Next-Gen LEO/MEO Satellites Can Make a Difference for Defense

By Anne Wainscott-Sargent | June 20, 2018
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Photo courtesy of LeoSat

Commercial enterprises and consumers in underserved markets are not the only industry segments excited about the potential of low-Earth orbit (LEO) and medium-Earth orbit (MEO) satellites, which soon will launch into orbit, bringing new capabilities to a variety of users. The defense community increasingly recognizes the powerful capabilities of these emerging constellations for meeting the military’s continuous need for low-latency high bandwidth for missions at sea, over land and in the air.

The U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency’s (DISA) recent request for information (RFI) calling for a low-latency satellite connectivity solution underscores the government’s openness for considering new non-geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) solutions. And that cooperative posture also has been illustrated during the U.S. Air Force’s wideband analysis of alternatives (AoA) exercise to define the future space architecture, where several LEO and MEO companies put forth their recommendations.

The Pentagon is drawn to the new wave of LEO/MEO capabilities because of their potential to offer fast reach-back communications for forward-operating units. Their closer proximity to Earth allows them to deliver ultra-high bandwidth with much less delay compared with GEO satellites.

The SES-owned O3b MEO satellite constellation (now known as SES Networks) is the first in a wave of these new satellites going operational. It consists of 12 satellites in orbit, with eight more planned for launch over the next year to year-and-a-half, according to Tim Deaver, corporate VP of development and strategy for SES Government Solutions.

“Government interest is growing day by day as they start to appreciate the capabilities and see the benefits they can get from low latency and high throughput,” said Deaver, explaining that depending on the size of antennas, a user can get throughputs as high as 1.6 gbps.

SES isn’t the only company seeing strong interest from the military constellations. “Across government in general, we’re seeing a huge demand for really robust communication that offers high throughput and very little latency. It’s all been very positive for us,” said Michael Abad-Santos, LeoSat’s SVP for the Americas.

LeoSat is working with Thales Alenia Space to build its optical-based constellation, which will offer high-speed, low-latency and highly secure communications and bandwidth for business operations in the telecom backhaul, energy, government, maritime and international business markets.

OneWeb, the LEO constellation started by Greg Wyler, founder of O3b, “is very far along in the process” of building its constellation of 900 low-cost, ultra-high performance satellites that will begin launching next year, Wyler noted.

“The military has the same requirements as commercial — they want lots of low latency bandwidth on every device in every location in the world,” said Wyler, OneWeb founder and executive chairman. “[Defense customers] want a single supplier and single terminal with global availability; they want extremely high throughput in a small terminal and they want a single terminal across moving and fixed assets.”

Wyler told Via Satellite that while OneWeb’s primary mission is bridging the digital divide between internet “haves” and “have-nots” by 2027, the company sees its constellation also meeting the needs of many other use cases for fiber-quality high throughput.

Abad-Santos said LeoSat is on schedule to launch two demonstration satellites in the second half of 2019. Launch of the production satellites will begin in late 2020 and the constellation should be complete by 2022. According to Abad-Santos, LeoSat plans initially to launch 78 satellites to provide full global coverage with six in-orbit spares. It can add additional satellites as needed to augment capacity, potentially growing to a constellation of 108 satellites. The provider will use lasers for inter-satellite, or satellite-to-satellite, links and not space to ground, where fog and other weather conditions can adversely affect optical signals.

“We want customers with really high communications requirements,” Abad-Santos said. “We are not looking to bring broadband down to every single person in the world. We want to provide carrier-grade telecommunications services via space.”

LeoSat hopes to provide transport satcom as well as network and telecommunications architecture “at greater-than-fiber speeds to remote places anywhere in the world.”

“In some cases, our latency statistics are actually better than terrestrial fiber because light travels faster through space than it does through glass,” Abad-Santos said.

Both LeoSat and OneWeb have received high-profile funding — SKY Perfect JSAT became an anchor investor in LeoSat in May, while OneWeb received $1 billion from Japan’s SoftBank last December, making it a 20% equity owner. OneWeb also has partnered with Airbus on its new high-volume production facility in Exploration Park, Florida.

The big question is how well these new entrants can address the military’s unique requirements in space and on the ground with flexible, high-performance terminal and antenna solutions since LEO constellations require more dynamic antenna capabilities than traditional parabolic antennas.

“What needs to change is the ground infrastructure — you can’t build a LEO constellation realistically with two parabolic antennas and expect to reach the scale and volume that these providers talk about,” said Brad Grady, senior analyst in Northern Sky Research’s (NSR) Washington, D.C. office, and the lead author of NSR’s Government/Military Satellite Communications Report for the last seven years. “If you really want to connect airplanes, UAVs and smaller boats, you are going to have to get into the flat-panel world.” (Read more about how one industry innovator is approaching the market need for next-generation LEO/MEO terminals below).

One fact is clear: the military needs all the bandwidth it can get. NSR estimates that the defense sector will require about 14 gbps of non-GEO HTS capacity demand by 2025, representing an 18% annual growth rate from 2015. U.S. defense already is the single largest consumer of commercial satcom, according to DISA, with leased capacity standing at seven GHz. It’s a capacity need that MEO and LEO providers are more than poised to fill.

“Our first phase of satellites will be the highest performing and most efficient LEO satellites period. Each satellite will be capable of generating more than 10 gigabits per second of throughput at a mass per throughput of less than 13 k/gbps,” said OneWeb’s Wyler. “We are three to four times more efficient than even the many constellation concepts people talk about wanting to build. We’ve achieved this by being elegant and simple in our design.”

