The United States Army is one of the most capable, well-trained, and well-equipped fighting forces on the planet. But that hasn’t kept the Army from investing further into new technologies, equipment, and weapons systems intended to further increase soldier lethality and survivability by giving them new capabilities.
The defense and military publications are filled with stories of high-tech, innovative new pilot programs and R&D projects designed to make the warfighter more capable, and more likely to return home to their families. This includes introducing unmanned vehicles to domains other than the air – including unmanned naval vessels and unmanned land vehicles. This also includes the emergence of wearables – such as goggles and other devices – that can deliver augmented reality (AR) programs, communications, and situational awareness to warfighters in theater.
While wildly different, what all of these new weapons systems and platforms have in common is the need for connectivity at the tactical edge. Autonomous vehicles would be effectively useless if they couldn’t be remotely piloted, and if the ISR data they generate couldn’t be reviewed and analyzed in real-time. AR and situational awareness solutions would be more hindrance than a help if they were lagging or delivering old data because their connections offered too little bandwidth with too much latency.
In the fall of this year, SES will be launching a next-generation HTS solution into Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) that promises to meet and exceed the connectivity requirements of these new warfighting technologies. The new solution is called O3b mPOWER, and it’s expected to deliver fiber-like connectivity to practically any location on Earth where the Army may need to operate.
To learn more about this new satellite service and what it means for Army comms on the move requirements, we sat down with Robert “Rigs” Rigsby of SES Government Solutions. During our discussion, we talked about the connectivity requirements of the Army of tomorrow, how O3b mPOWER can meet them, and why latency is such a problem for next-generation Army technologies.
Here is the first part of our conversation:
Government Satellite Report (GSR): We continue to hear about exciting new technologies making their way to the warfighter – even including new goggles or glasses with AR capabilities. What will new technologies like these – and advanced heads-up displays in ground vehicles – do to the Army’s network requirements for deployed warfighters? What other new technologies and solutions are increasing Army network requirements?
Rigs: The only way that solutions like AR capabilities and goggles that display real-time ISR data and situational intelligence information can be made available to the warfighter is to effectively extend military cloud and compute resources to the tactical edge. And the connection to those cloud resources needs to have low latency so as to display relevant information in real-time.
The standard geostationary orbit (GEO) satellites that the military uses today cannot support the requirements of these new technologies – include the real-time transmission and display of data.
When you’re using goggles or glasses with AR capability, or heads-up displays in your ground vehicles, [data transfer] has to happen in real-time if it’s going to be useful and relevant to the mission. There can’t be buffering – like when watching Netflix at home – and the buffer is going to handle the delays. You’re actually participating in real-time, and that buffering would effectively defeat the purpose of the technology.
“Commanders are commanding their units in real-time. They have to make decisions in real-time. They can’t wait two seconds. And they can’t make those decisions based on data that doesn’t reflect the real-time reality that their warfighters are facing. This is why latency is so harmful.” – Robert “Rigs” Rigsby
Today’s advanced HTS spacecraft at Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), and the new satellite constellations comprised of these spacecraft, allow the latency to be reduced to the point where you can actually operate or extend edge computing to the very tactical edge without buffering.
GSR: What would the experience be like for a warfighter trying to use these technologies with a connection with high latency? Why wouldn’t it work?
Rigs: Think about gamers playing a video game. They would not be successful in the game if they were having to wait on the buffering. They would disappear in one place and show up in another place. What they see on the screen would have happened in the past – not the distant past, but still the past.
Commanders are commanding their units in real-time. They have to make decisions in real-time. They can’t wait two seconds. And they can’t make those decisions based on data that doesn’t reflect the real-time reality that their warfighters are facing. This is why latency is so harmful. This is why it’s so limiting when it comes to using these new technologies in the field.
