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How ground segment systems are rendering innovative satellite capabilities useless

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Last month, Access Intelligence convened its 40th annual SATELLITE conference at the Gaylord National Convention Center in National Harbor, MD. SATELLITE is universally recognized as the world’s most critical and inclusive social gathering of space and satellite thought leaders. Executives, engineers, government officials, and commercial customers convene at SATELLITE to bridge the digital divide, increase access to space, and collaborate on policy.

On Wednesday, September 8, SATELLITE held the “Reducing Ground Infrastructure Costs in the New Space Supply-Chain” session, where Leaf Space, IT’s U.S. Managing Director, Jai Dialani, moderated a panel discussion that included:

  • Assaf Cohen, Global Vice President Sales and Marketing, SpaceBridge Inc.
  • Stuart Daughtridge, Vice President, Kratos
  • Paul Mattear, Principal Business Development Manager, Amazon Web Services
  • Sergy A. Mummert, Senior Vice President, Business Development, Americas, SES
  • Richard Schgallis, Executive Vice President, Space and Communications USA, Safran Data Systems

There is always constant speculation about the “future” of the space economy, and how it will include increased demands for satellite services and capabilities, higher speeds, and ubiquitous access. But the experts on this panel explained that these high demands already exist and will only be growing larger in the coming years. But, there is one huge roadblock standing in the way to satisfying these needs.

Over the past decade, the technological improvements that have taken place in the space layer have been monumental. According to Daughtridge, these technological advancements have equipped software defined satellites with “unbelievable capabilities.” And the wide array of missions that the space layer can support are vast. Today’s satellites have the ability to enable orbital transport, Earth observation, IoT, broadband communications, and cislunar missions.

According to Schgallis, “We are rapidly approaching this point where systems will become multi-mission capable, with higher and higher data rates, and multi-band terminals…There’s this goal to make things as widely compatible for economies of scale as possible.”

“The ground segment needs to catch up to basically enable those capabilities that have been put in the spacecraft.” – Stuart Daughtridge

The issue that is preventing the deployment of these services is that the ground segment systems meant to direct and control these satellite missions are years behind in their own development, rendering a satellite’s potential capabilities untapped and unused.

And this untapped space layer potential can translate into major losses for satellite providers. “The ground segment’s behind,” said Daughtridge. “The ground segment needs to catch up to basically enable those capabilities that have been put in the spacecraft. Because right now, it’s really hard to monetize the capabilities that those satellites have.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter how great a satellite is if the ground segment can’t support it. So what can be done to catch these ground segments up?

According to Mattear, “One of the issues that we have with ground infrastructure is a lack of standards across the board.” As the satellite industry continues to move towards utilizing more partner-developed software defined systems, there must be a standard that they can develop towards. “Otherwise, you end up with a single stovepipe system,” said Mattear. “And that stovepipe system doesn’t let you monetize.”

The consequences from the lack of interoperability spread far beyond satellite providers. The U.S. military is working to embrace a combined MILSATCOM and COMSATCOM architecture that will deliver the increased satellite bandwidth they need for today’s network-enabled operations, and give them access to the innovation of the commercial satellite industry. However, the lack of interoperability in ground networks and hardware is making this combined architecture difficult to achieve.

“One of the issues that we have with ground infrastructure is a lack of standards across the board.” – Paul Mattear

According to Frank Backes, senior vice president for Federal Space at Kratos, “Unfortunately, multiple organizations independently pursuing their own mission needs have produced a number of ground-based proprietary satellite communication solutions, which have created a lack of interoperability between different commercial services and the armed forces. Those same proprietary solutions remain roadblocks to a dynamic SATCOM infrastructure supporting communication for an evolving military theater.”

Through standardization, satellite and ground system providers would be able to implement solutions and services that would reduce ground infrastructure costs, and, according to Mattear, “allow that to be monetized by other customers, help that symbiotic chain generate revenue across the board, and more importantly, support the end customer.”

But how does that standardization happen? All the panelists agreed that virtualization and digitization, like moving towards cloud technologies, are key.

According to Mummert digitization and virtualization are not only game changers in reducing ground infrastructure costs, but they also provide opportunities for new service models. “Having more infrastructure distributed across a global network, like AWS…is really a game changer for the satellite operators.”

With the promises of being able to move a lot of the work into cloud environments, and making the access compatible, no matter where the customer is, is “opening up a lot of doors” according to Schgallis. “I’m very excited about these opportunities, and our organization is actively working in this vein with as much virtualization and cloud processing as possible.”

Virtualization also accelerates the move from purpose-built hardware to mission unique software. “In software applications, especially in a cloud environment where you can spin up service chains and things like that, you can get the resiliency and the scalability that a cloud offers,” explained Daughtridge. “It allows you to have flexibilities for multiple different missions, with the same basic generic hardware, because you can change the personality of the infrastructure.”

Implementing these service models, through virtualization, means that satellite provider customers who are used to consuming cloud resources in the terrestrial world, can now have access to them via satellite. “The model makes sense to them,” said Mummert. “The interoperability is very important to them. It just enables a whole new ecosystem and economy.”

“We want standards. We want to drive scale for the industry. I think this is the right direction, but it needs more work. But we’ll get there.” – Sergy Mummert

But this does pose a challenge for ground segment developers, such as panelist Assaf Cohen. According to Cohen, “From the ground segment perspective…we have a lot of complexities. We have to deal with many new technologies with many orbits.” He explained that the challenges lie within developing the software to cope with all of the hardware challenges.

“We have to be interoperable,” explained Cohen. “To connect all these dots and implement the standards, we are an integral part and not just the one supporting the network.” He went on to say that the challenges get even more complicated because everything must become interoperable in real time.

To remedy these challenges, several groups have popped up within the industry to support a standardization dialogue. And Mummert happens to be on one of them. “We want standards,” said Mummert. “We want to drive scale for the industry. I think this is the right direction, but it needs more work. But we’ll get there.”

In the end, all of the issues of standardization and virtualization comes down to the partner ecosystem coming together to solve these immense challenges. According to Mummert, when industry partners cross-collaborate, “You open up these doors and create interoperability and opportunities for things to be created on your platform.”

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