Satcom Firms Helping Military Aircraft Make the Connection

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Military commanders are increasingly seeking high-speed satellite communications links to enable them to conduct video teleconferencing and gain access to imagery while airborne, according to government and industry officials attending MILCOM 2010, a recent military communications conference here.

“It used to take a long time to respond to events around the world,” said Jim Herren, director for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for the U.S. Defense Department’s Joint Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg, N.C. “Today, things happen overnight and we are asked to respond to those situations very quickly. We are asked to get on a plane, fly somewhere and to act quickly.”

As a result, military personnel are often forced to plan missions while en route. “The things that you can do in your office are the same kind of things they want to do onboard the aircraft in flight,” Herren said. For example, commanders want to conduct video teleconferences that allow their staff onboard the aircraft to speak with U.S. ambassadors, combatant commanders and the U.S. defense secretary, he said. “The problem is that today we don’t have that kind of capacity on the aircraft to do that,” he added.

Because activities like conducting teleconferences and viewing intelligence imagery are video intensive, they require high data rates. “Those things just aren’t possible with the slow data rates we currently have onboard aircraft,” he said.

To improve that capability, the Air Force is equipping C-17s with a Ku-band communications capability, Herren said. The first C-17 with an operational Ku-band satellite link will be flying next March or April, he added.

The equipment used to provide C-17s with that communications link are ViaSat Inc.’s Arc-Light Modem and Tecom Industries Inc.’s KuStream 1000 satellite antenna. ViaSat’s ArcLight terminals also are flying on U.S. Air Force MC-12W twin-turboprop aircraft and C-130 military transports operating in Afghanistan for U.S. Special Operations Command missions. “We support at least 150 to 200 government airplanes,” said Jerry Goodwin, vice president for network systems at Carlsbad, Calif.-based ViaSat.

Other firms also are offering equipment to provide satellite links for government and military aircraft. Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. completed testing in May of airborne Ka-band terminals capable of routing signals through the Air Force Wideband Global System satellites. Northrop Grumman used a NASA WB-57 and a Gulfstream 2 aircraft to test the firm’s airborne terminals.

Similarly, Tachyon Networks of San Diego is selling high-capacity satellite-based data equipment and services to a branch of the U.S. military that Tachyon officials declined to identify, citing security issues. Tachyon has been providing satellite services and integration expertise to equip government aircraft with communications products made by other companies for years, said Barry Rosman, Tachyon’s government markets director. This year, the company expanded its role in that market by producing its own package of equipment, called the aXiom 7000 Series, to offer full-motion video capabilities for aircraft applications. Tachyon has designed satellite communications systems to equip unmanned aerial vehicles as well as the C-17, C-130 and C-12 military aircraft.

Inmarsat is targeting the growing airborne market for high-speed satellite communications with its Inmarsat-5 Ka-band satellite constellation which is expected to offer global coverage in 2014. “Aeronautic users comprise a significant portion of our current customer base,” said Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, president of Inmarsat Government Services Inc., a U.S. subsidiary of London-based Inmarsat. “We talked to those customers about their future needs and we are working with our satellite builder Boeing to make sure we fulfill their requirements.” Boeing Defense, Space & Security of St. Louis announced plans in August to build three Ka-band satellites for the Inmarsat-5 constellation.

Each satellite in the Inmarsat-5 constellation will feature approximately 80 Ka-band spot beams as well as a flexible, high-capacity overlay that could offer communications links to any customer who wants to add capacity, such as aircraft operating in regions of heavy traffic, Cowen-Hirsch said. With its I-5 constellation, Inmarsat plans to offer a new service called Global Xpress to meet demand for satellite communications links to very small aperture terminals used by ships, energy companies and government organizations. Through Global Xpress, Inmarsat will be able to give military customers the ability to conduct command and control, plan missions and hold video teleconferences in flight, Cowen-Hirsch said.

While companies are anxious to capture a portion of the market for airborne communications satellite terminals and antennas, that market presents unique challenges, said John Ratigan, president of iDirect Government Technologies, the firm that builds the satellite router board for Tachyon’s airborne terminal.

“Antennas must be designed to minimize their impact on an aircraft’s aerodynamic characteristics,” Ratigan said. In addition, the electronic equipment must be certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to ensure that it does not interfere with an aircraft’s avionics, he added.