How Software-Defined Satellites Will Shape Communications

The future will be driven by flexible satellites that can refresh and reconfigure themselves on demand. Startups and legacy satcoms are ready.

When Intelsat kicked off 2021 with an announcement that it had ordered two Airbus OneSat Geostationary (GEO) software-defined satellites to drive new applications, the service provider offered a new roadmap for its services — but more importantly, a vision for the future.

The satellite operator, which had a busy 2020 between filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and acquiring Gogo’s Commercial Aviation division for $400 million in September, believes the satellite industry’s growth will be fueled by software that is flexible and configurable.

“With this announcement we are moving toward a software-defined era,” Bruno Fromont, Intelsat’s Chief Technology Officer, tells Via Satellite. “It’s part of a whole system, next-generation software-defined network from the ground to space.”

The two next-generation software-defined satellites, to be delivered in 2023, will offer improved connectivity to in-flight broadband users, by enabling operators to reconfigure beams as needed. The satellites will also support future mobility applications through extremely high speeds, enhanced capacity flexibility, redundancy, and backwards compatibility.

Intelsat’s ambitions are far from isolated, and an increasing number of legacy organizations and startups have unveiled software-defined satellites and software-defined networking solutions. All of these product and service announcements come with the same promise: to deliver speed, flexibility, and power for a fraction of the cost of legacy hardware-defined spacecraft.

“With the cost of launching satellites going down via reusable rockets, you need manufacturing costs to go down via mass production of generic satellites,” explains NSR analyst Carlos Placido. “As in terrestrial networks, hardware is becoming software in space as well."

In a recent white paper, NSR noted the shift from traditionally CapEx-heavy investments of satellite ground infrastructure to an optimized OpEx-driven virtualized network environment that is flexible and open.

“When you shift customization capabilities to software, you have the ability to reconfigure generic satellites, which is a huge cost advantage over having a satellite that is rather statically configured for many years," says Placido.

Cloud Bound in LEO, GEO, MEO

The opportunities for software-defined satellites are seemingly abundant. In Geostationary Orbit, having the ability to refresh and adapt the footprint and spectral power of a satellite that stays in space for 15 years before it’s de-orbited is a potential game changer. Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) and Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites in a lower altitude, on the other hand, benefit from the beam steering and shaping capabilities that software-defined satellites can provide, notes Placido.

“The more satellites we have, the more important software becomes, as you need to orchestrate the interworking between network nodes on the ground and in space to meet changing bandwidth demands,” he says.

Some of the initial buzz around software-defined satellites centers on LEO, specifically satcoms like Spire Global, whose business model is built on its constellation of LEO cubesats characterized by their powerful computing abilities, onboard downlink processing, and other features.

“In 2012, we were the only ones who wanted to do RF [Radio Frequency] payloads that are software-defined, versus imaging,” Theresa Condor, general manager of Space Services and Earth Intelligence at Spire, tells Via Satellite. “We were very unique when we started. That’s starting to change now. Everyone’s interested in software-defined payloads and IoT [Internet of Things].”

Spire Global's constellation of more than 100 software-defined satellites leverage Radio Frequency (RF) sensing, data collection and analysis for weather measurements and weather forecasting, Earth Observation (EO), and maritime data.

“We can change, update, and improve what payloads can do via software,” says Condor. “The capability of our satellites, rather than degrading over time, improve over the life of a satellite.”

Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES’s MEO constellation O3b mPOWER, meanwhile, is utilizing a partial software-defined approach, the company previously told Via Satellite.

“O3b mPOWER is not in the strictest sense of the term software-defined but has definable capabilities,” Stewart Sanders, executive vice president of technology, SES Networks, told Via Satellite recently. “We now have a fully digitized payload as well as full electronic beam forming.”

American satellite manufacturer Lockheed Martin is developing a wide breadth of applications for LEO as well as GEO with SmartSat, its first software-defined satellite, which completed its initial demonstrations in 2020 and moved into the pre-launch phase in 2021. First unveiled in 2019, SmartSat can change missions in orbit, powered by a processing computer (Xavier) that can access payload data. Previously, data had to be downlinked and then uplinked.

“The market is going toward where software is becoming the discriminator, whereas before, hardware was the discriminator,” says Adam Johnson, SmartSat director for Lockheed Martin. “Software is the asset, while hardware is the commodity.”

Eutelsat, one of the earliest proponents of software-defined satellite architecture, is now seeking new applications to distinguish itself in a growing field. The Eutelsat Quantum satellite, also hailed for its flexible architecture and customizable beams, is scheduled to launch in the second quarter of 2021.

“One of the characteristics of Quantum is that it will be the world’s first commercial telecommunication satellite capable of reconfiguration in orbit,” says Pascal Homsy, chief technical officer at Eutelsat. “Eutelsat Quantum will have the capability to modify its coverage in real time to specific regions depending on customer needs. Traditionally Geostationary satellites are configured during construction to illuminate a specific region. This new-generation satellite will enable customers to pinpoint and then configure a precise route in order to track an aircraft or a shipping vessel, using ground control. This service is highly sought-after by governments and defense ministries as they can tailor the satellite’s features to suit their needs.”

