AMU Program a Bright Spot on the Satellite Horizon
Microwave and millimeter wave units for defense satellites have been extremely expensive in the past – sometimes totaling more than 20% of the cost of a satellite. Typical applications use these units in high quantities and they are quite expensive individually – as much as $50,000 per pound. Yet new defense satellite systems like AEHF and TSAT require more microwave hardware than ever before, thanks to phased arrays et. al.
In an attempt to keep some of these satellite systems affordable, the Affordable Millimeter Wave Units (AMU) program applies new forms of automated packaging to radio frequency modules and millimeter wave units, driving down cost while also decreasing the size and weight of each unit. It’s managed by the Manufacturing Technology Division of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, under a cost-sharing contract with Northrop Grumman.
AMU’s objectives were to sharply reduce the assembly and test cost of satellite microwave units by as much as 60%, and effect at least a 10% reduction in the size and weight of each unit. Early indications are that this technology will meet and surpass those objectives. The program has achieved a rapid and highly repeatable automated assembly of module and board level AMUs, with minimal labor, and no hand tuning.
Key technologies for this program are the radio frequency multiplayer boards that replace the previously required, and more expensive, cables, wires, coaxial connectors and simple passive components; integrated ring-frame module housings that are formed of a microwave substrate with printed traces and components, a ring, and a flat cover. Radio frequency ball grid array modules that can be surface mounted to an radio frequency multiplayer board in a single re-flow step are also used, eliminating coaxial connectors and cables.
Near term space systems, such as the Space-Based Infrared System Low (SBIRS-Low), Transformational Communications System Satellites (TSAT SS), and Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) Satellites have estimated that AMU’s technologies will save 50-80% of the cost of tens of thousands of modules, which previously would cost several thousand dollars apiece.
The Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF), for example, is now well along in development and has adopted and inserted AMU’s technologies in more than 100 radio frequency board assemblies and nearly 10,000 radio frequency modules. The AMU Program has shown a 90% reduction in hardware, 65% reduction in parts cost, a 50% reduction in board size and weight and a module yield greater than 95% in 19 GHz boards with 37 modules and 64 connectors.
U.S. DoD Transformation Site (July 7/05) – Program Decreases Costs in Vital Defense Satellite Program