Northern Sky Research

Situational Awareness a Key Smallsat Target

Jan 11th, 2017 by Carolyn Belle   More from this Analyst | Profile

Heightened security concerns, global economic engagement, and Big Data popularity drive requirements for information on unfolding events and human activities worldwide. Maritime-, land-, and space-based sensors are proliferating to address this rising demand, with both Earth Observation and Situational Awareness orbiting platforms contributing a piece of the data puzzle. While often dwarfed in conversations by today’s more robust Earth Observation market, Situational Awareness (SA) presents a rapidly growing, multi-million-dollar opportunity and one of the largest near-term markets for smallsat ventures.

The high revisit rate and potential to achieve low latency with a relatively small CAPEX make smallsat constellations particularly well-suited for a robust SA offering. Moreover, the small size of most SA data packets means data rate is not a limitation to service quality as compared to other smallsat applications.

Maritime and Aeronautical markets represent the low hanging fruit for space-based SA – with established government applications and impending regulatory requirements, use cases are clear and customers are straightforward to identify. The corollary to this is increased competition: all six commercial SA smallsat constellations will house an Automatic Identification System (AIS) payload for maritime, four of which will also support Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) for aeronautical purposes. Non-microsat systems like Orbcomm, ExactView RT, and Aireon will present added competition. While applications of processed AIS and ADS-B data remain diverse and many are yet to be identified, data itself have few unique attributes, and there is a saturation point at which additional data becomes redundant.

Detection of more diverse types of RF signals, such as that planned by HawkEye 360, is an untapped commercial market ripe for development.  The military and intelligence community has operated signals intelligence satellites to glean information from radar and communications activity for decades, but the utility of this for commercial purposes has been slow to manifest. Even as precise applications remain to be identified, NSR expects the spread of data analytics and a mindset demanding real-time actionable insight into a situation to generate demand for new commercial efforts to detect signals across a range of frequencies.

Space situational awareness is today limited to national players, but the increasing volume of space activity and government interest in disengaging from space monitoring responsibilities are opening a new market for commercial ventures, whether smallsats or hosted/secondary payloads on larger platforms.

Just as in Earth Observation applications, data processing and analytics to extract information are key to attract non-traditional satellite customers with a competitive offering. For SA smallsat operators, the opportunity to collaboratively leverage multiple SA or EO data streams broadens the variety of data products that can be generated and widens the addressable market. For example, SAR images can be used to verify AIS readings of ship location. This data diversity can be accomplished by co-located payloads, such as AISTech’s inclusion of a thermal imager in its AIS and ADS-B outfitted constellation, or via partnerships with other satellite data providers. Operators seeking to specialize in a given data type only will be challenged to find efficiencies and appeal to a broad customer base.

While commercial players will launch most situational awareness smallsats, NSR’s Small Satellite Markets, 3rd Edition identified opportunities for Government/Military and University activity as well. Dedicated government/military SA platforms present an opportunity for more advanced payloads tailored to specific data gathering objectives. Altogether, Situational Awareness boasts a 21% CAGR, second only to Earth Observation’s 32% in the 2011-2025 period.

Bottom Line

Situational Awareness is a growing market – and smallsats are inherently well-positioned to tap into this emerging demand. Between maritime, aeronautical, land, and space, opportunities to monitor and analyze events and human activities as they happen present growing revenue potential. Early-to-market operators will have an advantage winning low hanging fruit customers like government agencies, but broader, long term success depends on diversifying the data collected and attracting new customer groups. For players able to provide an integrated data product combining various types of SA and/or EO data, the potential payoff is significant.