Artist's rendition of an Earth station with High Throughput Satellite (HTS) data flow. Photo: Shutterstock/ PPM-ViaLite

Artist’s rendition of an Earth station with High Throughput Satellite (HTS) data flow.

Today, big data is being collected thousands of miles up in space by a whole host of orbiting satellites. The increase in data volumes continues to grow exponentially as more satellites are launched. According to a report, 6,200 small satellites are expected to be launched over the next 10 years. The falling costs of satellites and their growing sophistication have enabled new uses for “space data” across many industries and fueled investment in the sector.

The satellites orbit 99 to 1,200 miles (160 to 2,000 kilometers) above the Earth and provide an overhead view using cameras and sensors to create a very unique dataset. Those images are analyzed by computers using Machine Learning (ML) algorithms that extract information and extrapolate patterns. The applications for this space data are many and diverse. Traffic patterns in large cities can be used to better design future cities; maritime transportation activity and logistics can be tracked; foot traffic patterns at retail locations can be analyzed to determine consumer behavior, and farmers can better understand what factors influence the growth of crops.

This revolution in space is drastically changing the dynamics on the ground. Teleport operators are in the business of creating and managing the capacity of networks, of transmission systems, and of analog and digital processing. These operators are transforming from traditional antenna farms that provide satellite access to data centers with dishes that layer on value-added capabilities and services.

Many teleport operators are virtualizing ground infrastructure and taking advantage of cloud-based technologies and infrastructure. This includes the transition from analog to digital teleports. Digitization enables cloud-based Intermediate Frequency (IF) and Radio Frequency (RF) processing which is lowering costs and increasing operational flexibility. The cloud is a key enabler that offers an alternative to building or leasing infrastructure that dramatically reduces ground segment infrastructure costs and provides faster data downloads and immediate data processing. In this way, cloud services are a new and important kind of capacity that has the potential of becoming a staple within space operations.

However, collecting and transmitting space data is not the hardest part. With volumes in the petabytes of data, processing and analyzing the vast amounts of data sent to the ground is a challenging endeavor but offers the greatest opportunity for operators. Recent advances in robotics, ML, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are pushing the frontier of what machines are capable of doing to unlock the secrets of space data. The ability to leverage intelligence and data analytics is already having a large impact. According to NSR, big data analytics via satellite will generate close to $18.1 billion in cumulative revenues by 2027. The highest increase will be in satellite imagery for data analytics applications, which are predicted to grow at an impressive 23.5 percent Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) through to 2027.

There are big opportunities for teleport and satellite operators in this high-growth market. NSR estimates that the biggest markets for big data via satellite will be in transportation, government/military, and oil and gas — sectors where teleport operators are deeply entrenched. To capitalize, operators must evolve beyond traditional services to manage complex networks, deliver information processing services, and leverage intelligence to provide value-added big space data capabilities. With this vast amount of data, the right analytical tools, and ample processing power to crunch the numbers, teleport operators can turn big space data into smart insights that enhance productivity, raise throughput, and improve predictions, outcomes, accuracy, and optimization.

Telefonica CEO José María Álvarez-Pallete López. Photo: Telefonica

Telefonica CEO José María Álvarez-Pallete López speaking at Mobile World Congress.

The rise and rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) was at the heart of many keynote presentations on day one of Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona. José María Álvarez-Pallete López, chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Telefonica — one of the world’s biggest Telco’s — spoke of how networks will get smarter as they become AI-driven. He gave the interesting statistic that mobile data traffic is growing at more than 50 percent every year, and said no other sector comes close to this level of growth.

Interestingly, he was one of the speakers that urged governments not to look at 5G as a cash cow. “Why do we need to acquire the same spectrum over and over again? We need a refresh, and a bold regulatory approach,” he said. “The aim of regulators should be to reduce regulation. Governments are using the spectrum as cash generators. Spectrum needs to be awarded for a longer period of time.”

López spoke of the new global data sphere, and how we are flooded with data. However, he spoke of how this data revolution could help revolutionize sectors such as transportation and health, and how data now powers “information factories.” “People give it (data) away in exchange for free services. Data should be treated as a new factor of production. Data is like dignity. It has its own value. We need a data bill of rights. This will take a forward-looking approach. In Telefonica, we want to put customers in control of their data. We are working on a data portability model for our customers,” he said.

He also spoke of Telco’s being responsible business spreading the benefits of intelligent connectivity. “We need to have more sustainable business models. We need to do business in a financially, in a socially responsible and environmental way. The opportunity is amazing,” he said.

