Harris Corp.: MUOS radio software patch clears hurdle, antenna business booming

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PARIS — Space- and ground-based satellite communications equipment provider Harris Corp. on May 3 said it has successfully tested a software patch that will upgrade thousands of U.S. military tactical radio terminals to use the higher-throughput MUOS satellite system.

The company also told investors that its satellite antenna business, featuring large, unfurlable structures that are the most visually striking feature of the satellites carrying them, has better prospects now than at any time in the past decade.

Melbourne, Florida-based Harris recently booked a $37 million order from Lockheed Martin Space Systems to provide an 18-meter-diameter reflector antenna for Sky Perfect JSat’s JCSat-17 satellite, which includes an S-band mobile communications payload.

In a more recent contract, Harris was selected by Airbus Defence and Space of Britain to provide a 12-meter antenna for the European Space Agency’s Biomass P-band synthetic-aperture radar antenna.

In a conference call with investors, Harris Chief Executive William M. Brown said the company has four antenna bids outstanding and another 15 in the pipeline. The market opportunities, he said, are from all over – large satellites and small, commercial and government.

“What’s driving this is new entrants, an increase in high-throughput satellites, recapitalization [of existing satellite fleets] and a surge in smallsats in the U.S. government as well as the commercial sector,” Brown said. “I think we’re on the front end of what appears to be a recapitalization cycle.”

The U.S. Navy Mobile User Objective System’s four-satellite constellation is in orbit, with a fifth satellite, designed as an in-orbit spare, scheduled for launch this summer.

MUOS’s ground segment development has lagged far behind the satellite infrastructure, meaning MUOS users have been relying on the legacy payload rather than the Wideband CDMA waveform that accounts for 90 percent of MUOS’s capacity and promises a 16-fold increase in throughput.

U.S. military forces have deployed 30,000 Harris AN/PRC-117G communications terminals. Rendering them usable with the higher-throughput Mobile User Objective System without a complicated hardware changeout has been a priority.

Harris is already building two-channel manpacks for the U.S. Army that have MUOS capability built into them.

Brown said the developing a software upgrade to permit the 117G terminals to use the new MUOS waveform “sounds more simple that it actually was. It was quite a bit of magic to make that happen. We’ve demonstrated connectivity between our radio and the satellite. We’re on track to receive [National Security Agency] shortly. Customers across several services are anxious to benefit from the mobility and higher bandwidth that the MUOS constellation provides.”

Harris is now working with service partners who will purchase licenses to download the upgrade for the 117G radios.

Harris had been hoping for initial contract awards with a value “tens of millions” of dollars before the end of June, when the company’s fiscal year ends. Brown said the awards are still expected, but not before this summer.

Harris in February booked a $367 million noncash impairment charge to reflect the soured prospects for its CapRock energy business, which delivers satellite communications to offshore energy platforms. A sizable work-force reduction was undertaken as well to reflect the fact that what was once a $400 million annual business was expected to be around $250 million in the next couple of years.

Brown was not ready to say the energy business, which is tied to crude-oil prices, had yet hit bottom, but he said it appeared to be stabilizing at the level the company had predicted when it booked the impairment charge.

Fiscal year 2017, which for Harris starts in July, will see further declines in the CapRock business. But the loss reported for the three months ending March 31 is not likely to repeat following the restructuring, Brown said.

Harris said its six-year, $316 million contract with NASA to provide payloads for the fourth and fifth Joint Polar Satellite System, booked an initial tranche of revenue of $51 million.