Reducing the Cost of Ground Systems


As the number of satellites continues to increase and the budgets for their ground systems decrease, satellite operators are finding they must do more with less. It is therefore important to look at ways to reduce the cost of ground systems while maintaining the quality of the systems and the services that the satellites provide.

Traditionally, ground systems have followed a “stove pipe” approach, where each satellite has its own customized ground system. However, for operators with a fleet of satellites, this is generally not the best approach. Multi-satellite ground systems have the capability of supporting multiple satellites from a single system. This approach can lead to enormous reductions in long-term operations costs, since it is possible to operate the satellites with a smaller staff and there can be a reduction in training needs. Hardware and maintenance costs are also reduced, because there is a shared infrastructure. Finally, the cost to add a new satellite is decreased because only new mission-specific modules need to be added to support the new satellite, rather than an entirely new system.

In the development of its software for ground systems, my company, GMV, has found that it is important to avoid a rigid, product-based strategy because of the wide variability of the requirements for different missions. GMV uses a “framework” strategy for our products that includes a scalable reference architecture; a suite of configurable components, some of which are optional; and an open architecture with a powerful application programming interface. This allows us to reduce risk and cost in the development of new ground systems for clients.

GMV’s technology evolution is managed within the product line following a long-term “road map.” This allows us to continually improve our software, taking into account customer feedback. Our software typically evolves through enhancements that come from internal research-and-development efforts and enhancements that come from specific missions that are of general interest. Additionally, GMV is able to very efficiently and effectively transfer technologies from our other areas of business beyond the traditional space field to enhance and evolve our products. For example, GMV has developed advanced Java applications and Web-based interfaces in our Internet and Security Division that have been used to add Web interfaces to our satellite control products.

GMV has seen several trends appearing in ground system architectures over the past few years. However, there are many barriers that prevent the quick deployment of new technologies. First of all, the lifetime of a typical geosynchronous Earth orbit mission is at least 15 years. With a long mission like that, the cost-benefit ratio for a technology upgrade can be difficult to justify. New technology may have only a small number of potential deployments, which makes for a small return on investment. In addition, operators are reluctant to lose features in transition to a new system. We often hear, “I want everything I have, plus a lot more.” Finally, as mentioned, there is a large variability of requirements across missions. What works well for one may fail for the next, and so it can be difficult to create a “generic” technology that will suit all.

So where do we go from here?

GMV believes that service-oriented architecture is of great interest to the future success and cost savings of missions. With this concept, services are provided to and by the various sub-systems within the ground segment through a message bus using a standard interface protocol.

One of the advantages of service-oriented architecture is easier maintenance, such as upgrades and changes to the system, because it decouples the interface between subsystems. The system is also easier to expand and is more flexible, scalable and adaptable to future missions. Additionally, increased situational awareness leads to a lower operational risk.

One disadvantage is the significant challenge of imposing modern software architecture on older systems, since it can be extremely difficult to retrofit older software.

Although service-oriented architecture is still fairly new and untried operationally, there are many field tests under way that suggest this will be a viable option for the future of satellite ground systems.

There are also some other new technologies that can make systems less costly and more efficient.

Virtual machines, or software implementation of a computer that executes programs like a physical machine, are an attractive option because they provide hardware independence and added redundancy. However, their use must be evaluated carefully since there is typically 3 percent to 5 percent performance loss compared with bare metal, and their configuration can be tricky.

Automation  running routine operations tasks through procedures so that they do not need to be run manually by the operators  is another concept that has a number of advantages. When automation is used in a ground system, the number of staff can be greatly reduced since most of the regular tasks do not need any human oversight. It also can lead to a lower-risk system. However, before a system can be significantly automated, it requires much more elaborate testing before operations can begin, and therefore the up-front costs can be larger.

A final new technology with a lot of potential is the use of Web services. In ground systems, there may be a geographical separation between the server and the clients. The use of Web services makes this separation much easier to manage, and also allows for remote access by the clients. However, as with the rest of the potential new technologies, there are some disadvantages, such as more complex operations and time delays.

Some studies have indicated that companies may see up to a 40 percent reduction in their operating and maintenance costs by implementing service-oriented architecture and other new technologies. Although there are few operational data from systems using these technologies, the potential for cost savings and improved performance is there, and GMV is well placed to take advantage of them.

Theresa W. Beech is general manager and vice president of business development for satellite ground-system manufacturer GMV.