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Beginning the Discussion on the Internet-of-Space

A panel of experts from academia and industry assembled at the recent IEEE IMS event to answer critical questions are the role and impact of RFIC technologies.

By John Blyler, Editorial Director

Synopsis of compelling comments:

  • “Satellite communication becomes practical, low cost, and comparable to LTE only if you are at multi-Tera-bit per second capacity.
  • “Ultimately, we are not selling the bandwidth of our system but the power.”
  • “Power harvesting on the satellite is one of the most important things we can do.”
  • “You must establish commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) variants of your main space product line (to support both new and traditional space).”
  • “You need to consider new business models as well as new technology and processes.”

Recently, IEEE MTT Society sponsored an initial discussion and networking session on the Internet of Space (IoS) at the 2016 International Microwave Symposium. It was billed as one of several upcoming forums to bring the IoS and IoT communities together as these technologies and systems continue to evolve. The short term goal of this initiative is to, “jump start a global technical community cutting across multiple hardware-oriented fields of interest including: aerospace systems; antennas; autonomous systems; communications; electronics; microwave/mm-wave technology; photonics; positioning, navigation and timing; power electronics, etc.”

With representation from a global community of satellite and end-user companies, the IEEE IMS 2016 Rump Session Panel explored the technical and business challenges facing the emerging   industries. What exactly is the IoS? Does it include both low-earth orbit and potentially sub-orbital platforms like drones and balloons? How do microwave and RF designs differ for satellite and airborne applications? These are a few of the questions that were addressed by the panel. Part 1 of this series of reports focuses on the challenges forecasted by each of the panelists. What follows is a portion of that panel discussion. – John Blyler

Panelists and Moderators (left to right):

  • [Co-Moderator] Sanjay Raman, Professor and Associate VP, National Capital Region, Virginia Tech
  • Prakash Chitre, Comsat Laboratories, ViaSat, VP and GM
  • Hamid Hemmati, Facebook, Director of Engineering for Telecom Infrastructure
  • Lisa Coe, Director of Commercial Business Dev. for Boeing
  • David Bettinger, OneWeb, VP of Engineering, Communications Systems
  • Michael Pavloff, RUAG Space (Zürich Switzerland), Chief Technology Officer
  • [Co-Moderator] and Mark Wallace, VP and GM, Keysight

Raman (Co-Moderator): Hi. I’m joined by Mark Wallace, my co-moderator to this panel. We’re here to discuss the emerging Internet-of-Space (IoS) industry. Let’s start with Prakash Chitre from Comsat Labs.

Chitre (Comsat): I’m going to talk about a new generation of satellite systems that NASA has been designing, building and launching. This will give you an understanding of what we have been doing for the last 5 years and our plans for the next 5 years. The main goal for us is to provide connectivity throughout the world. Even with today’s voracious appetite for high-speed and high-volume Internet, half the world’s population of 7B people don’t have any broadband Internet connection.

ViaSat has three satellites, ViaSat-1, WildBlue1, and Anik-F2.  Most of these satellites, like the ANIK-F2 and WildBlue 1, were more or less traditional Ka-Band satellites with 8Gbps (in throughput). But the ViaSat-1 satellite that we designed and launched in 2011, had about 140Gbps (see Figure 1). ViaSat-1 handles about 1 million users and covers North America (NA), including US and Canada. It was the start of a longer vision of very high throughput satellites to cover the globe.

Figure 1: ViaSat-1 rendering (Courtesy of Comsat Labs)

We want to provide broadband communication platforms that deliver affordable high-speed Internet connectivity and video streaming via fixed, mobile and portable systems. The key thing is that we are totally vertically integrated solution; the terminals, the gateway, the satellite all fit together to provide a very cost effective system. We deal with geosynchronous satellite latency issues with software embedded in the terminal and the gateway to make sure we can do very high page loads from media.

[Editor’s Note: Terminals link the satellite signal to fixed and mobile locations on the ground and on airborne systems. Examples of terminals include satellite TV disk systems, aviation broadband devices for Ku-, Ka-, and dual-band in-flight connectivity, emergency responder equipment, cellular extensions and the like.]