Another company that spoke was SingTel, an Asian telco, that has spread far beyond the boundaries of Singapore. SingTel CEO Chua Sock Koong stated that mobile connectivity transforms the life of billions. The statistics she gave were quite mind-boggling. More than two-thirds of people are now connected to mobile. There are 8.8 billion mobile connections. There are 3.3 billion mobile internet users, there will be 1.3 billion 5G subscribers in 2025. 5G goes beyond just connecting people — it makes the Internet of Things (IoT) applications a reality. There will more than 25 billion global IOT connections by 2025, and data-driven value creation will reach $4.6 trillion.

However, while Chua talked about the potential opportunity for Telco’s, she spoke with a degree of caution similar to Lopez. “Mobile revenue growth is stagnating even if data growth is growing rapidly with 400 percent data growth by 2025. There is subdued mobile revenue growth on mobile operators who are investing billions on new networks. There is a dichotomy taking place here,” she said.

GSMA Director General Mats Granryd spoke of the benefits of 5G and said that the industry needed to move beyond just connectivity to “intelligent connectivity.” Although he spoke about its applications in several areas, he highlighted how AI and intelligent connectivity can help in healthcare He said, “Tuberculosis kills more than any other disease in the world — 2000 people will die today from it. With Big Data, we can predict where the next outbreak will happen, and put up treatment centers. The possibilities for intelligent connectivity are endless. Doctors can also perform real-time remote surgery.”

Like others, he urged governments around the world not to engage in a short-term land grab. “If the mobile ecosystem would be a country, we would take the place of Germany as the fourth largest in the world,” he said. “We are at the heart of the global industry. We need a framework for the digital age. Our message to governments is: don’t get short-term greedy and kill the golden goose.”

European Commission

The European Commission (EC) Digital Economy and Society Commissioner Mariya Gabriel spoke of her ambitions to make Europe a global leader in terms of 5G and AI. She said that the EC has supported investments in research. “We have set-up a large scale European 5G piloting structure. European operators will launch 5G services commercially this year. Europe has to keep pace with other regions,” she said.

Gabriel said she was “well aware” of the unrest with the key actors in telecoms players around cybersecurity. She also said it was the EC’s intention to give a major boost to AI-related research and innovation. “We want to reach $22.6 billion (20 billion euros) in AI-related investment,” she said.


Not surprisingly, the satellite wasn’t mentioned at all during the first morning. However, reading between the lines, Telco’s are using statistics to show their need for spectrum. All we’re talking about the inflection point of 5G, AI, the blockchain, and Big Data leading to the biggest revolution of modern times. However, with wireless players hinting at how they need to make more profits from their huge investments in 5G, the stage is set for an interesting few years ahead. There is no doubt that the fusion of AI and 5G in this new data world will lead to new digital economies where more digital skills will be needed. The new industrial revolution is happening. The question is — what role will the satellite industry play in this revolution? That is to be determined.

Satellite manufacturing might be somewhat in limbo right now as operators look to see how the upcoming mega-constellations change the world of satellite communications. For manufacturers, however, there is no time to rest and wait, as they need to be prepared to satisfy their customers’ ever-growing needs, whatever they might be.

The requirements from customers are always ‘better, cheaper, faster,” says Andreas Lindenthal, chief operating officer and member of the board at Bremen, Germany-based, satellite manufacturer OHB. “For some of our customers — mainly the communication operators — the pressure in the market has increased significantly, therefore, they are not looking just for incremental improvements in this area; they are looking for disruption.”

What exactly that disruption might be is, however, somewhat uncertain. In addition to high-speed technology development, which is forcing operators to rethink traditional approaches based around large, long-lived Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites, there is a changing economic environment in which business cases are no longer as clear and stable as they once might have been. The operators need to be able to respond quickly and therefore require satellites to be delivered faster than what would have satisfied them ten years ago. “Satellite operators are telling us that they don’t have such a long term, stable unchanged business cases for 15 years, 20 years of satellite operation anymore,” says Lindenthal. “They are under pressure from their customers to have enhanced flexibility on the satellite from their side, therefore, they want to procure satellites, which are more flexible.”

