Industry CTOs Highlight Laser Communications, Artificial Intelligence, and Emerging Challenges
March 13, 2023
The Monday morning CTO roundtable at SATELLITE 2023 brought together leaders from innovative space companies to convene on buzzworthy developments in laser communications, AI, and system architecture and design.
Yet the enthusiasm was tempered with some humility over tech limitations, and market realities, best summarized by speaker Al Tadros, CTO of Redwire, who noted that space is only about 3 percent of the global telecom market. The message: Industry leaders can’t take anything for granted, even with recent successes in commercial space.
Moderator David Phillips, senior systems engineer for Satcom Connectivity at Boeing, kicked off the panel by asking speakers about the significance of the Viasat-Inmarsat merger, which was announced in 2021 but faces recent scrutiny by the European Commission and other regulators around whether the acquisition will negatively affect quality and pricing of inflight connectivity services.
“Because of the nature of the work we do, reliability is key,” said session speaker Peter Hadinger, CTO of Inmarsat. “I think that [Inmarsat] provides an interesting counterpoint to Viasat … a company that came up from the hardware side as opposed to the services side and therefore brings a considerable amount of technology expertise. They also bring a consumer dimension that we have not had. We believe the two companies are very similar.”
Many of the speakers spoke about the evolving role of software in the space and satellite industry.
“Software is integral in more and more space missions and more and more you hear about software-enabled systems, software-defined payloads, and software-defined satellites,” said Tadros, also noting that AI is being leveraged more frequently for complex systems, and applications like cybersecurity.
Speaker Brad Bode, CTO and co-founder of Atlas Space Operations, also touched on the emerging role of software and AI to enhance space services.
‘If you look at the way that the future is headed, where you’re going to have a lot of links to space – it might be optical, it might be RF [radio frequency], it might be Ka, might be X-band – all of those need to converge behind something,” said Bode. “We need software to enable that space. Once you have that … you can do amazing things with the data as it flows through to enable customers to get what they want when they want it. That’s where AI comes in.”
But you can’t talk about software without talking about hardware, which moderator Phillips admitted is less buzzworthy, and less about “sparkly headlines.”
“Having digital interfaces on your equipment is not something you’re seeing in sparkly text but is an enabler to be able to use the software and interact,” said Dr. Jim Rosenberg, integrated solutions architect for Wavestream. “The digital interfaces are very important. One of the other things that we see with the emergence of non-GEO [Geostationary Orbit] satellites and the improved signal to noise ratio you are seeing people moving to more complex modulation. This is requiring the amplifiers to have better signal integrity.”
One of the most animated discussions was on the topic of laser communications.
“Lasercom, it’s fun to talk about — but there’s definitely challenges,” said Phillips.
Peter Hadinger of Inmarsat recalled his first exposure to laser communications was back in the early 1980s.
“I was a very, very young engineer at the time, and I was told laser comms is the technology of the future and always will be,” he said. “I’ve been in the industry long enough at this point that I think the future is now. I don’t think laser comms is a future technology, it’s a practical technology.”
Wen Cheng Chong, CTO and co-founder of Kepler Communications, echoed these sentiments.
“Obviously there are challenges,” said Chong. “I’m sure you’ve heard many, many stories about getting launched with this dream of establishing an inter-satellite link or satellite to the ground that [didn’t work] because the spacecraft wasn’t able to point very well. It’s a tough problem. In addition to putting lasers in space you also have to make sure they’re open standard.”
The engineers all highlighted one problem in common that isn’t technical — staffing. Finding engineers and other skilled technology workers is hard, and the market for the best and brightest is competitive.
“We have people who do microwave engineering, system engineering … our last four systems engineers came up internally through the company because we couldn’t find people that had the breadth of training,” said Rosenberg.
Tadros said that recruiting from outside the industry has helped with some of these challenges. “I’ve had an opportunity to talk to different universities where they don’t even have an aerospace program, where [students] are coming from finance, physics, and other areas,” he said. “We have locations across the country and giving people diversity of where they work is going to be important. Quality of life has to be one of the attractions of the space industry.”
Hadinger agreed that the scarcity of talent has proven challenging. “At Inmarsat … it’s difficult to find some of these specialties,” he said. “The biggest challenge for me within my team is to get more women in the field. This is a place where we’ve been sort of underrepresented … and a lot of work we’re trying to do at much younger ages is to get women to choose STEM careers.”
Chong emphasized the importance of embracing a hybrid work environment as much as possible, although doing so can present its challenges. “We’re still building,” he said. “You can’t have engineers working from home all the time. I fully agree with what Peter is saying. Finding these unicorns is very, very difficult.” VS