Customers will now have more control over the use of the satellite, with the power to implement missions onboard, to conduct simulations from the ground, to shape coverage wherever needed, and to modify frequencies.

“Today there are satellites with defined coverage,” says Homsy. “Now customers will be able to reconfigure in real time, the shape of the beam, as well as the amount of capacity or power. So instead of buying capacity for one purpose and then having to sign a new contract for another service, customers can now benefit from a one-stop-shop contract. For government agencies in particular, this service evolution offers a significant level of flexibility and also confidentiality, as the customer is in control of its own capacity.”

Adapting to Change

Yet these benefits come with a cost. Building out a tapestry of software-enabled satellites will require stronger investments in more capable hardware, and new considerations for security, interoperability, and communications.

“One of the key components of SmartSat is our cybersecurity we built in from the beginning,” says Johnson. As such, Lockheed Martin’s SmartSat-enabled satellites are built to reset themselves faster, diagnose issues with greater precision, and more quickly detect and defend against cyber threats autonomously. On-board cyber defenses can be updated regularly to address new threats.

Another challenge, especially for organizations without deep pockets, is the magnitude of the technology upgrades necessary to support software-defined satellites.

“It’s great you have flexible new assets with capabilities. We are first and foremost a traditionally hardware company. But maintaining software codes, scaling capabilities …. It’s a different skillset,” says Fromont of Intelsat. “That degree of freedom and flexibility is very difficult to manage. What is the best way to cover your terminal, your customers — this changes every hour of the day.”

There are other concerns, too. “Due to the technological inefficiency of the solid-state power amplifiers, if you just plug a software-defined payload into a normal satellite, you would have less power on it,” Didier Leboulch, head of strategy and telecom solutions for Thales Alenia Space, previously told Via Satellite. In 2019, Thales introduced its Space Inspired satellite product line, to enable mission and service reconfiguration, instant in-orbit adjustment to the demand, and a transition from video broadcasting to broadband connectivity services.

As a result, efficient software-defined satellites require changes in both the payload, and the full platform to deliver more watts and more dissipation capability in order to equal the performance of conventional satellites, he added.

Future Tripping

Over the next few years, Eutelsat’s Homsy suggests satellite communications will start to look more like the terrestrial telecom industry, with software-defined networks (SD-WAN) blending connectivity across LEO, GEO, and MEO orbits. This will necessitate inter-satellite links for LEO constellations to connect one point of presence to another and communicate with the ground network. Satellites will require more advanced processors and software to route signals accordingly.

Lockheed Martin’s Johnson suggests advancements in AI and machine learning technologies could enable smarter, software-defined satellites that can communicate more effectively.

“We’ve started [moving toward] more advanced autonomy and Artificial Intelligence [AI],” says Johnson. “The key for Machine Learning is training [ML]. It requires a lot of data and processing and storage of that data. That’s where the challenge is on a satellite. We’re training artificial intelligence on the ground. We’ll be doing machine learning training onboard … the algorithms will self-update. And that’s the biggest challenge. On the ground, terabytes of data are easy to store. You have to have a piece of hardware on the satellite that stores that data and that’s where the weight and power consumption comes in, and limits things very quickly.”

Discussing the future, Spire’s Condor draws comparisons between the satellite industry and the automotive industry. Tesla in particular uses software to control what the car can do, which enables the owner to upgrade capabilities over time through software purchases like buying an auto-park feature.

“Satellite capabilities can be upgraded in a similar way using software, improving data collection, data processing, operations optimization, or download capacity through software improvements,” she says. “This is where the entire market has to go.”

A Timeline of Software-Defined Satellites

Here are some notable developments around SD satellites, which have transpired over the last several years.

November 2013: Spire Global releases its first software-defined satellites ArduSat-1 and ArduSat-X (1U cubesats) from the International Space Station and quickly started transmitting data to Spire servers. The company was one of a handful of startups focused on launching small satellites.

July 2015: Eutelsat unveils its Eutelsat Quantum satellite, which features flexible architecture and highly customizable coverage.

February 2019: Iridium completes the deployment of its NEXT constellation of 75 LEO satellites, manufactured by Thales Alenia Space. The Iridium NEXT satellites have a processor onboard with software that can be reprogramed and upgraded to deliver new, improved services that the old satellite could not provide.

March 2019: Lockheed Martin announces SmartSat, its software-defined satellite architecture that will boost capability for payloads on several pioneering nanosats.

May 2019: Airbus signs a contract with Inmarsat in May 2019 to design, manufacture and build the first in their next generation of geostationary Ka-band satellites, Inmarsat GX7, 8, and 9. The three satellites are the first to be based on Airbus’ new OneSat software-defined satellites.

September 2019: Boeing unveils new 702X family of software-defined satellites. Based on its pioneering effort for SES’s O3b mPOWER MEO system, the 702X combines Boeing’s most advanced digital payload with transformational manufacturing technologies and innovative resource management techniques.

January 2021: Intelsat awards Airbus a contract of an undisclosed sum to design, manufacture and deliver two software-defined satellites by 2023. VS

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