I.O. Satellites for UAVs? USAF Reaping Savings
Long-endurance UAVs like the MQ-9 Reaper may be able to take off using line-of-sight controls, but many of their missions depend on satellite bandwidth at some point. Those satellite bandwidth expenses add up, as militaries are forced to supplement their own constellations with commercial providers. The USAF thinks they’ve found a way to cut those costs, without adding to the load on military constellations.
Inclined orbit satellites are older satellites that are allowed to drift into slightly wobbly orbits, because they don’t have enough fuel to maintain a fixed geostationary location. Many commercial providers can’t use them, because most of their receiver dishes are set in one position. That makes I.O. satellite bandwidth cheap. USAF Air Combat Command’s latest lease for commercial SATCOM over the continental Unites States includes 4 inclined orbit SATCOM lines at about a 50% savings.
The military’s challenge is to program UAVs so that they can track the slightly erratic orbits of their satellite relays. The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg AFB, CA supplies military tracking data, software changes were added to give the MQ-1 PRedators and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs the ability to adjust their head-mounted receivers, and the 53rd Test Management Group developed the procedures.
The USA isn’t the only country looking for solutions to the problem of UAV bandwidth, and these kinds of services may not always be available where they’re needed. Nevertheless, inclined orbit satellites may offer an interesting and useful option for other advanced militaries, who can put the pieces in place through local efforts and smart alliances. Sources: USAF, “Remotely piloted aircraft flies first long-duration test using repurposed satellite”.
The Jan 28/14 DOT&E report [PDF] gave the MQ-9 program both barrels for what it saw as lack of organization, and a development culture that pursued off-record efforts at the expense of their planned capabilities. Announcements like this one remind us that there’s a flip side, where less advance planning can still be coupled with potentially significant enhancements that add up over time.