At the helm for Hughes as CEO in 2000, Pradman Kaul is a leader in satellite communications down to his core. Kaul guided the company through a number of ownership changes, the transition to a publically traded company and its acquisition by EchoStar Corp. in June 2011. Under his leadership, Hughes has been granted more than 300 technology patents, and comprises more than 1,300 engineers and scientists.
Kaul says the most significant turning point in his career was in 1973 when he left COMSAT Labs for a startup company called Digital Communications Corp. That tiny startup is now Hughes Network Systems, which has more than 1 million broadband subscribers in North America alone on the EchoStar 17 satellite. The move transitioned Kaul out of a research environment to the “real world,” where people truly relied on satellite communications. Looking at change over the past 20 to 30 years, to Kaul the most noteworthy is the acceptance today of satellite as a powerful communications resource.
“Simply put, we’ve become a mainstream part of the world’s telecom infrastructure,” he says. “We’ve evolved from an enterprise-only, limited applications industry, to become a truly global, full spectrum provider across all market segments, from delivering enterprises fully managed broadband services employing best-of-breed satellite and terrestrial technologies, to high-speed satellite Internet service for consumers no matter where they may live or work. We’re not just a mix of niche businesses from the past; we are redefining the overall telecom landscape.”
Kaul is hedging his bet on High Throughput Satellite (HTS) technology as the means to grow the market for satellite broadband. Pointing to HTS adoption in places such as Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia, he sees increasingly capable satellites in the works, with other technologies continuing to raise the bar.
“There are also significant breakthroughs on the horizon in antenna and consumer device technologies that I expect will further expand the addressable markets for satellite broadband to a highly mobile population — business and consumer alike — by effectively meshing satellite and cellular/wireless delivery systems. In addition, some major projects using [Low Earth Orbit ]LEO constellations were announced generating a lot of excitement,” he said.
Hughes’ next HTS satellite, EchoStar 19 is slated to launch in 2016. Kaul sees this next generation of satellites boosting capacity from 100 Gbps to above150 Gbps with “possibly another major improvement three years thereafter.”
Though space is certainly not a forgiving environment, it is from this challenging vantage point that QuakeFinder first began a space-based earthquake detection system. After learning how to identify precursor signals to impending earthquakes, the company began building a network of ground sensors complemented by a 10 lb satellite launched aboard a Soyuz rocket.
Satellite industry players large and small devote their expertise during natural disasters, which often cause debilitating damage to vital telecommunications infrastructure. If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, QuakeFinder’s pioneering work in earthquake forecasting research using electromagnetic signal detection and analysis is worth its weight in gold.
“The proliferation of companies building and launching nanosatellites with a range of sensor types, combined with what governments are already doing, is going to reap huge benefits in the future. The ecosystem has definitely evolved since QuakeFinder successfully built and launched the first commercial triple CubeSat (QuakeSat) over a decade ago,” said Tom Bleier chief technology officer at QuakeFinder.
On the ground, QuakeFinder’s sensor network crested 100 California sites in 2010. Recently, the company has focused its energy on broadening the range of its international network. Bleier describes the challenge today as figuring out how to best merge space-based readings with ground-based sensor data to get the most accurate forecasts.
“While we now have the richest induction magnetometer data set on the planet and the largest sensor network of this type in the world, we are only scratching the surface of analysis techniques. And of course, we are always looking for sponsorship opportunities to enable us to move the ball forward even more rapidly. The faster we make progress, the more lives will be saved,” he says.
In tackling this challenge, QuakeFinder has partnered with universities, the U.S. government and companies worldwide to better predict natural disasters. Bleier says more partnerships are in the works to improve forecasting algorithms and to expedite the transition from research to operations.
“We are looking forward to the day when we are able to reliably forecast earthquakes on the order of days to weeks in advance and save lives,” he says.
