While certain satellite communications technologies, mobile phones for example, are finding a niche in homeland security, others such as satellite-based asset-tracking systems are still awaiting discovery by a broad base of users.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which knocked out terrestrial communications in coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, mobile phones were flying off the store shelves as rescue organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) arrived and began setting up operations. And while there was some grumbling that these agencies should have been better equipped beforehand, it now seems clear that such assets are indispensable.

“The big story with that was that most of FEMA and the first responders didn’t have enough phones, and that some didn’t have any,” said David Cavossa, executive director of the Satellite Industry Association of Arlington, Va. “That draws attention to the critical nature of satellite communications, which is good news for the satellite industry.”

Cavossa said the need for relief agencies to have satellite phones became apparent after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but added that getting the message across to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has proved difficult. The DHS was carved out of several federal departments that had domestic security-related functions included in their responsibilities.

“It’s been a slow process,” Cavossa said. “After DHS was formed after 9/11, trying to find the right person or people to talk to about this has been very difficult. The satellite industry, just as any telecommunications industry, has been trying to establish the right contacts, and reach the right people to get them to start thinking about this. There’s been some progress, but not nearly enough.”

The DHS needs to stock up on satellite phones and bandwidth before disasters strike, Cavossa said.

“I call satellites the invisible structure; the only time you hear about them is when something else goes wrong,” Cavossa said. “Some entity, whether it be the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Defense, needs to buy that capacity, buy those phones. Even if they don’t use it on a day-to-day basis, that way it is ready to be used during a time of crisis.”

Kirk Whitworth, a spokesman for the DHS, declined to answer questions for this story.

Despite what he characterized as the government’s inadequate preparedness for Katrina in the area of communications, Cavossa said the relevant authorities at least are beginning to recognize that mobile phones have an important role to play. The same cannot be said yet of other satellite-based technologies, such as vehicle and industrial asset-tracking systems.

“Asset tracking hasn’t taken off yet,” Cavossa said. “It is one of those things that could be great: if you could have a little device on every container going from one part of the planet to another, and track it around the globe, using real time data. There’s great potential there, but it hasn’t been used yet to the level it should be.”

Asset tracking via satellite has a number of homeland security-related applications, ranging from vehicle-fleet and logistics management to determining whether shipping containers have been tampered within transit.

“It’s still a very small percent of our business,” said Marc Eisenberg, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Orbcomm of Dulles, Va. Orbcomm operates a fleet of low Earth-orbiting satellites that relay messages and other data anywhere on the globe.

Eisenberg said that while interest in satellite technology for homeland security applications is high, there haven’t been very many contracts awarded.

“The whole industry is looking at various applications, from the container traffic coming into the United States, to border patrol stuff,” Eisenberg said. “All of that is very interesting and very exciting, and provides great potential, but we haven’t seen huge deployments.”

Eisenberg attributes the slow response to relatively new technologies to bureaucracy.

“I think it’s just the government,” Eisenberg said. “We have had some partnerships and worked on some projects, but mostly its pilot projects and stuff like that.”

Orbcomm did one pilot project with the Port of New York, partnering with Northrop Grumman of Los Angeles to put small electronic seals on shipping containers and tracking them through various ports throughout the world, said Dean Brickerd, Orbcomm vice president of technical services. The containers were intentionally tampered with while the ships were at sea to test the effectiveness of the system. The devices were able to successfully track the ship and pick up when there was interference from an outside source.

Brickherd said companies are waiting for feedback from the government before introducing new technologies or applications. “I think a lot of companies are waiting for the U.S. government to mandate what they want,” he said. “They’re not going to spend money until they know what the government wants.”

But asset tracking via satellite is in fact on the government’s radar screen. FEMA is one of the high-profile clients of an asset-tracking system that operates over the Globalstar mobile satellite phone network.

Globalstar of San Jose, Calif., has seen a spike in usage of its AxTracker system after Hurricane Ivan hit Florida in 2004.

Dennis Allen, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Globalstar, says that FEMA has been able to keep track of its assets considerably better since the implementation of the AxTracker technology.

“Prior to this, FEMA was losing a very large portion of their assets,” Allen said. Since the product was introduced following Hurricane Ivan, FEMA has recovered all of its assets, he said.

FEMA also uses the technology on its 18 -wheeler trucks, which store emergency and medical supplies, Allen said.

Comments: mfrederick@space.com