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Airborne Satellite Communications on the Move (COTM) for Commercial and Military aircrafts and UAVs

For the last several decades SATCOM has played an increasing role in commercial and military communication and data systems. Nearly every industry relies upon satellite technology in some way — from agriculture to banking to transportation. But the insatiable demand for bandwidth across the globe creates new challenges for future aerospace and defense SATCOM designs, requiring new architectures and system designs.


Internet Connectivity on Passenger aircrafts

The future of aviation worldwide is one of significant continuing growth in air travel, air cargo, and private general aviation. Passenger services communications are expected to generate revenue for airlines and service providers. They will require a “critical mass” of users to justify costly avionics installation and operating costs, hence they will need to be broadband services.


However, passenger aircraft remains one of the few places where ubiquitous data connectivity cannot be offered at high throughput, low latency and low cost. Airline and business jet passengers are demanding Internet connectivity as they travel across the globe. A survey by Honeywell revealed that nearly 75% of airline passengers are ready to switch airlines to secure access to a faster and more reliable Internet connection on-board and more than 20% of passengers have already switched their airline for the sake of better in-flight Internet access.


Such demand includes requirements of connectivity for users on aircraft, ships and vehicles (including first responders) that operate at both fixed locations and while in motion. Equally significant is the increasing demand for high bandwidth data access on commercial aircraft for both business jets and major airliners. Airline and business jet passengers are demanding Internet connectivity as they travel across the globe. Until now such high bandwidth data links have been predominantly provided when the aircraft is over land, using a system of ground-based installations to provide the link to the aircraft.


For full transcontinental coverage, SATCOM is the only effective way of providing connectivity with Inmarsat’s L-band coverage, for example. Air carriers are looking to increase data links to the cockpit, while the potential for IoT system monitoring and reporting is requiring high data rate SATCOM platforms with hundreds or even thousands of Mbps data links. In the future, to achieve the required bandwidths, the frequency of operation must move to the Ku-band or Ka-band. New satellites are being launched that support higher frequencies to enable this increase in bandwidth.

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Aircraft satellite Communications for Defence and security

Military forces require situational awareness no matter where they’re located. From warfighters in the field, sailors on Navy ships, troops in flight, and decision-makers at central command, everyone must share a common operating picture to accomplish the mission. Yet, that can be significantly challenging when troops are constantly in motion, traveling across land, sea and air.


Mobile satellite communication has already been widely adopted on the ground and at sea, dramatically improving the availability and exchange of data. Now Industry is developing innovative solutions towards the next frontier: airborne mobility. To keep mobile troops connected, military satcom providers have introduced innovative Communications on the Move (COTM) technology. With specialized satellite router antenna equipment and network features, a moving vehicle can be broadband-enabled, capable of supporting voice, data and video connectivity.


Airborne satellite communication enables an expanded view for decision making and an uninterrupted flow of data, whether that involves a military battlefield or a domestic first responder operation. Military aircraft can stream high-definition Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) video to forces on the ground or at other command locations. Airborne command and control, as well as tactical communications, keep everyone informed and ready for action, e.g. delivering real-time information to troops over drop zones and in enemy locations. Commanders in flight can conduct mission planning and will know what’s unfolding at all times through videoconferencing as well as phone and data connectivity – prepared to execute strategic decisions at a moment’s notice.


Airborne satcom is invaluable for security agencies such as Customs and border patrol agents that can gain a wide area view to keep a sharper eye on borders. First responders can monitor emergency situations as they develop, exchanging critical information to improve life-saving operations. Coast Guard can analyze oil spills using aerial footage captured using satellite technology.



The proliferation of UAVs in the defense (and soon the commercial world), has created a new arena of SATCOM links. UAVs face similar challenges. The advanced defense-focused UAVs are required to operate around the globe with remote piloting, possibly from a different continent. These requirements drive a need for high bandwidth datalinks to support video, control, and advanced payload data, potentially saturating the existing communications infrastructure. With commercial UAVs also set to have expanded coverage in the future, global network high bandwidth connectivity will pose the same SATCOM challenges as in commercial aviation.


