In fall 2021, SES will launch the first satellites in their revolutionary O3b mPOWER MEO satellite service. mPOWER represents a massive step forward for the satellite industry, as a whole, promising to offer massive bandwidth and high throughputs with much less latency than traditional satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO) when they come online in 2022.
While mPOWER’s ability to offer scalable, flexible connectivity would be beneficial across all domains, the air domain could particularly benefit from the advancements offered in this new service. mPOWER offers all mobile platforms an unprecedented capability to transmit much more data, with just as high data rates as they can receive, offered at a very competitive cost to other lower speed traditional airborne connectivity solutions.
The amount of data delivered to – and generated from – today’s modern aircraft is immense. Pilots have new heads-up displays that offer augmented reality (AR) and insights into their missions and operations. And every plan has become laden with sensors that are constantly generating mission-critical data and insights. High bandwidth satellite connectivity is essential for powering these applications and providing the real-time transfer of critical data used to inform mission strategy and decision-making.
To get a better understanding of the impact that mPOWER could have on aerial missions for the U.S. military and its coalition partners, the Government Satellite Report recently sat down with Quincy “Q.” Dan, the Senior Director of Mobility and Integrated Development at SES GS. During our discussion, we explored what is new and different about the mPOWER satellite constellation, examined how mPOWER will be a COMSATCOM gamechanger for air domain connectivity, and got a status update on when mPOWER will be available to government users.
Government Satellite Report (GSR): We’ve heard that the next generation of fighters and bombers are basically sensors with wings. How does this proliferation of sensors impact the network and connectivity requirements of these aircraft in flight? How can mPOWER help with that?
Q. Dan: Airborne operations will require the capability to offload the data from multiple sensors and cameras, as well as systems’ data and other information. This will require much larger pipes from beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) communications systems.
mPOWER provides the ability to move all this data at once with added resiliency and higher availability rates based on the use of multiple satellites.
mPOWER will support return links ranging from 5Mbps on small form factor airborne terminals, and up to 100Mbps on larger airborne terminals. This is a game-changing capability to support live HD video simultaneously with multi-sensor data, and voice, while distributing that data directly to multiple end-points with mPOWER’s multi-cast features.
GSR: What about UAVs and transport aircraft? Are they also requiring increased connectivity and more network capacity/bandwidth? What trends are driving this?
Q. Dan: This depends on the purpose of the platform. But yes, we see a much higher demand to move data from unmanned platforms of all sizes.
Unmanned systems are usually used to gather intelligence and surveillance, whether that is a civil application like environmental monitoring, or highway monitoring or a military application. Operators often want to move that data or HD video in real-time. That requires sophisticated systems and networks to upload and distribute that data.
mPOWER provides the ability to upload data from multiple sensors and cameras simultaneously over a single data link. Complimented by our multi-cast capability which will deliver that content over the satellite network to multiple endpoints. This is a true differentiator for any unmanned platform.
GSR: Is delivering satellite connectivity to aircraft difficult, in particular? Does their speed create issues staying within beams? Does their smaller footprint create limitations on antenna and terminals?
Q. Dan: Airborne SATCOM terminals need to track quickly, especially with maneuvering aircraft. This requires quite a bit of intelligence in the terminal and use of slip rings, advanced stabilization, and tracking mechanics, as well as software. This becomes more difficult when tracking Low Earth Orbit (LEO) or MEO satellites, and even more difficult when tracking multiple orbits and networks.
Parabolic, mechanically steered antennas are severely challenged today just tracking GEO satellites and may have intermittent signal loss when maneuvering or switching bands or beams. The industry is quickly developing Electronically Steerable Array (ESA) terminals which will one day be able to track multiple satellites at multiple orbits, simultaneously transmitting and receiving between them for clean make-before-break handoffs, while traveling at high speeds.
SES GS is working with many of the industry-leading, best-of-breed airborne antenna manufacturers to integrate the new ESA antennas with our MEO/GEO services to provide true multi-orbit resiliency to aircraft with increased availability and reliability to ensure crew, passengers, and systems stay connected every step of the way.
GSR: What is connectivity like for aircraft today? How does this limited bandwidth impact operations and what’s possible in the air?
Q. Dan: There are lots of options for providing inflight connectivity today ranging from commercial passenger applications to military intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) applications. Military ISR applications have largely relied upon legacy Ku-band terminals and services to deliver the largest return links possible with data rates ranging from 1-20Mbps typically.
mPOWER will greatly enhance the return link capability with smaller form factor (SFF) terminals that deliver return link data rates up to 100Mbps. We have recent test results with small MEO terminals delivering data rates up to 50Mbps on the O3b classic service.
GSR: SES will be launching the first satellites in their mPOWER constellation in a matter of months. Why is mPOWER an exciting solution for the Air Force and other military organizations that fly aircraft?
Q. Dan: mPOWER and MEO are a huge part of the SpaceCom/CSCO strategy for resilient, assured communications. MEO is at the heart of every PACE plan and assured connectivity strategy to support the most critical applications.
mPOWER offers enhanced LPI/LPD and anti-jam capabilities, enormous data rates in both directions, the ability for the government to control and steer beams, and low-latency with the features to distribute data across the satellite network or at the edge with integrated cloud services.
GSR: What particular traits or features of mPOWER make it especially beneficial for use in the air domain?
Q. Dan: mPOWER is particularly well suited to provide resilient communications in contested environments with the ability to support multiple waveforms and modems. MEO ground stations can be located anywhere, such as military installations, forward operating bases (FOBs), or even on ships-at-sea deployed worldwide. Other closed infrastructure satellite networks require the use of their commercial gateways creating potential vulnerabilities.
mPOWER provides steerable spot beams which can follow the mission or aircraft while providing a discreet operational capability. mPOWER can provide dynamic surge capacity instantaneously without the need to go through complicated provisioning and ordering process. mPOWER also has very low latency compared to GEO satellites. mPOWER is based upon proven fielded technology which has been evolving for several years with O3b classic and already has a robust ground communications network.
Summed up, these capabilities provide better situational awareness and enable faster decision-making with enhanced mobility and quick response capability (QRC). mPOWER gives our forces a combat advantage and helps to ensure mission success.