ORLANDO, Fla. — The Army and Marine Corps want battlefield commanders to receive real-time streaming video, voice and other communications beamed down from satellites perched 22,000 miles above Earth.
The problem is that they must receive the data as they’re speeding down a highway in a humvee, Bradley Fighting Vehicle or Stryker.
“Imagery is becoming more of a predominant requirement even down to the tactical level than it ever has been in the past,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, special assistant to the secretary of the Army and the service’s chief information officer. “Communications on the move is going to become a requirement,” he said at the Milcom conference.
The Army and Marines are in the beginning stages of a joint program that will explore the possibility of allowing such communications. The Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force also have similar needs for their small boats and aircraft. Several major defense contractors are lining up to provide solutions. Meanwhile, a new generation of military communications satellites will make space-based mobile communications easier and less expensive.
In November, General Dynamics carried out an engineering test at Fort Dix, New Jersey, to show how communications on the move would work.
Humvees outfitted with terminals sped around the base, transmitted and received data linked to a commercial satellite, said Bill Weiss, vice president of tactical networks at General Dynamics’ C4 systems.
The company is the lead contractor for the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T). The second stage of that program calls for basic on-the-move broadband networking capability using either satellites or ground-based systems. Sorenson said the Army wants fully secure satcom on the move by the time the program reaches maturity.
Weiss said the technology is mature and can provide basic 256 kilobytes per second video into a vehicle. Initial results from the November tests “look good,” he told National Defense, but full reports were pending. Senior Army leaders observed the demonstration, he said.
Vendors pursuing a share of this potential market point out that antennas remain a sticking point.
Daniel Fraley, senior vice president engineering, chief technical officer at Hughes Network Systems, said ensuring that the antenna placed on a vehicle is inconspicuous is crucial. “The guy in the field who has got the antenna, he doesn’t want to be noticed …[That] is very important for the Defense Department.”
An antenna capable of two-way communications with a spacecraft in geo-synchronous orbit 22,000 miles above Earth can only get so small, Fraley pointed out. And such communication systems will be reserved for officers. A large dish encased in a plastic bubble makes an inviting target for bad guys.
Weiss said General Dynamics is using its Radome dish, which is encased in a bubble-like dome. One proposal calls for mounting the “dummy” domes without the expensive technology on all vehicles in combat so enemies could not tell where officers are riding, he added.
Other defense companies are working on ways to create lower profile antennas.
Steve Hennessy, business development manager at Harris Corp., said the amount of space on a vehicle is also an issue. A dish on a Bradley or Stryker may not pose a problem, but finding spots on the smaller humvee will be difficult. To receive and transmit signals using today’s communications satellites would require dishes about 15- to 16-inches wide.
Fraley said, “The trick with mobility is to have very good signal processing capability … so you can realize the smallest antenna size possible.”
The Transformational-Satellite system (T-Sat) will have such capabilities, and is envisioned as supporting on-the-move communication, but will not reach orbit until 2016, according to the latest estimates.
Meanwhile, the miniaturization revolution that has helped change many military technologies won’t be coming to the antenna world, experts said. The laws of physics prohibit such hopes.
Dish apertures can be cut down in size by an inch or two, Hennessy said, but then there is a loss in performance. Weiss pointed put that the less efficient the dish is, the more bandwidth the transmission requires. It is expensive for the Defense Department to lease capacity from commercial satellites. Even when it is employing its own satellites, this uses up scarce bandwidth resources, he added.
Some vendors are offering flat-panel antennas, but there can be problems with connectivity when the truck dips below the line of sight, Fraley said.
A phased-array antenna is one possible solution, but the technology is currently too expensive. It can be placed flat on a surface, though and would not be noticeable. Phased-array antennas use several smaller beams spread out a flat surface that join to make one. They are currently mounted on a variety of military platforms such as jet fighters.
George Vardakas, director of Army/Air Force communication systems at Raytheon Network Centric Systems, said the Army is looking at outfitting about 1,000 vehicles with satcom on the move. That’s not enough to reduce the price of manufacturing highly specialized phased-array antennas.
Hennessy estimated the cost of outfitting a vehicle with such technology at about $100,000 to $150,000 per vehicle. A phased array antenna would roughly double that. Placing them on an aircraft such as an F-22 is a drop in the bucket in terms of cost. Not so on a humvee, he noted.
