Northern Sky Research

Dawn of the ‘Friendly’ Unmanned Aircraft Systems

May 13th, 2015 by Prateep Basu   More from this Analyst | Profile

There is no questioning the rise of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) worldwide, and their recent use in Nepal after the recent earthquake is another sign of the UAS surge.  A widely untapped aspect of UAS, civilian government applications such as homeland security, border protection, scientific experimentation, environmental monitoring, and peace-keeping missions (to name a few) are being increasingly performed on are highly capable platforms like the Predator, Global Hawk, and Heron. The big question that satellite operators should ponder against this backdrop is – how will it impact satellite services, for both communications and Earth Observation? Will these UAS compete with, or be a complement to, or a customer of satellite services?

Scenario 1: As Complement AND a Competitor

The use of UAS for communication relay is well understood, and architectural studies have been conducted for integrating stratospheric UAS with LEO and GEO communication satellites for localized high quality service. Despite none of these studies leading to implementation, the announcements and investment by Internet companies such as Facebook and Google in High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAS for data connectivity globally has generated renewed interest in this concept. The table below lists a few popular UAS and High Altitude platform (HAP) programs that were in the spotlight lately. These UAS can complement and compete with satellite and terrestrial networks for data and voice communications at the same time, by acting as a backhaul service for LTE networks.

Given the payload capability, these UAS can also be used as a means of imaging narrow and wide corridors. Such applications are already popular in the civilian and commercial value-added EO imagery markets of Europe, where UAS imagery is used as a complement to medium to high resolution satellite based imagery.

Scenario 2: As a Customer

The U.S. has taken the lead when it comes to civilian government use of UAS, with its Border and Customs Forces operating a fleet of 9 Predators, operating in Ku-band and covering from the eastern Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean. The U.S. Coast Guard and the U.N. forces also fly HALE and MALE UAS for imagery, communication relay, and live video broadcasting applications. Israel has used its Heron and Searcher UAS for border protection since the late 1990s, and other countries have ramped up buying such UAS, quoting similar civilian government usage. NSR’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems via Satellite report forecasts the number of civilian UAS Satcom units to grow three-fold by 2023. The maximum growth is expected to be observed in North America, follow by Asia and Europe, where military UAS units, after completing their stipulated flight hours, are expected be moved for civilian government use.

Most of these UAS are expected to continue using Ku-band for communications as changes in airborne and ground satellite terminals to higher frequency bands are expensive and beyond the budget allocation for civilian government UAS operations.

Bottom Line 

UAS can be a competitor, customer, or a complement to satellites, depending on the application for which they are used. The growth in military UAS is expected to spillover to civilian government use, both over land and sea. These high performance UAS platforms provide governments ‘quick action’ capabilities for various civilian purposes, most important being emergency disaster management operations and homeland security. As these civilian uses of UAS gain popularity globally, it presents an opportunity for commercial satellite operators to capitalize on, due to the expected continued use of FSS Ku-band by these platforms.