In 2018, only eleven (or seven) GEO satellite orders have been placed around the world, a continuation of a decline that the industry has been witnessing in the past years. And while manufacturers believe that GEO satellite orders are likely to somewhat pick up in the future as company’s order replacements for their aging fleets, it is clear that GEO satellite orders are no longer set to remain the indicator of the satellite manufacturing industry’s health as they were in the past. “There haven’t been many orders placed. People are waiting to see what the constellation performance is going to be like,” says Aidan Joy, the head of satellite assembly integration and test at Airbus. “The overall market is in a situation now where different business models are being analyzed. But whether it’s constellations, large GEOs or medium-sized GEOs, we will see those different business models mature and as a manufacturer, we will need to be able to respond.”

Whichever the future direction, the manufacturers agree that the drive for more cost-effective solutions, shorter lead times, and increased flexibility is here to stay. The ways to meet the goal can be many, according to the manufacturers, with no one size fits all solution available.

Full Automation — Not the Way Forward

There have been many lessons learned for Airbus. The company realized that full automation —as used for example in the manufacturing of cars or planes — is not the right way forward. “We are not using a lot of automation as such,” says de Rosnay. “We have some robots and cobots but we didn’t see the case for the level of automation you could see, for example, in [the] automotive industry. While thousands of satellites might be a lot for satellite manufacturing, the volume is still relatively small compared to let say cars or mobile phones.” Instead, he says, digital smart tools assist human operators to work more efficiently and make sure that every screw is as tight as needs to be.

“Every piece of equipment has a bar code and the tooling — which is used to fit the equipment, too — has a bar code, and you scan both and the tooling knows what level of torque should be applied on every bolt,” says de Rosnay. “Once it’s done, the data is recorded and it’s validated through 3D scanning. All this is really adding value to the assembly of the hardware and removing the risk of anomalies because we have to produce faster but still keep a high level of quality.”


Airbus’ Aiden Joy believes that flexible payloads are key for future GEO missions, offering customers the benefit of using an asset for a long period of time and at the same time the ability to change the mission’s specifications. “At the moment the operators are in a decision period about what the optimum solutions for them might be,” says Joy. “In general, once you launched a capability, obviously the longer the life can be, the more cost-effective it is. If you can build in flexibility with things like flexible payloads, you can extend the life and potentially be able to use it for different missions.” Airbus hopes to cut lead times for large GEO satellites from three years to 18 months. The way to achieve that, Joy says, is in greater standardization and modularity of spacecraft.

Airbus’ upcoming Eurostar Neo GEO bus has been designed not only to be customizable but also modular so that the mission can be scaled up or down based on the requirements.

Further improvements can be achieved with the implementation of new manufacturing techniques including additive manufacturing, digitalization, and the use of big data to optimize design and manufacturing. And whilst no one knows in which direction the market eventually decides to go, the need for flexibility might in the future apply not only to satellites and payloads but to satellite manufacturing itself.

“We need to be ready to respond wherever the market goes,” says Joy. “We need to have the flexibility in our systems to be able to build whatever the market needs. It’s possible that in the future, we will be building significant numbers of geostationary satellites over a period of a couple of years and then we may need to switch to constellations.”

The world of satellite manufacturing is clearly changing. But where exactly it will go in the future, only time will tell.

3D Printing — An Enabler of a Satellite Manufacturing Revolution

U.S. satellite manufacturer Lockheed Martin is on a mission to slash lead times and cost of satellite manufacturing by 50 percent. One of the company’s key tools for achieving this goal is additive manufacturing or 3D printing. Whilst the space industry has been a rather slow adopter of the disruptive technology, Lockheed’s additive manufacturing manager Brian Kaplun says that the technology has made some massive strides over the past few years and is now very much in the mainstream.

Lockheed’s first 3D printed part was a bracket used on Nasa’s Juno mission to Jupiter, which launched in 2011. Since then, the company’s catalog of 3D printed components has expanded massively with the latest achievement being two large titanium domes for high-pressure fuel tanks to be used onboard satellites. At 46 inches (117cm), the two domes are the largest 3D printed structures Lockheed Martin has ever created for space applications. “We are able to additively produce thermal structures, we can now build entire bus structures for smaller satellites in one fell swoop, we can incorporate electronics into our design and then build them as one cohesive unit,” Kaplun told Via Satellite. “We have additively produced propellant tanks for a range of commercial and governmental customers.”

What in the past could have taken years to make can be manufactured within months or weeks with 3D printing? The propellant tanks, for example, using the traditional forging technology, would have had lead times anywhere from a year and a half to two years,” says Kaplun. “With additive manufacturing, we have produced an equivalent for the forgings in two weeks.

