Intelsat General successfully tests satellite tech with UAS

By Patrick C. Miller | November 22, 2017

Earlier this year when General Atomics flew a record-setting flight in Class A civilian airspace with a Predator unmanned aircraft system, the flight also served as a successful demonstration of the Intelsat General Corp. (IGC) high throughput satellite (HTS) technology.

Headquartered in McLean, Virginia, IGC provides government and commercial customers with communications solutions through the company’s satellite backbone and terrestrial infrastructure. HTS has two primary advantages—higher data throughput and more secure communications through the use of smaller multiple satellite beams.

Testing of the technology was performed using a Block 5 MQ-9 Predator operating out of General Atomics’ flight test facility next to the Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. The aircraft flew 1,075 nautical miles round trip while switching between two spot beams on the IGC’s 29e EpicNG satellite.  Command-and-control and sensor data transmissions from the aircraft were switched successfully multiple times between the two beams.

As Skot Butler, IGC president, explained, older satellites use one broad beam that can cover the entire continental U.S. This increases the likelihood of satellite communications being interrupted either accidentally or on purpose. The company’s Epic satellite design uses multiple spot beams, each covering a 600-mile radius.

“Users aren’t required to go back to one particular spot beam—a gateway,” he said. “They can actually connect from any one of those spot beams to any other spot beam. They have the flexibility to go from anywhere to anywhere.”

HTS also provides a much larger data pipeline than conventional satellites because it focuses smaller beams on the ground.

“This higher power essentially allows for smaller antennas or, for existing antenna, allows for higher throughput in terms of data speeds, both to and from the antenna,” Butler said. “We’re talking multiples of throughput compared to what could be done before.”

Beam switching is particularly important for U.S. and allied military forces that want to expand UAS operations to high-performance, multiple-spot beam HTS. However, Butler said the technology has potential UAS commercial applications as well because of its ability to use existing antennas on smaller unmanned aerial vehicles.

“Once you’ve enabled those smaller platforms, it’s only a question of need and imagination in terms of what they might be used for,” he said.

One use already being explored is using UAS and HTS to monitor offshore oil platforms or other types of facilities, such as energy infrastructure.

“We had a customer who had been purchasing manned aircraft flight hours to go visit all of these oil platforms and it was costing them a fortune,” Butler related. “They asked what it would look like to do it with unmanned aircraft. We told them using HTS communications, they could look at the data in real time. They wouldn’t have to wait for the UAV to come back and download the data. It’s potentially cheaper than paying for these manned flights.”

Butler said other UAS applications that could benefit from HTS technology include precision agriculture and disaster response. He sees Group 3 UAS—those weighing less than 1,320 pounds and flying at speeds under 250 knots—as effective platforms for the technology on beyond-line-of-sight missions.