Rapid growth in the military use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is providing new business opportunities for commercial satellite operators both inside and outside the United States, as they provide essential command and control for UAVs operating beyond the line of sight.

“Commercial satellite capacity has been used to support UAVs since their inception,” said Dean Olmstead, president of Falls Church, Va.-based Arrowhead Global Solutions. By their design and purpose, UAVs require a large amount of bandwidth on an as-needed, where-needed basis. UAV capacity is a perfect application for commercial satellite communications, with the data transmission between the UAV and the ground stations fully encrypted. U.S. government satellite assets are best utilized to support core mission requirements.”

“Commercial satellites, like those of Intelsat, are used to provide wideband, beyond-line-of-sight communications typically at data rates above 1 megabit per second but are generally limited to data-rates of less than 50 megabits per second ,” said Britt Lewis, vice president of marketing and business development at Intelsat General.

In addition to providing the command and control of the aircraft when they are operating beyond line-of-sight, commercial satellite communications systems also provide a path for delivering sensor data for additional processing and routing, Lewis said. Sensor data is relayed via Ku-band satellite links to mission control elements that in turn distribute imagery to other military communications systems deployed in the same theater of operation, L ewis said.

Next-generation UAV platforms and advanced sensor packages, such as those aboard Global Hawk UAVs that provide 548 megabits per second , and Predator UA Vs tapping data rates of 44.7 megabits per second will drive demand for advanced military and commercial satellite communications services, Lewis said.

It is this type of demand that is driving the transformational communications initiatives of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), including the U.S. Air Force’s planned Wideband Gapfiller satellites. In the meantime, commercial satellite operators are taking a fresh look at satellite designs that enable wideband throughput beyond current capabilities, Lewis said.

Overall, the military needs a big supply of bandwidth to support a growing fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, said Robert Turner, director of New Skies Satellites of The Hague, The Netherlands.

The trend toward stepped-up use of remotely operated aerial vehicles is in response to advances in technology that make such deployments possible and the changing nature of warfare, Turner said.

UAVs have been used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and also played roles in the Persian Gulf and Balkan conflicts. The uses of such aircraft include reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition.

“A main goal is to conduct extremely targeted warfare through highly effective surveillance and reconnaissance that results in the elimination of an enemy threat, while limiting civilian casualties and collateral damage,” Turner said. “An equally important objective is to limit the number of instances in which trained military personnel are put in harm’s way.”

In addition, unmanned aerial vehicles aid in homeland security by collecting information about illegal immigration, drug trafficking and terrorist activity, Turner said. The surveillance of roughly 6,000 miles of border between the United States, Canada and Mexico offers another opportunity to use unmanned aircraft, he added.

Geostationary satellites, positioned 35,000 kilometers above the Earth, cover large areas from a single orbital slot. Such wide coverage increases the number of potential missions that an unmanned aerial vehicle can perform. Ku-band satellite networks offer reliable and typically redundant systems, Turner said.

“Given their position in space, they are in many cases less vulnerable to attack than a terrestrial line-of-sight control system, Turner said. The combined use of Ku-band satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles help military forces obtain “mission-critical” information that can include a near real-time view of the battle field, he added.