Raytheon is putting its own dollars into research to bring phased-array prices down. There are “internal efforts within the company to expand that technology to get it into the higher volume markets and do communications,” Vardakas said.
T-Sat would use powerful transponders that would allow dishes to shrink to about 12 inches, said Marc Johansen, director of space and intelligence systems at the Boeing Co.
“It’s important for the Army to get smaller and smaller dishes because topside space on those vehicles is critical for weapons and other sensors,” he told reporters at the conference. The Army’s Future Combat Systems’ reliance on sensors will make space on top of vehicles scarce, he added. Army plans call for satcom-on-the-move capabilities for FCS vehicles.
“T-Sat is absolutely critical for the Army” for satcom on the move, he said.
Many of Boeing’s competitors disagreed. They are prepared to begin providing such services now.
“In my opinion, they’re not going to wait for T-Sat,” said Hennessy.
Hughes has a global system of satellites it either owns or can use in partnerships with other companies to provide the service, said Fraley. Hughes, after selling its satellite manufacturing business to Boeing in 2000, concentrated on providing commercial services such as satellite television and Internet connections to consumers. It is now marketing similar services to the Defense Department.
“We really didn’t have to do much to our commercial product to make it fully capable to support that particular mode of operation,” Fraley said. Hughes has undergone a series of operational tests to show the Defense Department it can provide satcom on the move today, he said. It is also pursuing business in the domestic market for first responders and the Coast Guard.
With a top-of-the-line antenna, and using Ka-band transponders, a terminal could receive 6 to 7 megabytes per second of data, and transmit back to the satellite 1 megabyte, he said. That would allow for streaming video.
Other players include DRS Technologies’ DRS Codem Systems Inc. business unit, which demonstrated an X-band satcom-on-the-move system aboard the office for force transformation’s Stiletto experimental naval craft last summer. Its terminal sent 3 megabytes per second of video feeds from the boat, which was participating in an exercise off the coast of Virginia, to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., according to a company statement XTAR LLC, a privately owned satellite system, provided the connectivity. The company has two satellites with a footprint reaching roughly from Denver east to Singapore. It is marketing its services exclusively to governments and militaries, said its website.
Boeing, meanwhile, is providing satcom on the move to VIP aircraft in the Air Force so its senior leaders can stay connected during long flights. Its now defunct Spaceways business unit, which was designed to provide Internet connection to commercial airliners, has lived on in an Air Force contract. Spaceways’ business plan collapsed in the wake of the post-9/11 airline slump, but the technology works, Boeing officials pointed out.
Aircraft, boats and ground vehicles all have their own sets of problems. In the end, it’s all about maintaining contact with the satellite, said Hennessy.
The pitching and yawing of a small boat, and movement over rough terrain in a vehicle makes a steady connection difficult.
“If you’re on ‘receive only’ and your dish kind of misses, it’s no big deal,” Hennessy said. The user sees a blip on the screen for a few seconds. When transmitting, if the humvee hits a bump in the road, it sends its signal hurtling out into space where it might be received by another communications satellite. “That’s not acceptable,” he added.
This makes tracking devices important, particularly in urban landscapes where tall buildings block signals.
Since the Army and Marine Corps expect to be fighting in cities for the foreseeable future, this remains another technological challenge, experts said.
“What’s important about that is how fast you regain coverage once you get unblocked,” said Fraley. “It’s important that you ride through that and maintain your connection to the satellite and the IP contacts.”
“The user experience can be very disappointing if you don’t recover from those kinds of things quickly,” he added
Not all connectivity must be satellite based, Hennessy pointed out.
The WIN-T program is designed to create an on-the-move “meshed” network. If a vehicle drives between tall buildings, it should remain connected as long as it can maintain contact with others.
“If he can see any other vehicle in the network, he’s connected,” said Hennessy.
Weiss said this “meshing” capability was demonstrated during the Fort Dix test.
Aerostats, unmanned aerial vehicles, or regular aircraft patrolling in the area of operations could also provide on-the-move links, Johansen said, although he said numerous studies have shown that satellites are more cost efficient.