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MILITARY TECHNOLOGY (MILTECH) is the world's leading international tri-service defence monthly magazine in the English language. MILITARY TECHNOLOGY is "Required Reading for Defence Professionals". Follow us on Twitter: MILTECH1

19 May 2015

Unmanned Systems - Primary Users of Satellite Bandwidth

Today’s unmanned aerial systems (UAS) rely on satellite communication (SATCOM) links that allow UAS pilots to direct the aircraft from ground control stations based in the continental US.

The communications-hungry drones consume large amounts of bandwidth to pipe battlefield video feeds and other sensor data back to intelligence centers and to forces on the ground. As a result, satellites are becoming overloaded by the never-ending demand. Experts say the problem will only grow worse as the services increase the number of UAS or remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) in the skies.

The US Defense Department’s (DoD) space sector is struggling to keep pace with the proliferation of drones. Since the 2009 cancelation of the Air Force’s Transformational Satellite programme, which was supposed to provide more capacity for overloaded military SATCOM networks, US Air Force (USAF) officials increasingly have turned to commercial providers to make up the difference. Nearly 80% of the US government’s satellite communications capacity comes from the commercial sector.

Part of the challenge for the DoD is providing a means for transmitting information securely over these networks. Communications routed through commercial providers are largely not protected to the same degree as transmissions over military-owned satellites, which require encryption and other security measures that safeguard them from attack. Though the ultimate plan is to move all of the DoD’s battle-hardened space-based communication needs onto military systems — a transition that analysts say could take years, even decades — Pentagon officials for the foreseeable future will remain dependent upon commercial providers to supplement the network.

The growth of unmanned systems is still being grossly underestimated. Despite combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, the need for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities will only continue to escalate. Fewer boots on the ground mean more eyes in the sky.

By 2020, the government will operate nearly 800 satellite communications-enabled unmanned systems. PREDATORs and REAPERs will account for the majority, with the US Army’s GRAY EAGLE UAS, the Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance aircraft, and the USAF’s GLOBAL HAWK rounding out the total. They will continue to constrain available satellite networks, many of which were designed in previous decades when unmanned aircraft communication was not even a requirement.  Industry is willing to make the investments to better meet military demands, company officials said. But the commercial investors expect a reasonable return for their money.

The government will be procuring nearly $50 billion worth of remotely piloted aircraft by 2020, at a rate of 70 to 100 medium altitude long edurance (MALE) UAS per year, all with SATCOM capability. Those new systems will require data throughput rates of 10 to 16 megabits per second. High-altitude systems, such as GLOBAL HAWK, will need even faster data rates, as high as 138 megabits per second, all driven by advanced sensor suites comprising high-definition cameras, wide area surveillance technology and simultaneous video feeds.

The bandwidth challenges if not addressed will cause even more headaches down the road as drone missions expand. Soldiers are exploring the utility of UAS as flying versions of today’s truck-mounted communication network nodes. To help ease the communications traffic, DoD officials transitioned UAS communication operations from the Ku-band spectrum to the higher Ka-band frequencies, which have more bandwidth and would allow troops greater command and control (C2) of their drones. The Wideband Global SatCom (WGS), the department’s newest and still growing constellation of satellites, has two-way Ka-band capability. 

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