Soon we’ll be launching ViaSat-2 (see Table 1), which will provide almost 2 ½ times the capacity of ViaSat-1 while providing much greater coverage. It will bridge the North Atlantic with contiguous coverage over NA and Europe, including all the air and shipping routes.

The ViaSat-3 ultra-high capacity satellite platform is comprised of three ViaSat-3 class satellites and ground network infrastructure.  The first two satellites will focus on the Americas and Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA). Work is underway with delivery expected in 2019. A third satellite system is planned for the Asia-Pacific region, completing global service coverage.

In the next few years, we’ll launch ViaSat-3, which will be about 3 times smaller than ViaSat-2. It has 1Tbps capacity and much larger coverage. The first two ViaSat-3 satellites will cover the Americas and Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA). A third satellite system is planned for the Asia-Pacific region, completing the global service coverage. We have already given the contract to Boeing to build the bus framework for the first Viasat-3. We are designing and building our own payload.

Year

Satellite Name

Throughput Capacity

2004

WildBlue 8 Gpbs

2005

IPSTAR 1 45 Gpbs

2010

KA-SAT 70 Gpbs

2011

ViaSat-1 140 Gpbs

2012

EchoStar XVII 100+ Gpbs

2015

NBN-Co 1a (“Sky Muster”) 80+ Gpbs

2017

ViaSat-2 350 Gpbs

2019

ViaSat-3 Americas 1 Tbps

2020

ViaSat-3 EMEA 1 Tbps

2021

ViaSat-4 APAC 1 TBPS

Table 1: ViaSat Satellites

Raman (Co-Moderator): Our next speaker is Hamid Hemmati, Director of Engineering for Telecom Infrastructure at Facebook.

Hemmati: Facebook’s interest in providing Internet coverage stems from our desire to connect everyone in the world. Anyone that wants to be connected. Something like 60% of world’s people aren’t on the Internet or have a poor connection – typically a 2G connection. If they are not on Internet, then they cannot be connected.

Most of the data centers around the world are based on open source models for both hardware and software. We can devote technologies to significantly increase the capacities and lower costs and then provide it to the community to then develop and implement.

In terms of the global Internet, we are interested in developed and underdeveloped countries that don’t have connectivity. Providing connectivity to underdeveloped countries is fairly tricky because the population distribution is very different between countries. For example, the red color means a large population of people and green means a small population (Figure 2). As you can see, these are the six different countries with widely different distributions. Some have more or less uniform distribution while others have regions that are scarcely populated.

Figure 2: Population distribution varies according to country. (Courtesy Facebook via IMS presentation).

Figure 2: Population distribution varies according to country. (Courtesy Facebook via IMS presentation).

There is a magnitude of difference in population distribution around the world, which means that there is not one solution that fits all. You can’t come up with one architecture to provide Internet connection to everyone around the world. Each country requires a unique solution. It is more cost effective to allocate capacity where needed. But each solution comes from a combination of terrestrial links with perhaps airborne or satellite links. Satellites are only viable if you can increase the data rate significantly to about 100 Tbps. This is the throughput required to connect the unconnected.

Given:

  • 4 billion people with 25 kbps per user (based on average capacity and that users are on the Internet simultaneously).
  • Calculation: (4×109) x (2.5 x 104) = 100 Tbps

This is a staggering number (100 Tbps), so we are talking about very large capacity for all of these populations.

Technology advancements are required to extend the capability of current commercial wireless communication units by 1 to 2 orders of magnitude. What we need to do is amass the state of the art in a number of areas: GEO satellites, LEO Satellites, High Altitude Platforms, and Terrestrial. Satellite communication becomes practical, low cost, and comparable to LTE only if you are at multi-Tbsp capacity, otherwise it is much more expensive than providing LTE. There must be a business justification to do that.

High altitude platforms (like airplanes/drones) need to be able to stay airborne for months at a time. They must be low cost to produce and maintain, plus run at 10-100 Gpbs uplink/downlink/crosslink RF and optical capacity.