Interoperability standards in SATCOM for unmanned systems

The interoperability of SATCOM systems is essential for UAS applications. Standards will accelerate battlefield decision-making so data can be collected and used for reliable, rapid deployment operations, focused on delivering what is dubbed E.P.I.C. Speed (Enterprise, Partnerships, Innovation, Culture, and Speed) to protect against persistent, technologically advanced adversaries.


The first key to UAS SATCOM interoperability is open standards for airborne satellite antennas and modems. For UAS applications, the SATCOM terminal modem and antenna must work together closely to transmit geographic location, satellite handoff, beam quality, and other critical data. Long-duration COTM applications like those using aircraft rely on this coordination to ensure successful satellite beam switching while the aircraft moves.


The Open Antenna to Modem Interface Protocol (Open-AMIP) development process, initiated by equipment manufacturers in 2006, represents progress in creating best-in-class airborne solutions. The DoD has started to adopt commercial Open-AMIP antenna control units, improving SATCOM resilience for COTM as well as providing the best available technology for an enterprise-wide SATCOM architecture. This standard can maximize the interoperability DoD and OSD have outlined for UAS and deliver much-needed operational advantages in today’s contested airborne battlespace.


A second important portion is standardized mechanical interfaces for SATCOM terminals on UASs. Thousands of aircraft worldwide will add airborne SATCOM terminals in the coming decade, creating the need for more open standards for the mechanical interfaces. UAS platforms will require this same technical coordination. Aircraft industry suppliers are working with SATCOM terminal manufacturers to set new standards to simplify and streamline adoption of high-data rate SATCOM. This includes ARINC and other standards that define how to architect and interconnect software and electrical interfaces.


Environmental standards must be defined as well to ensure airborne SATCOM equipment can overcome hurdles ranging from extreme operating temperature, high shock and vibration, to extremely low EMI profile, lightning immunity and other safety and security challenges. The third piece of this UAS SATCOM puzzle is network interoperability: SATCOM interoperability for UAS also requires network considerations to support efficient information sharing and flexible mission objectives. According to the Army’s future UAS strategy, the overarching objective is to synchronize UAS equipment with the human and networking elements. Commonality and an open-architecture systems approach are fundamental to the Army’s UAS strategy. Open design enables potential control and integration of multiple platforms simultaneously, even across operational domains. Open architectures also enable component upgrades to be interchangeable among different platforms.


Standardizing protocols and network connection types will offer significant cost and operational efficiencies by requiring fewer hardware types to operate, maintain, and refresh. This fact applies to the DoD’s approximately 17,000 wideband user terminals managed across 135 designs. The DoD spends an average of $4 billion each year to acquire and sustain wideband satellite communications capabilities, including developing and fielding military satellite systems, contracting for commercial SATCOM services, and acquiring and operating satellite ground terminals.


Meeting Military Security Standards

Security is a top priority for military operations. For mobile remotes on an IP satellite network, this means secure channel activity, control channel information, unit validation, physical security, and data encryption. Militaries requires that the content and size of all user and network link-layer traffic is completely undetectable to adversaries, and all hardware is protected and tamper-evident.  They need to be compliant with the highest level of security standards, including NSA-approved TRANSEC, and routers and line cards be designed to meet FIPS 140-2 Level 3 validation.


Recent Systems and technologies

Orbit Communication Systems Ltd., provider of airborne communications and satellite-tracking maritime and ground-station solutions, and Inmarsat Government, provider of global mobile satellite communications and managed network services to the U.S. government, announced an initial order from Inmarsat Government for Orbit’s Multi-Purpose Terminal (MPT) 46WGX.


According to the company, Orbit’s MPT 46WGX is a 46cm (18-inch) modular, multi-role aviation terminal designed to be fully interoperable with military Ka-band systems and optimized for use over Inmarsat’s Global Xpress constellation.


SATCOM data link aboard E-6B Mercury strategic airborne command post

The Boeing E-6 Mercury is an airborne command post and communications relay aircraft based on the 1950s-vintage stretched Boeing 707-320 narrow-body passenger jetliner. compared to the original 707 jetliner, the E-6 Mercury has new engines and other system upgrades. The plane conveys instructions from the National Command Authority to deployed Navy nuclear ballistic missile submarines, as well as to land-based atomic missiles and nuclear-armed bombers.


