Pivoting to the Era of ESAs


Pivoting to the Era of ESAs

Advancing Standardization for Non-Parabolic Antennas
on Military Satellites Requires Industry Leadership

In the face of evolving space dynamics and the military’s strategic embrace of orbital diversity, phased arrays are emerging as the preferred antenna technology. For the military, transitioning from traditional parabolic dishes to more agile multi-beam, multi-orbit antennas is not just recognizing the need to make multi-orbit networks work, but also about integrating new technologies and innovation into the military connectivity infrastructure.

Operating data transmissions over rapidly-moving satellites in low Earth orbit necessitates a departure from conventional parabolic antennas towards flat panel alternatives. Electronically Scanned Antennas (ESAs) offer unparalleled flexibility, capable of adjusting beams within milliseconds to sustain seamless connections, crucial for defense operations.

Compared to their parabolic counterparts, ESAs are compact, fitting snugly into smaller platforms like vehicles or UAVs. This compactness, while advantageous for deployment, comes with trade-offs, notably broader beams, and slightly diminished performance, requiring increased satellite resources for data transmission.

Widespread adoption of ESAs within government networks promises substantial benefits for military personnel, including enhanced access to the Wideband Global Satellite (WGS) constellation and heightened operational flexibility. Military users on WGS will gain from ESAs’ ability to support simultaneous multi-beam connectivity and seamless handoff to multiple orbits, allowing for greater resiliency across the network.

However, challenges such as prohibitive costs and lengthy certification processes hinder the swift integration of ESA technology onto WGS and other military networks. These hurdles can be particularly burdensome for smaller companies that are seeking to bring innovative new technologies to the DoD.

Achieving seamless interoperability across commercial and military satellite networks is paramount, enabling prioritization of critical communications traffic while leveraging commercial systems for less sensitive data. Recognizing the vulnerability of GEO satellites to kinetic attacks, there’s a growing consensus on the need for true multi-beam ESA technology to bolster resilience on WGS.

Yet, the absence of a standardized certification process poses a significant barrier to the integration of ESAs into military networks. Current certification protocols, designed primarily for parabolic antennas, lack the adaptability required to assess the dynamic nature of ESAs accurately. Many companies have strived to meet certification requirements to qualify from a licensing perspective, but in reality, they’ve reduced the overall performance of the product—inhibiting innovation and the true value they can bring to the industry.

To surmount these challenges, organizations like the Global VSAT Forum have brought together various entities to drive satellite certification standardization with the Satellite Operators Minimum Antenna Performance Group (SOMAP). However, the first part of this certification effort was focused on parabolics, not on ESAs. Collaborative efforts between antenna vendors, satellite operators, and government stakeholders are essential to establish a streamlined certification process for ESAs. Currently, the FCC is not aligned to ESA technology for certification. Adaptation of regulatory frameworks, such as FCC Part 25, to accommodate ESA approvals akin to existing parabolic methodologies is necessary for progress. Similarly, WGS certification was implemented around parabolic antennas and is not updated to new technologies like ESAs.

More recently, the DIFI Consortium announced a working group to develop standards to improve interoperability among ESAs and terminals. Industry-led standardization initiatives like DIFI, which is revolutionizing digital modem interoperability, could provide the inspiration for similar collaboration and consensus-building around modernizing antenna technology and satcom terminals.

An easier pathway for ESA approvals will bring a flood of new, innovative technologies to the market faster, allowing us to realize the full potential of a resilient ground segment that is capable of navigating multi-orbit and multi-network challenges effectively.

About the Author
Mark Steel, EVP of Product & Services for Reticulate Micro and CTO for Reticulate Space, has over 35 years’ experience in the communications sector. Mark previously served as vice president of Product Development & Strategy for Inmarsat, as well as holding key technical roles at Cobham Satcom – Land Systems, SWE-DISH and Micro-Ant.

A UK native, Mark spent 15 years in the Royal Air Force, where he specialized in terrestrial microwave links and airfield navigation. He is a current member of the board for the Satcoms Innovation Group and the newly established WAVE (Waveform Architecture for Virtualized Ecosystems) Consortium.

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