Wyler acknowledged that LEO constellations face vulnerabilities by the sheer number of small satellites in low-Earth orbit, which is why OneWeb avoided overcomplicating its constellation’s design “to minimize vulnerabilities across the board.”

LeoSat’s design is unique in that each satellite will carry four lasers. “Each of those lasers will be able to transmit a minimum of 10 gigabits per second to the adjacent satellites,” said Abad-Santos. “We’re eliminating the need for terrestrial gateways and large terrestrial infrastructure — re-routing traffic around the satellites themselves, so we get true rooftop-to-rooftop communications.”

Key Defense Applications

Photo courtesy of LeoSat

Data transport is a sweet spot for LeoSat’s constellation, though all the LEOs and MEOs can support real-time command-and-control applications, including transporting UAV Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) data from an area of operation to analysis centers in the U.S.

“Secure embassy communications is a perfect fit for us because we can bypass terrestrial networks so your data is secure,” said Abad-Santos, who anticipates defense accounting for 40 percent of LeoSat’s customers with 60 percent being commercial enterprises. “That was one of the key factors for JSAT choosing LeoSat as a partner was the applicability for government customers,” he adds.

The U.S. military’s appetite for new connectivity options is well established. In July, SES Government Solutions signed a five-year task order to provide an additional satellite beam’s worth of capacity to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to support military field operations.

Deaver said by leasing an entire beam of 432 MHz, the government can split up capacity among different users, giving them “the flexibility they need.”

“We’re able to provide better resiliency than fiber for them today. Now they are starting to see that and look at not just replacing a GEO satcom link, but also using it for backup in isolated locations as a way to restore high-throughput to an area or to augment and replace unreliable fiber capacity,” Deaver said.

The ability to quickly access video intelligence is a key need, adds Deaver, noting that users can download and watch video files in real time instead of just downloading five-minute clips like they used to do. “We’ve demonstrated doing six to eight high definition (HD), full-motion videos at a time while downloading a large file in the background,” he said, explaining that operators do not have to deploy forward additional infrastructure into theater but instead can do reach back, especially in locations without reliable communications infrastructure. Deaver said the MEO service is already bolstering fiber capacity in American Samoa in the Pacific in addition to deploying service to the Middle East and Africa.

Wyler said OneWeb’s constellation will offer the highest performance among planned LEO constellations when launched, capable of generating seven terabits per second of total throughput. While the company has not publicly announced its ground terminal partners, its founder said the industry can expect “new levels of small, light and cheap terminals.”

“We will be making some surprising additions that will massively increase our published throughput in order to achieve our mission,” Wyler said.

NSR’s Grady predicts that the government market for LEO/MEO won’t fully take off until the ground infrastructure is “settled and questions about network flexibility are addressed.” Nevertheless, he remains optimistic about military prospects for non-GEO satellites going forward, citing two reasons. “One, the technology is getting better and more real than it ever has before; two, there are higher demands for low-latency, higher throughput connections, and managing costs,” he said.

Grady concluded: “You are always going to need to have wideband capacity with legacy terminals or systems. Non-GEO growth doesn’t have to come at the expense of growth everywhere else. But there definitely will be places where low latency matters, where throughput matters, and relative to cost.”

The Ground Equation: One Antenna Firm Shares What will Drive Next-Gen LEO/MEO Systems

With all the excitement around MEO/LEO satellites, one fact has emerged: the need for a different kind of antenna.

“Everyone has figured out that the critical point in launching these new constellations is the antenna system. You can’t have a successful non-GEO network without a very agile, very capable antenna technology,” said David Helfgott, CEO of Phasor, one of a handful of antenna technology providers who will plan to offer Commercial-Off-the-Shelf (COTS) antenna solutions for these up-and-coming constellations in the next 12 to 36 months.

Helfgott’s company has spent nearly six years developing a new kind of agile antenna for land-mobile, aeronautical and maritime satellite communication applications, which will first be proven in the commercial marketplace before introduction to the defense market. Phasor’s partners include Intelsat and Gogo, an in-flight broadband Internet Service Provider (ISP), though the company plans to first demonstrate its antenna in the maritime arena in late 2018 immediately followed by demos in the commercial land-mobile and aeronautical markets.

Helfgott said with the antenna capabilities coming online soon, cost will not be an issue like it was during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s when military-grade phased arrays were hand-calibrated, analog, rigid and extremely expensive.

“You now have something that is much more like 5G with multi-beam forming but in the higher wideband satcom frequencies of Ku and Ka. You’ll have the ability to software-define the beam, the beam width, the tracking speeds, the adjacent satellite interference — things you cannot do with a mechanical antenna of any kind.”

Phasor’s antennas also will be able to interoperate between LEO and GEO constellations, giving military or other users the ability to switch between constellations seamlessly. “We’ll be able to hand off from a GEO satellite to a LEO passing overhead at the poles or in very northern or very southern latitudes, where before users would have to turn to narrowband satellites,” Helfgott explained, adding that his firm is scaling to offer more than 200 megabits per second, enabling electronically steerable antenna (ESA) systems.

“We don’t see our commercial technology needing to become MIL-spec — for fighter jets, for example — but we do see the potential as an excellent capability as modified COTS technology, on air transport and Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) platforms and certainly expeditionary and littoral maritime applications.”

While he wouldn’t provide specific pricing information pre-product launch, Helfgott said that a modified COTS solution from his company will “always be less costly than a defense industry-sponsored technology.”

“We’ve had plenty of interest and inquiries from various programs and defense contractors,” he said, adding that as the commercial market begins to leverage the technology, the military sector will follow soon after.

This was originally published at Via Satellite.

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