When the guidance, navigation, and control lead systems engineer for the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite — a joint project between NASA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) — stepped down, Systems Engineer Justin Gensel quickly filled the void, learning the subsystem, and identifying, developing, and testing more than 100 launch-critical procedures. Gensel joined the team just nine months prior to launch, and after an H2A rocket orbited the satellite, he has been focused on designing, developing, testing, and implementing automation of routine command and control and data handling activities. Described by his colleagues as a quick learner, problem solver and a leader, Gensel is now the resident expert of the guidance, navigation and control subsystem; principal test engineer for flight software; special operations (calibrations, maneuvers, flight software updates) liaison; and backup for several other subsystems.
Justin naturally gravitates toward designing and implementing ways to improve any process. Justin’s technical contributions, his analysis and problem solving abilities, and his leadership abilities make him uniquely qualified to continue to make a difference in this industry and provide the innovative thinking and leadership required for the future.
Gensel says he lives by the advice of an influential teacher he had who told him “learning goes both ways.” This has guided his career as an engineer, which began as a college intern in 2008.
“It doesn’t matter your age or experience level, everyone can bring something to the table. People come from all walks of life, and those experiences can help in some of the most esoteric of tasks,” he says.
Gensel leverages experience from working with GPM’s predecessor, the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), which has outlived its original three-year design life for more than 14 years — a sign that GPM is now in good hands. NASA, JAXA and commercial partners including Honeywell recently celebrated GPM’s first full year in space with more than 5,700 orbits logged.
Gensel says willingness to learn is only a third of the equation to become a top-notch player in the satellite industry. Time and persistence have equal merit. He encourages other engineers to apply themselves through challenging assignments, arguing that the right answer is less important than the path to finding it.
“Remember, the 110 percent that you put into your task through documentation, process and data reduction will yield a successful outcome every time. The answers may not be what you want, but future engineers on your project will benefit from your hard work when it’s needed the most. As long as you have the ambition and tenacity to want to be a first-class engineer (regardless of your age and experience), your work will reflect it and your peers will appreciate it,” he says.
The word insatiable is often used in describing passenger demand for connectivity. ViaSat is a leader among companies seriously looking match ever growing bandwidth needs with the best technologies to provide them. With more than 300 commercial aircraft serviced in the U.S. and close to 500 on order globally, In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) is now a top focus for ViaSat, and Mark Dankberg, chairman and CEO, anticipates other satellite operators will shift their gaze to the skies.
“The mainstream satellite industry is still “betwixt and between” — edging away from the tried and true broadcast satellites, but not really embracing the new data-driven economy,” he says. “I think this will continue to get sorted out over the next few years as it becomes clear just how much bandwidth is needed to deliver attractive connectivity services.”
With the High Throughput Satellite (HTS) ViaSat 1, passengers receive 12 Mbps service to their individual seat, a level of service Dankberg says is proven valuable by passenger adoption and social media feedback. What they say and do has a strong impact on airlines, he notes.
“Ultimately IFC has to serve the primary mission of airlines — which is to fly paying passengers. Probably by the end of this year there will be hard evidence of what the survey data indicates — that connectivity does influence choice of airline. And, since the marginal cost of flying each individual passenger is so low, and the marginal profits so high, it doesn’t take much market share movement to drive the airlines to pay attention,” he says.
ViaSat’s next satellite, ViaSat 2, will be capable of at least doubling the total capacity of ViaSat 1. Dankberg calls ViaSat 1 a great start, but ViaSat 2 he expects will be even better for bandwidth economics and geographic coverage. Once the satellite launches aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy in 2016, ViaSat plans to not only bolster IFC, but to take what it has learned in the aviation space and apply it to maritime.
“Since ViaSat 1 doesn’t cover oceans we haven’t been able to bring that capability to maritime — yet. But ViaSat 2 does create that opportunity and we’ll leverage it then. There are a number of domain-specific differences between aero and maritime and we’ll have to address those; but the demand for bandwidth is certainly there,” he says. VS
Caleb Henry is the junior editor for Via Satellite.
Mark Holmes is the editorial director for Via Satellite and Avionics Magazine.