Commercial Innovations Heighten Satellite Communications

Governments and the private sector stand to benefit from burgeoning advances.

The commercial satellite industry is harnessing a perfect storm of technological advancements, cost reductions and increased emphasis on mobile communications to provide greater global connectivity. Innovation is reaching all aspects of the industry, from satellite manufacturing, satellite launch services and satellite ground equipment to satellite services, industry officials report, driving cost savings and performance gains.

The $269 billion industry is booming, more than doubling revenue since 2007, when it was $122 billion, according to this year’s Satellite Industry Association “State of the Satellite Industry Report.” A total of 1,738 satellites are in operation. And in the last five years, the number of satellite launches grew by 147 percent, due in part to an increase in the number of small low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites launched, the report states. Fueled by less expensive launch vehicles, average launch costs dropped 40 percent last year, compared with 2016.

Commercial satellite operators such as Hughes Network Systems LLC, Intelsat SA and SES SA are at the nexus of this evolutionary process, leveraging advances to provide various forms of satellite communications (SATCOM). Satellite operators are pursuing high-throughput satellites (HTS), end-to-end architecture, efficient waveforms, cost reductions and higher performance.

In addition, operators continue to provide connectivity to mobile platforms—planes, trains, ships, trucks and automobiles—and strive to reach underserved populations across the world not just with geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) satellites but also with LEO satellites, officials say. Software-based artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation, coupled with electronic and hardware innovations, increased interoperability and waveform advancements all help pave the way for increased SATCOM efficiency and connectivity.

Ten years ago, the satellite industry was somewhat of a niche business “hidden in the B2B [business-to-business] and a little bit in its own world,” says Markus Payer, vice president, corporate communications and public relations at SES, headquartered in Luxembourg.

“Now we are investing and engaging in many, many, many other segments, industries and markets. Revolutions are happening not only on what satellite technology is and how it’s designed but also on rocket launchers, with reusing rockets and flying again. The entire ecosystem is changing.”

A flow of investment from the private sector has spurred industry advancements. And demand for SATCOM continues to be a huge driver. “One thing is certain,” Payer exclaims. “The demand for capacity to transmit data, and to transmit video signals, and to have connectivity and high throughput—all of this has never been larger than today.”

SES, which has an HTS broadband fleet operating in two orbits, is bringing video to emerging markets and developing satellite connections for the transportation industry, corporations and governments, he says. It is working closely with companies such as SpaceX, ArianeGroup, Boeing, Airbus, Thales and Orbital ATK. “With Boeing, we have ordered a couple of new satellites that entirely change the notion of what a satellite is,” Payer notes.

In a joint venture with the government of Luxembourg, SES in January launched “a totally unique government satellite,” he states. Known as GovSat, the satellite offers secure, dedicated frequencies—X band and military Ka band—for governments and the military, frequencies that Luxembourg has the rights to as a nation.

While Luxembourg has committed part of the satellite’s capacity to fulfill its NATO obligations, some capacity remains for customers, one of which is the U.S. Defense Department, Payer says. “This is a fantastic concept of, You don’t have to own your own satellite when you’re a country and want to have military applications,” he notes. “This is a new model of public-private partnership and for us is a blueprint of what we can do in the institutional and government area.”

For Germantown, Maryland-based Hughes, “A lot of good things are ahead of us,” says Rajeev Gopal, senior technical director of its Advanced Systems, Defense and Intelligence Systems Division. The company’s satellite component, originally named Digital Communications Corp., began in someone’s garage 40 years ago. “It is definitely at an interesting inflection point now.”

Hughes operates the world’s largest satellite network, with more than 1.2 million subscribers, under the brand HughesNet, Gopal claims. With the network already in the United States, Hughes is now deploying it to South America. Like the other satellite operators, Hughes is working to add broadband services in aircraft around the world as well as in the maritime industry, among other efforts.

For government or military customers, Gopal and his colleagues at Hughes are developing technologies to provide either customized solutions or assets with additional operational support. To accomplish these objectives, the company uses a variety of techniques, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, applying them to diagnostics, resource allocation, capacity planning and even packet processing, he explains. Although some techniques have been in place at Hughes for decades, the company started using “very sophisticated data analytic components” for its satellite management system 15 years ago. About five years ago, the company introduced a lot of new technologies, such as data mining and pattern recognition.

The firm’s machine learning algorithms help determine “if we have a good installation or not,” Gopal says. “Earlier, it would take months to figure out what the root cause was. Now we can quickly assess and take measures to improve any inefficiencies.”

Such techniques are not just used for diagnostics, he continues. “It is all sorts of satellite applications—applications when you need to decide things very quickly,” Gopal points out. Applying machine learning to data can help develop policies that can be deployed on routers, satellite terminals and other devices so that processing “can be very fast, millisecond by millisecond.”  

