On Tuesday, at the SATELLITE 2015 conference, attendees gathered to discuss the future of satellite technology in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The “Serving UAV and UAS Operators: New Requirements and Keys to Success” panel was moderated by Susan Irwin, the global space market consulting firm Euroconsult’s head of the U.S. office, and featured a panel of six industry spokesmen from different organizations in the satellite or UAS technology sector.
The PrecisionHawk UAV. Photo: PrecisionHawk.
Leading off the discussion, Irwin ran through the various, largely synonymous names for unmanned aircraft used industry-wide — UAVs, UAS and drones — followed by a short history of UAS, from their debut in World War I and World War II, up to their present-day role in the military arena and increasing commercial use.
“The good news for the satellite industry is that, because of the immediate need for data collection and for far-flung communication, the broad reach, flexibility and bandwidth capability of satellites make for a perfect marriage between commercial UAVs and satellites,” Irwin said. But she added, “With UAVs getting smaller and more prolific, that brings in a whole host of challenges, including regulatory, safety, privacy — a lot of issues that you are probably hearing about and that the providers are having to deal with.”
Irwin began the discussion by asking the panelists how the satellite communications industry was dealing with the requirements and demand of the UAS industry.
Bill Hartanovich, the account manager for airborne Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) programs at Harris Caprock, responded that the recent adoption of satellite communication systems in manned aviation platforms has served as a useful example for UAS communication providers to follow.
“They have very small antenna systems,” he said. “As a result, you have to have much larger coverage areas and more beams. I would say that the advent of Internet on aircraft has actually helped out the government in its quest for RPA bandwidth.”
Kark Fuchs, vice president of technology at iDirect Government Technologies, added that many of the new high-throughput satellite networks — such as Inmarsat’s Global Xpress, Intelsat’s EpicNG, and spot-beam technology — will be a game changer in UAS communications. “A lot of the power problems may not be completely fixed, but certainly mitigated by these new high-throughput satellites,” he said. “Once those constellations are in orbit, and fully operational globally, I think we will see a real surge in overall use.”
Greg Sullivan, principal at the Jefferson Institute, mentioned that O3b Networks and other satellite providers are looking to develop what he called “the holy grail” of smaller antennas, which are required for many smaller UAS platforms. “Really we are at the cutting edge of the cutting edge, the vertical integration between atmospheric and space-based sensors, and we are breaking that line and being able to provide direct applications to UAVs,” Sullivan said.
David Martin, chief engineer at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Office of Air and Marine, explained that the satellite industry has responded well to his organization’s needs, but that recent developments, such as the integration of high-definition cameras, would stretch the CBP’s tight budget. “We also don’t have the money to swap out our airborne terminals or our ground terminals,” he said. “So we want to do more with less and with the same equipment.”
Irwin then asked the panel how the industry would address the problem of signal interference. Fuchs acknowledged that adjacent satellite interference was more prevalent in the small antennas used in UAVs due to their wide coverage areas, and that UAVs were additionally vulnerable to pointing errors caused by the rapid banking and pitching of the aircraft. He said solutions such as spread-spectrum technology would allow the same throughput, but the reduced bandwidth would be more costly to customers.
“The advent of these new high-throughput satellites won’t completely fix the problem, but will help mitigate it to a great extent,” he said.
Martin mentioned that the CBP has implemented a secondary command Inmarsat and, in the event that the primary Ku signal was lost, the pilot would follow an emergency checklist including activating the backup signal. If both signals were lost, the aircraft would follow waypoints back to its home base, he added.
Richard Lund, chairman and founder of SRT Group, a military solutions provider and manufacturer of L-band terminals, attended the conference and said that the larger UAV market discussed was perhaps not as controversial to the public. “I think there’s a smaller UAV market that is of concern, like with UAVs turning up unannounced on a runway and so on,” he said. “But this market is different.”