3 Ways Drones Will Solve Ground Segment Testing In The New Era of Satcoms

Ground segment antenna measurement with drone

By Joakim Espeland, CEO, QuadSAT

Satcoms is changing. There are more satellites in the sky than ever before, with more than 200 companies planning to launch more than 100 000 satellites over the next decade, space will have the new digital infrastructure around our planet. Reliability and robustness are changing from niche and nice to have to need to have. Autonomous cars, delivery drones and IOT require an RF interference-free environment as well as full operational confidence to exist.

Here are 3 ways in which drones are overhauling testing within satcom to tackle this:

1. Access to testing

Access to testing can be a challenge, both logistically and from a cost perspective. It is also difficult to recreate environmental conditions. If we can increase and improve access to tests, it will be a game-changer for the space industry. Satellite operators use test data to make link calculations and test in situ antenna performance to increase operational performance. For antenna manufacturers, testing is vital in order to prove compliance according to regulatory standards. At the same time, they need to increase efficiency in R&D and factory testing and drones could help them do that. Drones move the testing systems to the antenna, as opposed to the antenna having to move to the test site. This means accurate on-site testing, allowing for true to life readings.

2. Changes in requirements

LEO and MEO constellations are delivering new challenges to the industry, and we know that the industry is going to need to adapt its testing methods to reflect this. It is important that new performance requirements come in place for the next generation of satellite constellations and ground segments. LEO satellites move across the sky and the ground segment must be able to track them in order to remain in contact. This is incredibly different to GEO satellites which remain ‘static’ in the view of the ground segment. Antenna labs and test ranges haven’t been designed to suit LEO and therefore antenna manufacturers need testing methods to validate and test their systems. Drones are stepping into this role and offering analysis by having test equipment moving freely in three dimensions.

3. The cost of maintenance

There have always been high costs associated with maintaining a testing regime. However, without testing regimes antenna performance can degrade and become problematic and RF interference can occur. Testing and calibration are core to satcom operations at the ground segment and therefore it needs to be as cost-effective as possible. Beyond the obvious logistical benefits, performing on-site testing through drone technology reduces both the cost of testing and the cost of downtime. This improves accessibility to testing and allows teleport operators to have access to better testing regimes. Ground segments across all sectors, including comms on the move, benefit from the convenience of on-site, low-cost testing.

Read my article in Test and Test Houses for an in-depth look at how drones are transforming testing.

Antenna diagnostics: is our product right for you?

Vitalie holding drone for demonstration
Satellite has been as needed as ever

Despite the huge shift in everyone’s lifestyles in the last year, satellite services have continued to be relied upon across all verticals. Efficiency and reliability within the industry is as important as ever and operators utilising regular and accurate antenna testing are seeing the benefits.

In a time with global travel restrictions in place, the number of enquiries for our airborne antenna testing solution has increased as it offers independence to our customers; antennas can be tested anytime and anywhere.

How do you know if the solution will work for you?

When choosing the right product for your business, it’s crucial that you take time to establish that the solution can meet all of your objectives. Although travel restrictions are limiting the number of face-to-face meetings we can have, we have developed a live demo system that allows us to discuss your technical objectives, address variable factors, such as frequencies, locations, timings etc., and replicate your flight via a live demonstration.

The demos run through set up and show how testing missions are plotted, how external conditions (such as weather) are reviewed and how data is captured and processed. We can demonstrate azimuth, elevation and raster testing live, allowing us to present detailed results and findings using our software interface. This gives you an opportunity to mould how your demo session goes, meaning that you can establish the suitability of our system in certain areas of your testing requirements.

Discuss our product with the experts

Having an in-depth understanding of our product and its testing capabilities and possibilities is important and we’re happy to discuss any company-specific queries or suggestions. 

We have successfully held many live demos over the last year which has allowed new customers to utilise our technology and improve their efficiencies in antenna diagnostics. Contact us now to arrange your live QuadSAT demonstration.

4 Key Trends in Technology for the Ground Segment

Quadsat technicians taking measurement from antenna with new technology

Space is changing. The use of satellite services is broadening with the launch of more and more LEO satellites and a boom in smart technology powered by satellite, enabling IoT, 5G, and more. It is broadly accepted that in-orbit technology needs to develop and change to keep pace with the evolving use of satellite, but the ground segment is sometimes overlooked. There is, however, a real need for new technology to help the ground segment maintain high-quality connections with new orbit technology, as the industry continues to diversify.

