On National Security | Like Uber, except for satellite imagery

Hybrid satellite network would give military faster access to space data

The U.S. military wants timely intelligence from space to be as fast and easy to obtain as hailing an Uber ride.

That is the thinking behind a Space Force plan to connect military, commercial and allied satellites into a hybrid space architecture.

The problem today is the latency of information. Data collected by satellites is not easily or quickly obtainable by troops in the field. It can take hours or days, for example, to get images from national security satellites. That’s no help for battlefield commanders who are trying to locate a moving armored vehicle on the ground. They need far more timely intelligence.

There are a variety of commercial remote sensing systems in low Earth orbit that can deliver pictures faster, although they may not be as detailed or as cyber-secure as the ones provided by the intelligence community’s satellites.

The ideal scenario would be to have a mix of sources of space data readily available, says David Voss, chief of the U.S. Space Force Future Technologies Division.

Voss is leading an effort to build a hybrid space architecture that would connect traditional platforms, commercial and allied satellites into a network that would be accessed from a common platform.

In a video presentation posted on YouTube, Voss says the idea is to bring multiple sources of data into an architecture so users can decide what best meets their needs. Then the system would automatically determine how best to meet those demands. If timeliness is the priority, the system would task a small satellite in LEO. If high resolution is what matters more, even if it takes longer, the system would request pictures from a more sophisticated government satellite.

He compares this approach to the way Uber and Lyft rideshare apps manage transportation resources. Customers can decide if they would rather wait longer for a ride to get the specific kind or size car they want. Or they can trade off some demands in order to get a faster ride. Users can also decide if they want to pay more to get their own ride or less if they share it with others.

These are the types of decisions and tradeoffs that users of satellite imagery would have to make too, says Voss.

Before taking over as head of the Space Force technology office, Voss spent a decade working on small satellite architectures at the Air Force Research Laboratory. AFRL over the years has demonstrated concepts for hybrid architectures that combine commercial and government assets. Now the challenge is to turn the idea into an operational system that forces in the field can use.

There is an opportunity here for the military to tap into newly developed commercial remote sensing constellations to supplement the traditional military and intelligence community space assets, says Voss. “Simply having more satellite systems in an architecture cuts the average time for a taskable satellite to be in the needed position.”

It is too soon to tell how or when this plan might come to fruition. The Space Force and other DoD organizations have been studying hybrid space systems for a long time. But attempts to build hybrid space architectures tend to be derailed by bureaucratic firewalls and technical obstacles.

Voss says the Space Force will keep pushing to realize this vision. “We want to provide better, faster and smarter access to information for the warfighter,” he says.

Rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft created a platform that linked millions of drivers with passengers by interconnecting networks and developing the necessary software. Someone needs to successfully apply that same concept to satellites in space.

Sandra Erwin


Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.

“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Aug. 3, 2020 issue.