A rarely used satellite network known as the Ka-band is one step closer to being brought into action so that it can support future UK drone missions.

The development comes after engineers  based at the Future Combat Air Systems (FCAS) business at defence giant BAE Systems and European aerospace firm Astrium  found a way to use a “communications corridor” within the Ka-band to send large amounts of data into space. The Ka-band, dubbed the “satellite super-highway”, is a fast, uncongested and underutilised satellite network.

Using the satellite super-highway allows data to bypass the already-congested satellite pathways which are crowded with data generated by non-military sources including numerous TV stations.

John Airey, of BAE Systems’ Future Combat Air Systems (FCAS) business, said: “Tapping into this communications frequency is the equivalent of a home internet user switching from an old copper wire modem connection to fibre optic broadband. Transfering data in this way offers distinct advantages especially for UAVs which need to quickly and securely transfer large amounts of data during mission phases.

“This latest trial proved our software and hardware can operate over such an advanced SATCOM link without presenting any major integration problems. As UAV technology becomes more complex and the demand for these kind of connections greater; it will be those businesses at the forefront of this technology which will prosper.”

The "corridor" was tested by connecting the BAE Systems UAV Mission System and associated UAS Control Station to the EADS Astrium Air Patrol Ka-band Satellite Communications System. This was in turn bolted down to a moving platform supplied by Astrium termed the ‘Rocking Bed’ to allow mission system software to communicate over the satellite link.

Although the ‘Rocking Bed’ never actually left the ground, it was reportedly able to replicate the profile of an unmanned aircraft allowing the systems to be tested as if they were on-board a UAV flying a real mission.

The data was able to complete four ‘hops’ from the testing facility in Poynton, Cheshire, to the satellite and from the satellite to Goonhilly Downs station in Cornwall and back again – a distance of 144,000km.

The trial took place at Astrium’s advanced manufacturing facility in Poynton, Cheshire, and was the culmination of two years’ work between BAE Systems, Astrium and satellite provider Avanti Communications.

BAE Systems claims that the effective use of satellite communication systems is important to help facilitate the safe and routine flying of unmanned aircraft in airspace. 

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