So, what are the key things to be aware of when it comes to current ground segment technology and where is it heading?

1. The current ground system technology is not adequate for changing demands by the latest tech in-orbit

The satellite industry has been dependent upon for its reliability for years, but even more so now as it supports the rollout of new, highly lucrative opportunities in LEO and beyond. Service reliability, therefore, must be second-to-none. As we see more satellites launching in LEO, the ground segment will be subject to different challenges and requirements which it is not at present able to deal with effectively. As opposed to GEO satellites that move with the Earth’s rotation, as a fixed point in the sky, seen from earth, LEO satellites move at a very high speed in orbit much closer above the Earth. This means that they are not a fixed point in the sky and that antennas are constantly tracking and re-pointing to maintain connectivity. This means that they are not a fixed point in the sky and that antennas are constantly tracking and re-pointing to maintain connectivity. The ground infrastructure is, therefore, much more complex, and the potential for things to go wrong has increased. Antennas can easily point to the wrong satellites, and as space becomes even more congested the resulting stakes will be high: one mispointing incident could disrupt multiple services.

2. Poor quality equipment or rather inadequate equipment for the required use is still a problem.

Most transmission incidents are a result of poor or ill-suited equipment or human error at the transmission. It is well known that sourcing high-quality equipment prevents many RFI transmission incidents and improves QoS for end-users.

There is markedly less poor-quality equipment on the market nowadays (SOMAP has been a big help to this end) but it is still out there. Operators are also sometimes misinformed when it comes to purchasing the correct or best-suited equipment for their particular operation.

This could be solved by antenna manufacturers being provided with access to more accurate and real-world style testing methods at an affordable cost. By doing so, manufacturers could better assist operators in choosing the most suitable equipment for their ground operations, delivering reassurance.

3. Testing methods and technology are still expensive and time-consuming

Particularly for COTM and VSAT operations (the latter requiring a highly accurate initial setup and continuous maintenance due to the small apertures and wide beam points), testing is a huge expense for operators and often results in significant downtime. The antenna must always be mobile, which for COTM often means laying on dedicated flights or voyages to enable accurate results in a realistic environment. Testing and calibration must also be performed by a specialist engineer, who must be transported to wherever in the world the vessel or aircraft is located – this soon becomes incredibly costly and seems incredibly antiquated in our modern age of automation and AI.

4. Emerging technology could be the answer

The industry must now look to new technology to address testing inaccuracies and its ability to keep up with evolving technology in-orbit. Drone technology could be one solution.

Already, it is proving capable of providing ground segment operators and antenna manufacturers with an innovative method to ensure that equipment is of suitable quality at sourcing and crucially during use out in the field. The drone’s simulated satellite payload is able to test, calibrate, and measure the performance of operational satellites and VSAT antennas by mimicking an orbital satellite. This technology can re-enact the testing environment as it is able to transmit and receive RF signals whilst in the air above the ground station. This means there is no need to access the actual satellite service, which saves time and money. In turn, this increases the accessibility of testing services for the ground segment, promoting regular testing for operators. It also means manufacturers can deliver products that work to the required accuracy and have been tested in real-world scenarios for their designated use.

QuadSAT is working with operators and industry organisations to develop Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) – drones – for testing. Using emerging automation and drone technology, coupled with advances in microwave technology, QuadSAT’s technology is proving able to drastically reduce costs, allowing operators to perform testing and calibration on a more frequent basis, in turn resulting in reduced antenna related RFI incidents. We believe that by reducing the cost of testing, the industry can continue to support the roll-out of new and exciting opportunities in-orbit.

About QuadSAT

Founded in March 2017, QuadSAT’s mobile antenna testing system provides users with affordable, accessible and accurate antenna testing and calibration. The system utilizes a custom-built RF payload, drone technology, and mathematical algorithms in order to effectively simulate satellites and perform critical antenna performance tests. QuadSAT’s system has been developed to meet industry-wide standards.

Press contact:

Helen Weedon
Radical Moves PR
+44 (0)1570 434632