WASHINGTON — Satellite operator Intelsat will produce satellite terminals for the U.S. Air Force that can connect to multiple networks in space, providing more consistent broadband communications for military aircraft.

The company’s terminal, called ROAM (resilient multi-orbit airborne module) can seamlessly switch connections between Intelsat’s and Viasat’s fleet of satellites in geosynchronous orbit, and SpaceX’s Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit, said David Broadbent, Intelsat’s president of government solutions.

Intelsat, based in McLean, Virginia, will supply five terminals to the Air Force Research Laboratory under a $9 million contract that is part of the Defense Experimentation Using Commercial Space Internet program. Known as DEUCSI, the program was created in 2017 to explore the use of commercial systems to connect military platforms so they can communicate over satellite networks while in motion. 

Intelsat’s DEUCSI award was announced in December. 

Connecting vehicles on the ground, ships at sea and aircraft in flight to satellites in various orbits and in different frequency bands is a capability increasingly in demand, Broadbent told SpaceNews.

Multi-orbit connectivity relies on having visibility to satellites in different orbits, leveraging inherent strengths of each orbit type. Geosynchronous satellites appear stationary from the ground and provide wide coverage, while low-flying satellites travel fast and blanket areas in succession. 

Five terminals ordered

The Air Force has ordered five ROAM terminals to test out on a variety of military aircraft. Intelsat expects to deliver the first one in early 2025.

The terminals transmit and receive data in the Ku and Ka frequency bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. Intelsat’s GEO satellites provide Ku-band connectivity,  and Viasat’s network operates in the Ka-band.

The 85-pound terminals were designed for easy installation and can be rolled on and off an aircraft, said Broadbent. 

Because they are digital, they can be updated with other tactical waveforms that the Air Force might want to use, he said. “We have the flexibility to deal with those waveforms without the need for expensive changes in hardware.”

Intelsat supplies satellite communications terminals to commercial airlines and DEUCSI marks the company’s first contract to support military aircraft. 

“The big issue for the military and, and the Air Force in particular, is they have a lot of legacy aircraft configured for GEO communications,” Broadbent noted. “And normally the antennas are hardwired, and the hardware is a closed architecture. So it becomes very difficult to evolve to multi-orbit communications.”

Separately from the DEUCSI program, Intelsat offers a multi-orbit flat panel antenna for ground vehicles that provides broadband services from the company’s geostationary satellites and from SpaceX’s Starlink. “That’s a product that we’ve used for on-the-move communications for tactical vehicles that are forward deployed,” Broadbent said. 

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...