WASHINGTON — CesiumAstro, a startup that specializes in communications technologies for satellites and aircraft, won a U.S. Air Force contract to develop a phased array antenna for remotely piloted drones.

The $3.6 million two-year agreement is a so-called Tactical Funding Increase where the government and private investors split the cost 50/50.

CesiumAstro, based in Austin, Texas, announced June 16 it will develop an active electronically steered array (AESA) that will fly on an MQ-9 Reaper drone made by General Atomics. The terminal will connect the aircraft with Ka-band commercial broadband satellites in medium and low Earth orbits. 

In the demonstration, planned for 2025, a Reaper aircraft equipped with a low-profile AESA antenna will fly and stream live motion video relying on a commercial satellite network, Shey Sabripour, founder and CEO of CesiumAstro, told SpaceNews.

Current military drones use dish antennas to communicate with geostationary orbit satellites. “DoD needs enhanced, higher throughput connectivity for airborne vehicles,” said Sabripour. “By switching drone satcom platforms to an AESA terminal, they will be able to connect to MEO and LEO orbits using commercial and military Ka-band frequencies.”

CesiumAstro plans to use SES’ mPower MEO satellite communications for the demonstration. Ka-band LEO services being developed by Amazon’s Project Kuiper and Telesat are not expected to be available for the first demonstration but will be tested when available, he said. The terminal also will be able to connect drones to the future military constellation operated by the Space Force’s Space Development Agency, known as the Transport Layer LEO communications network.

A set of MQ-9A Reapers integrated with CesiumAstro’s SATCOM terminals. (Source: CesiumAstro)

Separate demonstration with Airbus

Wayne Phelps, director of business development at CesiumAstro and a former U.S. Marine Corps drone operator, said the AESA terminal being developed for the Air Force is slightly smaller than the one the company will demonstrate in 2024 on an Airbus commercial aircraft.

Airbus Ventures is an investor in CesiumAstro.

“An AESA terminal enables narrower beams, reducing the chance of detection by enemy forces,” said Phelps. The phased array also will give the Air Force access to high-capacity commercial broadband. Military drones that collect intelligence typically stream large quantities of data. 

“Our antenna will provide connectivity to MEO and LEO. We can track one satellite and move to another before you lose connectivity,” also known as make-before-break connectivity, said Phelps.

General Atomics built a separate Ka-band radome right behind the original enclosure used for Ku-band terminals. 

“It’s going to be fairly plug and play,” said Phelps. 

Sabripour said the company hopes that the demonstration will lead to larger orders. He estimated the Air Force will need 500 to 2,000 new satcom terminals for drones over the next 10 years

“They want to take advantage of new constellations coming online,” he said. “We want to turn this terminal into a commercially viable product on the market by 2025,” said Sabripour. “We are pursuing all the certifications and testing required for both the military and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...