To fly combat missions around the globe, the Defense Department’s Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles rely on satellite communication links that allow Air Force pilots to direct the aircraft from ground control stations based in the continental United States.
The communications-hungry drones consume large amounts of bandwidth to pipe battlefield video feeds and other sensor data back to intelligence centers and to forces on the ground. As a result, satellites are becoming overloaded by the never-ending demand. Experts say the problem will only grow worse as the services increase the number of remotely piloted aircraft in the skies.
The Defense Department’s space sector is struggling to keep pace with the proliferation of drones. Since the 2009 cancelation of the Air Force’s Transformational Satellite program, which was supposed to provide more capacity for overloaded military satellite communication networks, Air Force officials increasingly have turned to commercial providers to make up the difference. Nearly 80 percent of the U.S. government’s satellite communications capacity comes from the commercial sector, experts say.
Part of the challenge there for the Defense Department is providing a means for transmitting information securely over these networks. Communications routed through commercial providers are largely not protected to the same degree as transmissions over military-owned satellites, which require encryption and other security measures that safeguard them from attack. Though the ultimate plan is to move all of the Defense Department’s battle-hardened space-based communication needs onto military systems — a transition that analysts say could take years, even decades — Pentagon officials for the foreseeable future will remain dependent upon commercial providers to supplement the network.
“As satellites become more expensive and the government has less money, they are looking for ways to be able to increase the amount of satellite bandwidth available,” said William Ostrove, space systems analyst at Forecast International. “They don’t have money to buy their own so they’re going to commercial satellite operators … to get that capacity without having to buy and launch their own satellites.”
Commercial satellite operators are agile partners that are capable of making fast decisions that produce space systems in as little as three years, said Joseph Vanderpoorten, technical director of the advanced concepts group at the Defense Department’s military satellite communications systems directorate. Speaking on a panel at a recent satellite industry conference in Washington D.C., he told attendees that the command recently awarded a handful of contracts, several of which went to “nontraditional” partners. That marks a significant shift in the way the military typically conducts business in space systems, he said.
Forecast International projects that the global market for commercial communications satellites will be worth $51.9 billion in the next 10 years. During that time, manufacturers will produce about 461 individual satellites.
“It’s a strong market going forward,” said Ostrove, who recently completed a report on the topic for the Newtown, Conn.-based firm.
“You have a lot of demand for satellite services. Especially as more and more bandwidth is required, you will need more transponders in orbit,” he said.
The demand for space-based connectivity not only is coming from military requirements to control unmanned aircraft and communicate with troops, but it also is being driven by the growing civilian appetite for satellite TV and Internet services in less developed areas of the globe, including Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.
To ramp up services to satisfy those demands, commercial companies in the next few years will be upgrading their geosynchronous satellite fleets — the space systems orbiting the planet in fixed positions at more than 22,000 miles above the equator. In the middle of the decade, the report forecasts an uptick in orders for low-Earth orbit transponders — satellites located several hundred miles above the surface racing at high speeds around the globe. Toward the end of the decade, the practice of governments deploying small space technologies aboard commercial satellites — a concept called “hosted payloads” — also is expected to gain popularity, Ostrove said.
Those trends, coupled with the Defense Department’s skyrocketing demand for unmanned systems, mean that the government will have to collaborate more closely with commercial providers to ensure that the new satellites and space-based communication technologies will support battlefield commanders’ needs, industry experts said. The conversation must take place now, they emphasized.
The growth of unmanned systems is being grossly underestimated, warned Tip Osterthaler, CEO and president of SES World Skies U.S. Government Solutions. Despite combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, the need for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities will only continue to escalate, he said. “Fewer boots on the ground mean more eyes in the sky,” the retired Air Force brigadier general explained during a panel discussion at the satellite conference.
By 2020, the government will operate nearly 800 satellite communications-enabled unmanned systems, officials said. Predators and Reapers will account for the majority, with the Army’s new Gray Eagle UAS, the Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance aircraft and the Air Force’s Global Hawk rounding out the total. They will continue to constrain available satellite networks, many of which were designed in previous decades when unmanned aircraft communication was not even a requirement.
Industry is willing to make the investments to better meet military demands, company officials said. But the commercial investors expect a reasonable return for their money.
“If commercial operators are going to continue to be responsive and provide needed capabilities, then we need to get more serious about how we conduct those conversations so the people who provide the capital have a reason to do what the government needs them to do,” said Osterthaler. Holding more sophisticated discussions about standards and involving commercial industry in the formation of any new military architecture is paramount, experts said.
“We need a real partnership between the Defense Department and the space industry to mind the bandwidth availability gap and to do it now,” said Britt Lewis, vice president of marketing and business strategy at Intelsat General Corp. The Bethesda, Md.-based firm, a subsidiary of Intelsat, one of the largest providers of fixed and mobile satellite services, supports nearly 60 “threads,” or combat air patrols of drones, with data-rates ranging from 3 to 47 megabits per second. Its services are providing 330 megabits overall for UAS, he told the conference.
The government will be procuring nearly $50 billion worth of remotely piloted aircraft by 2020, at a rate of 70 to 100 medium-altitude UAS per year, all with satellite communication capability. Those new systems will require data throughput rates of 10 to 16 megabits per second. High-altitude systems, such as Global Hawk, will need even faster data rates, as high as 138 megabits per second, all driven by advanced sensor suites comprising high-definition cameras, wide area surveillance technology and simultaneous video feeds.
“The rate of growth in sensor bandwidth has been pretty astonishing,” said Peter Hadinger, director of emerging program and technology initiatives at Northrop Grumman Corp.
The minimum acceptable bandwidth for sensors is in the 10 to 20 megabits per second rate, he said. “We find that the real demand on the sensor on the front end tends to run at the 50 to 100 megabit per second rate. And we have a number of sensors out there which operate at several hundreds of megabits per second if only they could get the links that would support” them, he said.
The bandwidth challenges if not addressed will cause even more headaches down the road as drone missions expand. Soldiers are exploring the utility of UAS as flying versions of today’s truck-mounted communication network nodes.
“We’re seeing increasing interest to use aircraft as those communications relay nodes,” Hadinger said.
To help ease the communications traffic, Defense Department officials want to transition UAS communication operations from the Ku-band spectrum to the higher Ka-band frequencies, which have more bandwidth and would allow troops greater command and control of their drones. The Wideband Global SatCom (WGS), the department’s newest and still growing constellation of satellites, has two-way Ka-band capability.
While commercial satellites do operate in the Ka-band range, most of the frequencies there tend to be employed for broadcasting purposes, so there is not much commercially-developed spectrum with the right characteristics to support UAS, Osterthaler pointed out.
“We’re in a situation now where it would be pretty tough to support the initial ramp up of capabilities if there were some other contingency in the near term,” he warned.
WGS has “exotic” Ka-band apertures that may be incompatible with existing terminals that are used to transmit signals from satellite to vehicle to network and back, he said. A continued and focused dialogue between government and industry could help standardize satellite communications so that there is only one way to interface with the ground, Osterthaler said.
That those terminals are not synchronized with space capability is a travesty, said Rebecca Cowan-Hirsch, president of Inmarsat Government Services, Inc. Future terminals ought to incorporate technology flexible enough to tune throughout adjacent frequency bands, such as military-commercial Ka, she said.
Boeing Co.’s Jim Simpson, vice president of business development for the space and intelligence systems sector, said that the company is looking at how to blur the lines more between commercial and government capabilities.
“There is a lot to be done in communications to enable [unmanned air vehicles] to be more useable,” Simpson said. “UAVs are standing down because there is not enough communications to utilize them.”