Northern Sky Research

A New UAS Paradigm

Feb 8th, 2016 by Prateep Basu   More from this Analyst | Profile

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) have been utilized for more than three decades, but their diversity increased only recently, with explosive growth in small UAS (sUAS) sector. The impact of these sUAS on satellite services such as Communications and Earth Observation is difficult to assess, and more so with increasing technological sophistication in both satellites and UAS.

UAS Industry Value Pyramid by Airframe Type

In NSR’s UAS Satcom & Imaging Markets, 2nd Edition, UAS markets were analyzed and two segments were assessed: UAS for Satcom and UAS for Imaging. With mainstream media focusing on these UAS and other High Altitude Platforms (HAPs) due to the involvement of tech-giants like Google and Facebook (who want to provide Internet to the unconnected), along with a booming sUAS market that has seen acquisitions and investments by established companies like Intel and Amazon, NSR believes the UAS industry will be an externality for satellite industry growth.

UAS Helps Satcom Markets

HALE and MALE UAS like the Global Hawk and Reapers use Satcom Common Data Links (CDL) for Beyond Line-Of-Sight (BLOS) communications, and have been a steady source of revenues for GEO communication satellite operators. However, with payloads such as SAR, EO/IR cameras, and applications like full-motion video, bandwidth needs of UAS have risen tremendously, though the airframe designs haven’t evolved to take advantage of HTS services yet.

The usage of inclined satellite capacity, especially over regions where demand is high (like Africa and the Middle-East) has alleviated costs for the U.S. DoD, which operates the largest fleet of such UAS.  But, NSR expects a transition to GEO-HTS for these UAS from the mostly FSS Ku-band equipment, and in particular to GEO-HTS Ku-band due to the easier retrofits required. Apart from lower cost/bit and more bandwidth, GEO-HTS is naturally resilient to signal jamming as there are multiple beams that need to be jammed, and that too from within an HTS beam’s coverage area, which is only a few hundred kilometers wide, making it an attractive proposition for carrying UAS. Additionally, the advancements in low profile, bandwidth efficient, and lightweight electronically steered antennas, combined with the next-generation of satellite modems, will bring about paradigm shifts in the way UAS are operated.  NSR expects satellite capacity to UAS revenues to grow to $534 million by 2024, at a CAGR of 9.4%, largely driven by such changes in UAS operations on Satcom.

UAS Imaging Competes with Satellite

NSR analyzed the sUAS sector imaging applications market and noted opportunity in this industry lies in the software and services, which even the industry leader DJI understands by launching its operating system. The biggest contribution of this upcoming sUAS industry has been the integration of technologies, and the rate at which its refresh puts Moore’s law in the backseat. Recently, Precision Hawk, Verizon, Digital Globe, and Harris announced completion of phase 1 testing of an UAS airspace management system, utilizing Digital Globe’s high-resolution Earth images, Verizon’s LTE network, and Harris’ satellite-based surveillance (ADS-B) for safe UAS operations in civilian airspace. Such seamless integration and commercialization of satellite and terrestrial technology opens the gates for a multitude of applications, specifically those related to Internet of Things (IoT), by using the UAV as a sensor.

In the same UAS report, NSR found that photogrammetry applications (like creating a 3D point cloud or ortho-mosaics) have advanced rapidly, and the turnaround time for image processing has decreased, which reduces the competitive advantages of satellite-based Earth imaging. However, cost of sUAS imaging can be prohibitive for large corridor mapping, and NSR sees a mixed approach being gradually taken by both sUAS and satellite-EO industry, with image fusion creating layered maps for vertical markets such as agriculture, energy, and resource management. Thus, sUAS imaging can be expected to push the satellite industry’s penetration in new markets, but also act as a pull for its growth due to the competing nature of the technology.

Bottom Line  

UAS have revolutionized the way wars are fought, and now sUAS are commoditizing imaging and consumer data analytics. Some have touted this decade as “the one” for UAS, given explosive growth in all types of airframes, avionics, and associated software. As the fastest growing sector in aerospace, NSR expects the UAS segment to act both as a ‘push’ and a ‘pull’ for the satellite industry over the period of time, with Satcom for UAS generating the bulk of the revenues and sUAS imaging leading the innovation on the technological front.