The E-6 Mercury’s MR-TCDL provides secure Ku line-of-sight and Ka SATCOM systems for the E-6B aircraft. The data link includes two Ku line-of-sight channels and one Ka satellite communications channel. Other equipment includes power conditioning, cooling, electrical, and network distribution. The system also has equipment that interfaces Block II B kits into the existing E-6B avionics architecture. The E-6B provides command and control of U.S. nuclear forces should ground-based control become inoperable. The plane is based on the four-engine Boeing 707 passenger jetliner.


In April 2021, Officials of the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command are asking the Raytheon Collins Aerospace segment in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to upgrade the E-6B mission computer from a 32-bit to a 64-bit Linux-based operating system to increase capability and reduce threat vulnerabilities. In 2020,  Navy officials ordered advanced satellite communications (SATCOM) capabilities for the E-6B from the Northrop Grumman Mission Systems segment in Herndon, Va. Northrop Grumman installed the Multi-Role Tactical Common Data Link (MR-TCDL) aboard E-6B Mercury aircraft.


The E-6 Mercury’s MR-TCDL provides secure Ku line-of-sight and Ka SATCOM systems for the E-6B aircraft. The data link includes two Ku line-of-sight channels and one Ka satellite communications channel. Other equipment includes power conditioning, cooling, electrical, and network distribution. The system also has equipment that interfaces Block II B kits into the existing E-6B avionics architecture.



Iridium’s Low-Earth Orbit satellites for aviation communications

Iridium company recently completing a two year upgrade of their global communications network, replacing all of its satellites and upgrading the supporting ground infrastructure. Iridium’s satellite constellation now consists of 66 operational space vehicles and nine on-orbit spares.


Iridium is a LEO satellite based network that offers specific advantages for aircraft communications. At only 476 miles (780 km) from the Earth, Iridium’s LEO network has pole-to-pole coverage, a shorter transmission path, stronger signals, lower latency, and quicker registration time than GEO satellites that orbit at an altitude of 22,236 mi (35,786 kilometres).


Iridium’s satellites are better for connecting to communication and tracking devices fitted to aircraft that are often moving themselves. That’s because the satellite constellation is more likely to keep a clear line of sight with the antenna on the devices, delivering a reliable, robust, low latency (and hence more effective) end-to-end network to keep your Spider permanently connected.


For both fixed wing and rotary aircraft, flying mountainous terrain as well as open air space, having a satellite network that is moving at 17,000 mph means that even a supersonic aircraft is relatively stationary compared to the satellites. The constant movement of the satellites guarantees optimal look angles to wherever the aircraft might be located, and in whatever orientation – high bank turn, straight and level etc.


Contrast that with a GEO network, where if an aircraft can’t see the satellite due to obstruction or orientation, connectivity cannot be made and hence real-time, low latency connectivity simply isn’t possible.


The advantages of a LEO network is one of the reasons more than 60,000 aircraft currently use Iridium.


Global Airborne SATCOM Market

The Global Airborne Satellite Communications (SATCOM) Market is projected to grow from USD 5.8 billion in 2019 to USD 7.8 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 5.1% during the forecast period.


The growing fleet of commercial and combat aircraft, increasing long-haul flights and passenger traffic, and demand for customized SATCOM on-the-move solutions are the major factors driving the airborne SATCOM market. Leading SATCOM equipment/system manufacturers are also coming up with advancements in SATCOM equipment used in commercial aircraft, military aircraft, and UAVs.


Based on installation, the new installation segment of the market is projected to grow at the highest CAGR during the forecast period. The growth of this segment can be attributed to the deployment of advanced airborne SATCOM systems across commercial and military applications and increasing demand for new commercial aircraft orders from Asia Pacific and Europe.


Aircraft manufacturers and airlines across the globe are focusing on integrating newer generation airborne platforms to enhance situational awareness and passenger experience. For example, in 2018, Rockwell Collins received a contract worth USD 82.6million from the US Department of Defense (DoD) to supply mobile user objective system (MUOS)-capable airborne radios and ancillaries for DoD platforms including fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, ships, and ground installations.