He continues: “Every industry is getting disrupted and revolutionized by artificial intelligence and machine learning, and we are definitely very, very careful and interested in applying these techniques in all our businesses and operations.”

To mitigate adversarial jamming of satellites, the government or military has to use specialized waveforms and implementations in ground hubs, terminals and satellites, Gopal adds. With multiple companies, the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) developed and is implementing a protected tactical waveform (PTW). Gopal suggests that the PTW “will go very far in creating an ecosystem, and all the services will benefit.” Similar waveforms also could be used for some commercial applications, he ventures.

The most challenging part of the government’s heritage-protected SATCOM, however, had been its cost. Not every tactical unit could afford to use it. This is where the PTW can help, Gopal says. “We cannot ignore that affordability is a factor,” he exclaims.

In addition, Gopal points out that the Defense Department is still plagued by fragmented procurement when obtaining satellite services. “Today, the way SATCOM is acquired, there are four or five agencies that get involved,” he says. For example, the Air Force has a Space Command, and the SMC is the acquisition agency that buys a satellite. The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command (SMDC/ARSTRAT) would operate a typical satellite. Ground gateways could be operated by both the Army and the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), he explains.

“What happens is that we may have all these solutions, which are optimized for each respective [customer], but we don’t have a globally optimized solution [that] works end to end,” he observes. Gopal mentions that the Defense Department’s complete portfolio costs about $10 billion to $15 billion for all terminals. “If the same thing is done systematically with end-to-end architecture, probably the price for better interoperability and performance improvements would be a tenth of that,” he offers.

Furthermore, some satellite features and capabilities could not be provided to warfighters at the right time. For example, on one narrow-band system the military uses, the satellites are running, but the ground segment cannot use the full features, Gopal stresses. The satellite system was acquired by one program, and the terminals were going to be acquired by another program that was canceled. “On the commercial side, this would never happen,” he notes. “We always think in terms of providing an end-to-end capability, with terminals, management systems, gateways and satellites.”

Gopal says he hopes that new acquisition models, such as other transaction authority (OTA), will help improve government procurement of systems and open the door to a larger group of nontraditional vendors for increased innovation.

Meanwhile, Luxembourg-based Intelsat and subsidiary Intelsat General also are seeing results from their HTS system called Intelsat EpicNG, which was designed to provide higher-performance satellites, better economics and simpler access for customers, says Mohammad Marashi, vice president, innovation for commercial services, Intelsat. The company has launched five HTS systems so far.

“With these higher-performing satellites, your existing antennas can either transmit much more data, or they can transmit the same amount of data but using much less bandwidth. So it’s cost-effective or gets even more cost-effective,” adds Marashi’s colleague, Chris Hudson, senior technical adviser, Intelsat General.

The U.S. military is using Intelsat EpicNG satellites for manned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) airplanes in theater. “They had a stretch goal of trying to reach 10 to 12 megabits per second off of these airplanes,” Hudson offers. “They easily met that, and they did their whole operations at that [data speed] because that’s what their [concept of operations was] set for. But during nonmission times, they had a chance to test it, and they were able to go all the way up to 25 or 27 megabits per second off of that existing platform. They were extremely pleased with those results.”

For ISR capabilities on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the military has used Intelsat EpicNG with hardware on General Atomics’ (GA’s) Predator/Reaper UAVs and on the Global Hawk UAV to validate compatibility. “Everything works just fine,” Hudson confirms. Once testing showed how the Reaper could “fly from one beam into another beam” using GA’s satellite beam-switching software, military officials felt comfortable taking it into theater, he says.

Hudson also shares that the company has tested the PTW over the air on Intelsat’s traditional wide-beam satellites as well as on Intelsat’s EpicNG-class satellites. “The waveform works just fine,” he says. “All these validations are positive for the government in that it reduces the risk associated with this new technology. The government can be assured that it will operate properly when deployed.”

In addition to pursuing satellite-related developments in the business jet market, Intelsat is taking a look at the so-called land mobile market, Marashi says. The company has invested in Kymeta Corp., which has a metamaterials-based antenna, a flat-panel phased-array technology, and in OneWeb, which has an LEO constellation. “Our partnership with Kymeta is really to support services requiring low-profile antennas that are critical for both the commercial side and the government side for satellite mobility applications,” he reports. To support disaster relief in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria last year, Kymeta’s flat-panel antenna was mounted on a car to tap Intelsat’s satellite technology for communications, Marashi notes.

The combination of flat-panel antennas and satellite technology will allow for further connectivity to cars, rail and buses. “This is a potential growth area for Intelsat as part of the connected car, which is really part of the larger Internet of Things market,” Marashi says.