Additive manufacturing, Kaplun says, allows Lockheed Martin to make preforms for parts that would traditionally take a long time to make or create bespoke tools for traditional manufacturing. Thanks to technology, the company can also experiment with new materials at a faster rate. “3D printing allows for a much more rapid turn,” says Kaplun. “We can get test articles to customers and to our material analysis. It’s really an enabling technology for our material science.”

From metals such as titanium or aluminum to polymers doped with additives with electrostatic and electrical properties, the range of materials Lockheed Martin’s engineers can use to create satellite parts is expanding. Recently, the company developed a printable form of copper that can be used to print antennas directly onto structures.

In April 2018, Lockheed announced it would cooperate with Stratasys to make bespoke 3D printed parts for the Orion spacecraft, which is set to take people to the Moon in the early 2020s.

Stanford researchers are developing an AI-powered navigation system to direct spaceborne ‘tow trucks’ designed to restart or remove derelict satellites circling aimlessly in graveyard orbits.

A Stanford engineer is helping to develop an AI-based navigation system that would enable the space-borne equivalent of tow trucks to find and rescue satellites from so-called graveyard orbits.

illustration of space-borne equivalent of tow trucks finding and rescuing satellite

There are zones in space, outside Earth’s atmosphere, where old satellites go to die or, rather, to hang out … forever. Too high to burn up in the atmosphere, yet too slow to escape Earth’s gravity, useless satellites are doomed to circle in what are called graveyard orbits.

Stanford professor of aeronautics and astronautics Simone D’Amico hopes to change all that.

His Space Rendezvous Lab (SLAB) is working with the European Space Agency (ESA) to spur development of an artificial intelligence system to direct the orbital equivalent of a tow truck. The two groups are hosting a competition for an AI system that would identify a derelict satellite and, without any input from Earth’s assets, guide a repair vessel to navigate alongside to refuel, repair or remove it.

The software competition is one milestone in a broader research and development program that D’Amico says will feed into his lab’s efforts to develop low-cost navigation systems that future spacecraft will use to maneuver toward distressed satellites or rendezvous with other cooperative satellites.

D’Amico’s navigation system and algorithms are designed to cope with the tight constraints of space travel. The research will be integrated into two missions planned for launch in 2020: the Impulse One by Infinite Orbits, a technology demonstration of the space tow truck, and the Starling mission by NASA Ames, which will show how a swarm of spacecraft can navigate autonomously.

In contrast to prior satellite projects, these new missions employ multiple nanosatellites, each of which has strict limitations in terms of size, weight, power availability, and maneuverability.

“In space, every gram, every electron, every resource must be used to its greatest advantage, especially on small satellites,” D’Amico says.

The navigation system that D’Amico has in mind would be inexpensive, compact and energy-efficient. To spot defunct satellites, the repair vehicle would rely on cameras that take simple gray-scale images, just 500-by-500 pixels, to reduce data storage and processing demand. Barebones processors and AI algorithms that come out of the competition would be integrated directly into the repair satellite. No ground communication would be required. The goal is simplicity: processors and algorithms that require low-resolution images and limited computation to navigate space.

“The spacecraft would have to able to see and think for itself,” says Sumant Sharma, a graduate student in D’Amico’s lab.

Finding the satellite

Sharma helped D’Amico make the contest possible by creating a database of images of orbiting satellites. One of the ways AI systems are trained is by a technique known as machine learning. To teach a computational system to spot cats, a machine learning approach feeds the system images of cats until the artificial intelligence devises the algorithms to recognize them.

Since there is no repository of abandoned satellite selfies, D’Amico and Sharma drew upon the techniques of virtual and augmented reality to create a database of 16,000 images to be used as training material for machine learning systems.

The competition, which begins today, will invite machine learning and AI labs from around the world to visit a portal developed by ESA. Entrants will have until July 1 to download the images, work with the data, train their algorithms and submit results in the virtual competition. D’Amico’s lab will use the work contributed during the competition to evaluate and improve the performance of the navigation system that his Stanford team has already been developing.

D’Amico’s do-it-yourself vision of a low-budget navigation system is based on a new breed of space research that invites the widest possible participation in order to bring the best thinking to bear on technical challenges.

“We are democratizing space by crowdsourcing the artificial intelligence and the data needed to train new algorithms,” D’Amico says. “It is Space 2.0.”

Support for the project comes from the European Space Agency, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program.