Based on application, the commercial segment of the airborne SATCOM market is projected to grow at the highest CAGR during the forecast period. The growth of this segment can be attributed to the increasing demand for enhanced passenger experience. Major airlines such as Alaska Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Delta Airlines, and American Airlines are opting for the latest in-flight entertainment systems to enhance the passenger experience.


Based on component, the transceivers segment of the market is projected to grow at the highest CAGR during the forecast period. SATCOM transceivers allow two-way communication using a single device. The invention of transceivers has led to the development of several modern communication technologies such as two-way radios and the Internet.


North America led the airborne SATCOM market in 2019. The market in the region is highly competitive, owing to the presence of a large number of aircraft manufacturers such as Raytheon Company (US), General Dynamics Corporation (US), Honeywell International Inc (US), and Collins Aerospace (US). Increasing passenger traffic, demand for new aircraft, and the rapid replacement of connectivity solutions with advanced ones. Various airlines operating in North America are focusing on upgrading their existing fleet to enhance the passenger travel experience.


Leading players

Major players operating in the airborne SATCOM market are Aselsan AS (Turkey), Raytheon Company (US), General Dynamics Corporation (US), Cobham Limited (UK), and Thales Group (France).


Aselsan AS is one of the leading players in the airborne SATCOM market. It has a strong domestic presence, with approximately 90% of its revenue being generated in this region. The company has a diverse product portfolio. The company offers defense electronic systems and tactical airborne military radios to the Turkish Armed Forces. It is a public limited company listed on the Istanbul Stock Exchange with the ticker symbol ASELS. The company offers a wide range of airborne SATCOM products such as antenna subsystems, antenna control subsystems, and airborne satellite modems.


Thales Group is a key player in the aerospace & defense industry. The company develops and delivers a range of airborne, naval, and land systems for commercial aviation, defense, and homeland security sectors. Thales Group operates through the aerospace, transport, defense & security, and other segments. The company manufactures Airborne Compact SATCOM, MALE UAV SATCOM Terminal, Airborne High Capacity SATCOM, and Ultra SATCOM systems for commercial as well as defense applications. The company is a key manufacturer of nuclear ballistic missile guidance and control systems. It also offers advanced battle planning integrated with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. In 2019, the French Defense agency awarded a contract to Thales to design and built the next-generation Syracuse 4 satellite communication system. This contract enables the defense forces of France to improvise the SATCOM system in the Charles De Gaulle Aircraft Carrier and the Rafale combat aircraft.


Collins Aerospace has a strong presence in the US, with approximately 71% of its revenue being generated in North America. Collins Aerospace is a unit of United Technologies Corporation, which is a leader in technologically advanced and intelligent solutions for the global aerospace & defense industry. It was formed in 2018 after the merger of UTC Aerospace Systems and Rockwell Collins. Collins Aerospace offers SAT-6100 satellite communication systems, SATCOM high gain antennas, high-speed transceivers, and SATCOM intermediate gain antennas. Major clients of Collins Aerospace in the airborne SATCOM market are aircraft manufacturers, airlines, and other aircraft components manufacturers, and maintenance, overhaul providers, and independent distributors.


In 2018, Collins Aerospace received the first long-term contract worth USD 82 million from the US Department of Defense (DoD) to supply mobile user objective system-capable airborne radios and ancillaries for DoD platforms. Cobham Limited is one of the leading providers of unmanned systems for various unmanned platforms. It offers products and services for the commercial, defense, and security sectors. Cobham operates through four segments communication and connectivity, mission system, advanced electronic systems, and aviation services. The company operates in Tier-II (subsystem) and Tier-III (components) markets. It provides a range of SATCOM products and components to OEMs. These products and services are used in space, aerospace, land, and maritime applications. In 2019, Kepler Communication and Cobham SATCOM, a market-leading provider in airborne radio and airborne satellite communications, formed a strategic partnership for the adoption of high-capacity satellite data service delivery.



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