Woodrow Bellamy III  | March 9, 2016
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[Avionics Today 03-09-2016] Over the next decade, government and military end users in the United States and around the world are going to continue to unlock and establish innovative new uses of satellites to support broadband communications and the transfer of mission-critical data and information on a daily basis. The challenge for individual satellite operators will be adapting to the unique requirements of some of the new manned and unmanned airborne applications coming into the market. 
An F-35A Lightning II parks for the night under the sunshades at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. Photo: U.S. Air Force.
On the “Airborne Satellite Services for Government Needs” panel at the SATELLITE 2016 Conference & Exhibition, executives from SES Government Solutions (SES-GS), Inmarsat, Intelsat General, and Kratos Defense & Security Solutions gave their perspectives on how their companies are dealing with growth in demand for new airborne applications on manned and unmanned platforms.
Peter Hadinger, president of the U.S. government business unit at Inmarsat, summed up the primary needs that his company is seeing in terms of new airborne applications for government and military users in four words: coverage, consistency, reliability and regulatory. 
“Now we have over 200 beams worldwide serving aero customers in Ka band. Consistency is important because you don’t want to be at the edge of some large coverage area where the performance is not the same at the edge of coverage as it is in the center of the beam, and you find that you have a 10 to one difference in your throughput or that your routing takes you through all types of other places,” said Hadinger. 
Other major trends discussed by the panel in terms of supporting government and military airborne applications are the factors associated with overall growth and intensity of satellite networks and the applications that they support. Peter Hoehne, president and CEO at SES-GS, believes that congestion and Adjacent Satellite Interference (ASI) are issues that the satellite industry as a whole still has not been able to address. While the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has published several research and policy papers on the ASI issues, there’s currently no real in-depth regulatory schema available to address the issue and there have not been major efforts by the industry to address ASI either, according to Hoehne.
“It’s one of those things that we really can’t stop but we need to do a better job about it. At any time your fleet or my fleet can have hundreds of MHz impacted by interference. There’s really no teeth in the ITU in how they address that,” said Hoehne. 
Hoehne also discussed what he sees as the coming disruption and issues with business models that will occur in the next 5 to 10 years, if not sooner, as High Throughput Satellites (HTS) become more common. SES-GS, for example, has discussed the possibilities that its HTS SES 14 and 15 can provide in the commercial aircraft market, such as real time streaming of Flight Data Recorder (FDR) data, and greatly lowering the cost of such applications.  But Hoehne believes there will be cost issues associated with that on the owner operator side, which are still evolving.
“As we move into HTS, think of the disruption that is going to cause,” said Hoehne. “A substantial amount of capacity that we previously did not have. What is that going to do to the overall price per bit? For you as consumers, that’s going to be a good thing. For us as owner operators, we have to figure out what the value proposition is to take advantage of the extra capacity that is out there, and use that for innovative purposes.”
In addition to ensuring reliability and the new business models that will develop as HTS increasingly supports more government and military airborne applications, the continued growth and proliferation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for military and civil use is also going to present new issues for the satellite industry. Both Hoehne and Skot Butler discussed a major issue for the U.S. military not wanting to change the legacy onboard communications equipment currently being used on their larger UAV platforms, such as the Global Hawk and Triton. Switching the equipment on up to 300 UAVs would be too costly, though Butler still sees some opportunities there. 
“They don’t want to change out their communications architecture … they don’t want to pay that bill, and they are big users of wide band Ku. But I do believe there is opportunity here, they do want to increase their throughput, they have new sensors, new full motion video capabilities. We’ve got to be able to accommodate that, and new architecture like the Intelsat Epic, that type of high throughput architecture is going to allow that,” said Butler.
An issue the satellite network owner operators and their end-user UAV operational customers also face are the performance of the links between the aircraft antennas and the network itself. John Monahan, senior vice president of satellite products at Kratos Defense & Security Solutions and president of RT Logic, believes that as UAV applications become more intense and operators seek to use larger UAVs to launch swarms of smaller UAVs and use the larger platform to establish Local Area Network (LAN) capabilities with communications between the UAVs themselves, new link verification technology will be required. 
“If you are not aware of what is going on with that link, it can be taken over. You can have weather issues, you can have equipment failures and more. So embedding some sort of spectral awareness inside these links, I think is going to be important,” said Monahan. 

“We are in the process of building a new bandwidth-efficient common data link, small form factor radio that is about the size of an iPhone, and it’s got those embedded capabilities to detect when there is something going on with the [Radio Frequency] RF link. Then, the next step is going to be, can it automatically do something about that? And we have some technology that is being worked on there to,” he added. 

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