Satellite operators push plan to upgrade military spy drones

by

LONDON — Could the military take advantage of cheaper and faster satellite broadband to siphon more data, faster, from its surveillance drones?

It could, but it’s easier said than done, according to satellite industry executives.

The military’s remotely piloted aircraft have been workhorses. Many are equipped with older electronics that are not compatible with modern satellite communications systems. The Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper drone, for instance, can pipe data at 5 to 10 megabits per second over commercial Ku band. In a test, SES Networks showed that when the aircraft was plugged into a newer satellite link that offers higher throughput, the data rate increased to 30 megabits.

“To maximize the potential of these platforms we have to address the size of the pipe that’s coming down,” said Nicole Robinson, corporate vice president of SES Networks.

The industry is putting up high-capacity satellites and creating an unprecedented supply of bandwidth. Commercial satellite operators view the military as a prime customer and see unmanned aerial vehicles as a major business opportunity.

“UAVs are here to stay,” Robinson said Wednesday at the Global Milsatcom conference. The military more than ever relies on unmanned aircraft for everything from precision strikes to intelligence, surveillance even and cargo deliveries. The armed services are installing powerful sensors that collect massive amounts of data and could do even more if they were connected to faster networks.

“This will require us to explore alternative frequencies, and alternative orbits,” said Robinson. “With more data you can operate sensors simultaneously whereas today you have to choose one capability or another.”

With a modern satcom suite aboard the aircraft, operators could tap into different communications networks, depending on the specific need.

But getting new satcom terminals into drones can be a daunting proposition. Funding is only one piece of the equation. It also requires satellite service providers to work not just with broadband buyers but also with terminal manufacturers and the integrators that put all the pieces together.

Bringing that whole team together is “where the secret sauce lies,” said Robinson.

Most UAVs today operate primarily on commercial Ku band. “This is great for commercial satellite operators,” she said. “We appreciate this.” Companies like SES, Intelsat and Inmarsat are the primary suppliers of commercial bandwidth for UAVs.

But these firms would like to have the military shift to newer high-throughput satellites that were built with cybersecurity features.  Pentagon officials have suggested that it may be time to get some UAVs off commercial systems for security reasons. The industry fears losing military business if UAVs are switched to government-owned networks like the Wideband Global Satcom constellation.

How or when this transition may happen is unknown.  UAV satcom requirements are being studied as part of a broader “analysis of alternatives” for how to procure bandwidth in the future. The U.S. military services across the board own about 17,000 satellite communications terminals, and there is no plan or funding to replace them any time soon.

Some of the satcom suites on board UAVs were made in the mid- to late 90s. “It’s time to take a sharper look at a multi-frequency multi-orbit environment,” said Robinson. It’s possible today with a single antenna to access multiple satcom services. “The technology is available,” she said. “It’s time for the platform manufacturers, integrators, antenna manufactures to come together to accelerate this change.”

The demand for live high-definition video is only going to grow, said Rick Lober, vice president and general manager of Hughes Network Systems. With modern, credit card-size modems and tiny antennas, smaller drones can now provide full-motion video in real time.

The company received a Pentagon contract to demonstrate how “flexible modems” can be used for different networks, Lober told SpaceNews.

The U.K. Ministry of Defense already is doing the type of electronics update to its Predator UAV fleet that the industry would like to see done in the United States. Hughes was selected by the aircraft manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems to provide satellite communications on the “type-certifiable” Predator B so it can fly in civilian airspace.

The updated modems will allow a significant increase in data transfer rates, said Lober. “Aircraft operators and mission personnel will experience the benefits of protected satcom which includes the flexibility to employ the most appropriate frequencies for beyond-line-of-sight communication.”

Lober said the military eventually will invest in new terminal equipment for improved efficiency and speed. “I also feel certain Ku systems will go to Ka in the military.”