TAMPA, Fla. — OneWeb is using drones from Danish startup QuadSat to accelerate ground segment tests as it aims to bring part of its low Earth orbit broadband constellation online this year.

QuadSat’s quadcopters helped calibrate OneWeb’s gateway in Scanzano, Italy, and will now test its antennas elsewhere as the operator races to launch initial commercial services in the upper part of the Northern Hemisphere, ahead of full services in 2022.

The drones simulate the satellites that gateways track as they race across the sky, helping calibrate and verify ground segment networks outside laboratory conditions to prepare them for services.

Calibrating gateways with drones is “much faster” than the traditional method of using a visible geostationary (GEO) satellite, according to Michele Franci, OneWeb’s chief of delivery and operations.

Franci said the farther north or south a gateway is the trickier it can also be to find a suitable GEO satellite to lock onto, because of how low they appear on the horizon beyond 50 degrees from the equator.

Outside of the lab, characterizing gateways can also be done by setting up beacons on top of poles, but he said disturbances created with this method can be difficult to manage. 

With more than 40 gateways being constructed worldwide, each with 15 to 30 antennas that need to be calibrated and tested, Franci said the biggest advantage to using drones is speed.

“In our case, I would say it has reduced the time to do antenna [tests] by half if not more,” he said.

Without drones, he said it could take two or three weeks to perform these antenna characterizations.

“It’s very material to shortening the schedule,” Franci said, adding that “reducing these relatively small but crucial steps, and streamlining them, makes the deployment go much faster. There’s a sort of a virtuous effect in this.”

Sunil Bharti Mittal, OneWeb’s executive chair, said Sept. 8 that the operator aims to launch services in 30-60 days as it ramps up distributor agreements worldwide to sell its capacity.

According to Franci, six of OneWeb’s planned 42-45 gateways are currently operational.

“We have two that are almost done and another 16 under construction, and then the balance coming soon.”

Before launching commercial services above the 50th parallel north, he said OneWeb needs just one more operational gateway, in Greenland, that is in an “advanced stage of construction.”

Using drones also gives satellite operators more data about how their antennas perform, QuadSat CEO Joakim Espeland said in a separate interview.

“What we do with a drone is we fly up and we do something called a raster scan, which is also called a lawnmower pattern because it’s the same way you would mow your lawn,” Espeland said.

“We go back and forth in front of the antenna so we’re actually able to tell you, overall, exactly how the antenna works. And this is particularly important for LEO constellations, because as you’re tracking the satellites, you need to know that your antenna is able to perform across the entire dish, not just in the two [horizontal and vertical] planes.”

Arianespace launched another 34 satellites for OneWeb Sept. 14, expanding its network to 322 satellites of a planned 648-strong initial constellation.

On Sept. 21, OneWeb announced a new government-focused division called OneWeb Technologies, after completing its acquisition of Texas-based managed satcoms provider TrustComm.

The new wholly owned subsidiary is led by former TrustComm CEO Bob Roe.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...