Meanwhile, terrestrial including fiber and wireless are already here. It’s just that it is immensely expensive if you want to cover all of the country with fiber. So other solutions are needed, like wireless links, tower to tower, and so forth. This is just a laundry list of what needs to be done. It doesn’t mean we at Facebook are looking at all of them. We are looking at some of them. We want to get these technologies into the hands of the implementers.

Raman (Co-Moderator): Next, let me introduce Lisa Coe, Director of Commercial Business Dev. for Boeing. Originally, James Farricker, Boeing, VP Engineering, was slated to speak on this panel. He was not able to join us.

Coe: I looked up the phrase “new space” on Wikipedia since others are talking about the traditional vs. the new space. I was asking myself if Boeing is a traditional space or new space company. Wikipedia called out Boeing as “not” new space.

[Editor’s Note: [New space is often affiliated with an emergent private spaceflight industry. Specifically, the terms are used to refer to a community of relatively new aerospace companies working to develop low-cost access to space or spaceflight technologies.]

Boeing builds commercial airplanes, military jets, helicopters, International Space State, satellites, cyber security solutions, and everything. We build a lot of very different things. So when you ask us about the Internet of Space (IOS) you’ll get a very different answer. Let me try to answer it.

When an airplane disappears, like the Egypt airplane, a lot of people ask why we don’t connect airplanes via satellites. We need to get our airplanes smarter and all connected. Passengers are already connected on aircraft with Wi-Fi. So before we push for the Internet of Things, why don’t we push to get all the airplanes connected?

Boeing is also a user of the Internet of Space. For example, we just flew an unmanned aircraft that was completely remote controlled from the ground. This is why we care about security, about hacking into these systems. How can we make the Internet of Space secure to connect more people and things?

Raman (Co-Moderator): Next we have David Bettinger, VP of Engineering, Communications System, at OneWeb

Bettinger: OneWeb is trying to provide very low latency Internet access to those who don’t have access everywhere. We are two years into the project and are quite far along. The things that ultimately make us successful are the microwave components used in our system. I’m a modem guy by nature – not an RF one. I wish all modems and baseband could stay at baseband but of course RF is needed on the wireless side. We utilize Ku-band in our system. We also have access to Ka-band, which are a more pointed feeder links that are servicing the satellites.

Supporting both bands means that we need a lot of different components for different functionality. The satellite is probably the most critical for us. The only thing that makes something as crazy as launching 648 satellites feasible is if we get the cost of the satellite and the weight down significantly compared to what is actually done today. Our satellite is about the size of a washing machine, weighing roughly 150 kg. You can fit 30 of them on the launch (payload). That is what makes this work.

The only thing that makes satellite mass work is if you figure out the power problem. Ultimately, we are not selling the bandwidth of our system but the power. This is because we don’t have the luxury of a bus sized satellite up there that is designed to power constantly regardless of the environment, whether you are in an eclipse or not. We have to effectively manage our power with the subscribers of the service. Power harvesting on the satellite is one of the most important things we can do. It drives almost every aspect of our business case.

We have looked heavily at a lot of different silicon technologies, especially GaN and GaS chip technologies. We are utilizing low noise amplifiers (LNAs) and up/down converters, among other components. Power and then cost are important. If there was anything I would ask you to keep working on, it’s the efficiency thing. We can use every bit that we can.

On the ground side, our challenges are a little bit different. We have two different ground components. One is the user terminals like the devices that you put on your roof. They point straight up at the satellite to provide local access via an Ethernet cable, Wi-Fi or even LTE extension. These terminals are all about cost. To crack the markets we want to crack, we need to get the cost of the CPE down yet have a device that actually points at satellites that are moving across at about 7km per second. And changing to different satellites every 3 ½ minutes. It’s a difficult and different problem from the GEO world. Now I remember why I did Geo for 25 years before this.

[Editor’s Note: Customer-premises equipment or customer-provided equipment (CPE) is any terminal and associated equipment located at a subscriber's premises and connected with a carrier's telecommunication channel at the demarcation point ("demarc").]

It all comes down to cost. How can we get cost and power utilization down? What tech can we use to be able to point at our satellites? We are excited about the prospect of trying to bring active steering antenna to a mass market. I see our friends from RUAG are here (in the audience). We have done reference work on looking at these different technologies. There is a lot of secret sauce in there but I think ultimately it comes down to how do you make small, cheap chips and then how can you make antennas around that.

