The needs of today’s warfighters are growing – especially when it comes to increased bandwidth and a data-rich environment.
That’s something Kevin Kelly knows all about.
“Traditional radio-frequency satellite communication is frankly not sufficient to handle the data demands of the modern-day soldier,” says Kelly, CEO of LGS Innovations, a U.S.-owned provider of mission-critical communications products, R&D, and supporting services to U.S. government, critical infrastructure, and commercial customers around the world.
Beyond Today’s Steep Costs
The costs alone of traditional satellite communications are staggering: It takes $10,000 to put a pound of payload into Earth’s orbit – and modern communications satellites can weigh as much as six tons each.
Do the math; that means launching any given communications satellite could top $120 million.
In addition, unless a satellite is put into (even costlier) geosynchronous orbit, it only yields useful data when it’s within line of sight of a ground station.
That’s where the small satellites concept comes in – a cluster of smaller, more affordable satellite buses in place of a single (or a pair of) satellites on a single launch vehicle.
“These are technologies and theories that have existed for a long time but we just hadn’t seen much in the way of program awards or RFPs from the scientific community,” Kelly says.
“But they’ve come back seemingly with a vengeance,” he adds, “and this makes LGS well-positioned to capture that business.”
Seizing the momentum, LGS Innovations is advancing small-sat evolution through the development of light-based communication between micro-satellites in low-Earth orbit – a big shift away from the previous limitations of radio frequency reliance.
“There is only so much bandwidth, so many bits per second per hertz, that you can cram into a radio frequency link between two satellites,” Kelly says.
“The only way to get beyond those [radio frequency]limits is to move into the optical domain where you have the benefit of a much higher data rate,” Kelly says, “and the ability to communicate in a point-to-point [way], versus using a radio wave technology that scatters.”
With line of sight and cost challenges in mind, LGS was recently awarded a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contract to develop laser communication terminals that will be deployed on two of the agency’s small satellites.
New DOD prioritization
Such wins speak to an overall shift in Defense Department prioritization of small-sat technology.
“We’ve seen very little in the way of laser-based programs since the TSAT program, which the Air Force canceled around 2008,” Kelly says.
That changed, Kelly says, in 2014. “And it’s really picking up now,” he adds.
Lightweight Low-power Optical Communication Terminals
LGS is getting involved by developing terminals that weigh less than 2 pounds each, and operate on less than three watts of power.
A prototype pair of lightweight low-power optical communication terminals launched on two DARPA small satellites, with lower cost, higher survivability, and unprecedented precision the end result.
“Lasers, like a pencil beam, go point to point, and you can control the source (and destination) very precisely – and therefore communicate clearly at a longer distance,” Kelly says.
In warfare, pinpoint precision means greater ability to send and receive information – jam-resistant, high-data-rate, low latency communication – from around the world, quickly, securely and at the lowest cost to date, in ways that terrestrial networking simply can’t match.
“When you have tactical or expeditionary units that are deployed – ships and tanks that are on the move, as well as encampments and temporary installations – you don’t really have the luxury of relying on terrestrial networking,” Kelly says. “You need some data networking backbone.”
Deep Expertise in Photonics
LGS Innovations’ deep expertise in photonics benefits other imperatives as well.
“When I say, ‘laser-based programs,’ it’s not just free space optical communication,” Kelly says.
“It’s also using lasers as sensors to do spectroscopy, to do chemical detection – biological agent detection at a distance without having to expose a human to the elements in order to determine what chemicals and biological agents are present,” he adds.
Critical Partner to Large Systems Integrators
Looking ahead, LGS sees itself as a critical partner to large systems integrators in providing holistic platform solutions for DOD’s communication needs.
Kelly cites the current CICADA program as one such example of what’s to come – and where LGS plans to be.
“I suspect that once the Defense Department decides they’ve got what they’re looking for – and want to integrate this [CICADA] into a fleet of new small sats that we deployed – one of those large integrators is going to be put under contract to build an entire system,” Kelly says.
“We hope,” Kelly says, “to be the technology that enables that mission.”