The Middle Eastern Yahsat satellite communications venture looks to become one of the early commercial adopters of space-based technology designed to thwart intentional jamming and piracy of satellite signals, incidents of which appear to be on the rise, according to industry officials.
EMS Technologies of Norcross, Ga., is in negotiations for the sale of its commercial anti-jamming system to the prime contractor on the two-satellite Yahsat project, which is led by the Mubadala Development Co. of the United Arab Emirates. In May, Mubadala selected a team of Astrium and ThalesAlenia Space, both of Europe, to build the $1.36 billion Yahsat system, designed to provide communications services to both commercial and government-military customers in the Middle East.
David A. Smith, vice president and general manager of EMS Defense and Space Systems, said Yahsat would be the first commercial sale of the company’s anti-jamming, or nulling, system, which was developed with U.S. Defense Department funding. He stressed, however, that EMS does not yet have a contract.
In an interview July 11, Smith and Michael Fatig, vice president of business development at EMS Defense and Space Systems, declined to divulge the potential value of the deal.
In an April 12 interview, Fatig said EMS’s commercial anti-jamming system was expected to sell for between $10 million and $20 million.
The EMS nulling system detects unauthorized signals reaching a satellite and shuts down the affected transponder or beam. It then reconfigures the beam to operate at higher power or alternative frequencies or phases, and turns it back on. Fatig said the system is intended for use aboard complex satellites with multiple onboard beams. Ground-based solutions are available for so-called bent-pipe satellites that simply retransmit signals as they were received, he said.
EMS originally developed its nulling system for the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency series of secure communications satellites under a subcontract to Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., worth more than $20 million. Northrop Grumman is developing the payload for those satellites as part of a team led by of Sunnyvale, Calif.
For the past two years, EMS has been developing a smaller, lighter and lower-power version of the system with funding from the U.S. Defense Micro-Electronics Agency, Fatig and Smith said. The company believes a 50 percent weight reduction is possible, they said.
Smith and Fatig said EMS is offering different models of its commercial nulling system with a range of capabilities and prices. Economy versions, for example, might shut down a half or a quadrant of a satellite, while high-end models would be more precise, capable of affecting only the specific beam or beams that are subject to jamming or piracy attempts, they said.
Boeing Satellite Systems International of El Segundo, Calif., included the high-end version of the EMS anti-jam system as part of its losing bid for the Yahsat contract, one of the biggest of the year in the commercial market, Smith and Fatig said. The system being negotiated with the Astrium-Thales team is in the middle range of capability, they said.
The potential Yahsat sale notwithstanding, Smith and Fatig said the commercial market has yet to fully embrace onboard anti-jamming technology. While noting that satellite manufacturers and operators have shown increasing interest in learning about the technology and its cost in recent months, the executives said it will take a major event or series of events before satellite customers demand that their services be protected against jamming.
“They’re not going to spend the money and add that cost to their satellite until their users demand it, and their users are going to demand it when frequency events affect the quality of service,” Fatig said.
Reports of satellite-signal piracy and jamming have become fairly frequent. In one recent case, the Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications Co. of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, experienced intentional interference that degraded services from its sophisticated, Boeing-built mobile satellite system for several months. The interference eventually was traced to sources in Libya.
In another incident that demonstrated the increasing technical savvy of renegade organizations, the Tamil Tiger separatist group in Sri Lanka hijacked unused transponder capacity on the 12 satellite to broadcast its own programming into that country. For an undetermined period of time, Intelsat of Bermuda and Washington was unaware of the bandit broadcasts.
said that about a quarter of the commercial satellites being ordered today are potential candidates – due either to their technical complexity or planned orbital destination – for the EMS nulling system.