Northern Sky Research

Will UAS Market “Drone” on for Satcom?

Feb 26th, 2015 by Prateep Basu   More from this Analyst | Profile

Despite shrinking military budgets, the U.S. DoD’s plans for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) will not diminish anytime soon. Evidence of this trend comes via the recently unveiled USAF RQ-180 program with Northrop Grumman, or the involvement of U.S. airstrikes in military conflicts in Middle-East countries such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen.  The U.S. is certainly not alone in pursuing a military drone program with countries such as China, U.K., France, India, Japan, Australia and Italy pushing strongly to develop and procure UAS capabilities.  Given the increasing role of satellites in supporting UAS activities in all regions, one has to wonder if this application could be a bright spot in an otherwise troubled milsatcom market.

HALE UAS, especially the ‘Global Hawk’ and its naval variant MQ-4C Triton, are the most sought after UAS globally for their ISR capabilities, and Japan, South Korea, Australia and India have lined up purchases of this UAS by 2017-18. The U.S., which is the largest producer of HALE and MALE UAS, recently announced expansion of their sale to ‘Allied Countries’, amidst rising tension in global trade from Israel and China. As news of an aggressive Chinese drone export program surfaced, with rumors of UAS sales to Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Algeria, Pakistan and Myanmar, the developed world was shaken out of its slumber regarding the prospects of a deteriorating global peace situation, especially in developing regions.

Continuing geo-political tensions in the Middle-East and Eastern Europe have also catalyzed other Western European countries to stack up the arsenal of UAS, with the U.K. presently testing its combat purpose stealth drone ‘Taranis’ developed by BAE Systems, and France planning to buy General Atomic’s ‘Reaper’ drones for $1.5 billion by 2016-17. With Asian powers such as China, India, Japan, Indonesia already increasing their defense expenditure to protect their territorial and maritime sovereignty, the U.S. decision to ‘go soft’ on allies for sale of combat and strike drones provides a case for a substantial UAS fleet build-up across the globe in the coming decade. NSR expects the growth in HALE and MALE UAS airframes globally to be more than twice that of current numbers by 2023.

What Is In It For Satellite Operators?

The explosive growth expected in the HALE and MALE UAS market translates into a major role for commercial satellite operators to play.  As the past decade has shown, satellite bandwidth for UAS operations is a critical resource that government satellite programs alone cannot provide. In the backdrop of the expected increase in the number of UAS airframes across the globe, NSR’s recent Unmanned Aircraft Systems via Satellite report predicts that commercial satellite capacity demand for UAS operations will increase significantly during the period 2013-23, with FSS Ku-band leading the way due to the high latency on the governmental front in overhauling the existing UAS designs and existing ground systems, which primarily make use of this frequency band. 

With high definition live video becoming the most sought after UAS application, NSR expects the usage of GEO-HTS (both Ka-band and Ku-band) for UAS operations to increase rapidly by the end of this decade, since it allows higher data rates to smaller antennas, and its beam characteristics reduce the chances of signal jamming or cyber-attacks. The combined demand for Ku-band, GEO HTS, and X-band satellite bandwidth has a revenue generation potential upward of $700 million by 2023 from capacity leasing, and close to $2 billion through UAS Satcom equipment sales for the Defense & Intelligence markets alone.

The Bottom Line

The proliferation of large UAS platforms across the globe presents a unique opportunity for commercial satellite operators to capitalize upon, due to the high revenue generation potential of this market. NSR expects the role of both government and commercial bandwidth to increase equally in UAS programs globally, and that means more demand for satellite.