“A soldier can’t drive a vehicle while looking at a headset with AR that is delayed. What is displayed in the headset will not be synchronized with the environment around the soldier…You can’t bring these technologies into the battlefield environment without having a low latency round trip to make it real-time.” – Robert “Rigs” Rigsby
If you ask military satellite users today if their communications experience over a GEO satellite connection is good, nine out of ten would tell you they need more bandwidth. But bandwidth is usually not the problem. It’s the latency. It makes them feel like they have a slow connection that doesn’t meet their needs or requirements.
And here’s the real problem with latency – there’s really only one solution. You will never be able to make a GEO satellite operate with the lower latency of a MEO satellite. You can’t trick it. The latency is a result of that satellite’s distance from the Earth, and there is no way around that. The data is going to take a certain amount of time to make a round trip to and from that satellite. That distance is just physically further – nearly twice the distance – for GEO satellites, which means you’ll have twice the latency and have to use buffering. You won’t need those things with MEO.
GSR: What impact does latency have specifically for solutions like AR and cloud technologies? Can anything be done to make GEO acceptable for these use cases?
Rigs: Latency causes the need to bring in buffering and compression techniques. Those are required over GEO satellites just to have the illusion of real-time command and control. We have done everything technologically possible over GEO – everything that you can do to compress data and e minimize the effects of latency – but you cannot extend cloud and edge computing into a tactical ecosystem in real-time over a GEO satellite.
And that is particularly a problem with AR. A soldier can’t drive a vehicle while looking at a headset with AR that is delayed. What is displayed in the headset will not be synchronized with the environment around the soldier and the vehicle that they’re piloting. The Army can’t bring these technologies into the battlefield environment without having a low latency round trip to make it real-time.
“A soldier on the ground has real-time data about the location on which they’re standing. mPOWER can enable them to push that data – in real-time – back into the cloud for it to be processed and analyzed.” – Robert “Rigs” Rigsby
This is where MEO really shines. Satellites in MEO reduce the latency from 250 MS round trip to 120 MS round trip. That allows for real-time audio and video communications, as well as data transfer.
That reduction in latency is what is enabling the military to push cloud solutions to the very tactical edge.
GSR: Why is real-time communication and information sharing important for the warfighter of tomorrow? What scenarios and situations exist in which increased situational awareness and intelligence could be useful for deployed warfighters in theater?
Rigs: Any time when senior decision-makers and commanders need to make a decision, there will be a need for real-time information sharing and communications.
For example, think about a situation where warfighters need to call in air support or an airstrike. The command-and-control layer is not co-located with the unmanned aerial asset. They’re not in the Forward Operating Base (FOB). They’re not with the soldier on the ground.
This physical separation creates a delay in decision making which can affect the targeting of that aerial asset and impact its success. If commanders can target those airstrikes or aerial assets with real-time data – and communicate with all parties involved in real-time – it is a game-changer.
“Today’s advanced HTS spacecraft at Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), and the new satellite constellations comprised of these spacecraft, allow the latency to be reduced to the point where you can actually operate or extend edge computing to the very tactical edge without buffering.” – Robert “Rigs” Rigsby
Another example would involve the aggregation and analysis of intelligence and data. A soldier on the ground has real-time data about the location on which they’re standing. mPOWER can enable them to push that data – in real-time – back into the cloud for it to be processed and analyzed. This can enable better, more informed decision-making based on much more relevant and timely information.
Now, imagine that soldier finds a hard drive on a target and wants to upload that hard drive full of information back to senior military leaders and decision-makers. In the past, the fastest way to transfer that data would have been physically carrying the hard drive to those that needed it. But, with mPOWER, that soldier has the bandwidth and low latency necessary to upload that data in real-time.
For additional information about how HTS satellites at MEO can reduce latency and enable next-generation technologies on the battlefield, click HERE to download a complimentary copy of the whitepaper, “High Throughput Satellites for U.S. Government Applications.”
Featured image by Air Force Airman 1 st Class Tiffany Price. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.