[Editor’s Note: The gateway is the other ground component. A gateway or ground station connects the satellite signal to the end user or subscriber terminals. Most satellite systems are comprised of a large number of small, inexpensive user terminals and a small number of gateway earth stations.]

Raman (Co-Moderator): Our final panelist is Michael Pavloff, CTO, RUAG Space with headquarters in Zürich Switzerland)

Payloff: It’s an honor to be here. How many have heard of RUAG? Maybe 30%? That’s not bad. We are a small, specialized version of Boeing based in Switzerland. Also, we have divisions in aviation, defense, cyber security, space, etc. I’m the CTO of the space division. We do launchers, satellite structures, mechanical-thermal systems, communication equipment and related systems. I’m glad we are here to talk about what are the key technology enablers that allow us to do Internet cost effectively in space.

Costs must continue to decrease for the satellite. We saw this “New Space” world coming some years ago and we had to decide whether to participate in it or not. Up to that point, our legacy markets were institutional ones like the European Space agency, large GEO commercial telecom companies, and similar customers where we do a lot of RF and microwave work. Our main challenge it to make money in this business. So when you get a factor of 10 or more cost pressure on your products, you feel like giving up.

In the end, we saw that all of our traditional institutional and commercial customers were starting to ask the same question, which is, if we are manufacturing some avionics or frequency converters or computers for OneWeb (e.g.new space) that are a factor of 10 or 100 less than our standard products, why can’t we do it for the European Space agency or other government customers, namely the large satellite operators. In the end, we didn’t feel it was optional. We had to support this parallel world in which we are doing this business.

There are four main elements that are critical to get to that capability (to support both new and traditional space). First, you should be doing high-rate production. You get a lot of cost savings that way. We have moved to a lot of high-rate production lines. For example, our RF frequency converter chip business is coming to a point where 75% of the product, i.e., half of that product line, will be for non-space applications. Having that type of throughput, handling commercial, non-space grade components and so forth is key to getting that type of high rate production capability

The second critical capability is to increase the emphasis on automation. I’ll cover that shortly.

Third, you must establish commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) variants of your main product line.

Finally, it’s important to adopt new business models including collaboration and taking risk-sharing positions with customers. Our friends at Oneweb have been pushing us to adopt new business models. Collaboration often means to co-locate and do co-engineering. You need to consider new business models as well as new technologies and processes.

Let’s return to the automation element. RUAG has been doing automation into a lot of different areas, from electronic and satellite panel production to out-of-autoclave composites and multi-layer insulation production. An example of the out-of-autoclave composites are our rocket launcher payload fairings (see Figure 3). [Editor’s Note: A payload fairing is a nose cone used to protect a spacecraft (launch vehicle payload) against the impact of pressure and aerodynamic heating during launch through an atmosphere.]

Figure 3: Payload fairing for the small European launcher Vega. (Courtesy of RUAG)

There should be more cost pressures being put on the launchers, as well. We are trying to be proactive with the composites, with the launcher side to cut down costs. Reusability is a big key subject in the launcher world, that is, to reuse all the bits of the rocket.

From our perspective, these are the key enabling products for the Internet-of-Space (IoS):

  • Future microwave products (Q/V-band, flexible analog converters)
  • GNSS receivers for space
  • 3-D printed structures
  • COTS digital signal processors

Future microwave products have been an evolution to the higher frequency bands as well as to optical. This is key to enabling some of the high capacity throughput for the future. Another enabling area is COTS as applied to signal processors. Some customers are evolving to regenerative types to try to squeeze every last bit of capacity out of the system. The focus is on bandwidths for DSPs which have to be based on COTS. GNSS receivers are enablers as they are a key technology for the satellite bus. And, as Dave mentioned previously, mass is a real thing that we have to try to get out of these systems. One way to drive down mass is with 3-D printing structures.

In Part II of this series, the panelist are asked questions about the cost viability of the Internet of Space, LEO vs. GEO technologies, competition with 5G and airborne platforms.

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