Boeing’s 3D printed parts that were incorporated in the SES 15 satellite. Photo: Boeing.

To combat the slowdown in Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) satellite orders, Boeing Satellite Systems International is rapidly implementing new technology in its satellite designs and manufacturing processes, Mark Spiwak, the company’s president, said in an interview with Via Satellite. According to Spiwak, the company’s advanced payloads can help accommodate customers who desire more flexible assets as they prepare for the future of the industry.

Manufacturers across the board have observed a significant and consistent downtrend in recent years, with the number of GEO orders slipping from between 20 and 25 on average per year to just 17 in 2016. This year, which Spiwak described as “pretty paltry so far,” is shaping up to be similarly sluggish — and he believes this trend could extend into the foreseeable future.

Spiwak noted two factors critical to the slowdown. “One is some of the larger High Throughput Satellite (HTS) systems, specifically ViaSat’s, are really driving the dollars per bit down. That’s causing people to rethink their business plans,” he said, as companies must reconsider their price points in the face of cheaper bandwidth.

Secondly, Spiwak said, operators have grown hesitant to commit themselves to new significant investments as the industry trend toward Non-Geostationary Orbit (NGSO) systems starts to take shape. Companies are beginning to realize the potential advantages of leveraging hybrid systems, Spiwak has observed — particularly those with data-driven applications at their core, such as gaming or banking, which can benefit greatly from the reduced latency of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. “I think some of that is causing the operators to pause their traditional buying habits,” he said.

Nonetheless, for certain business models it’s simply hard to beat the economics of a GEO satellite, Spiwak said, and to meet the needs of those operators Boeing is working to evolve its systems’ capabilities. For example, the company recently patented technology for Built-In Testing (BIT), which allows its digital payloads to automatically loop back certain signals and test themselves, saving precious man-hours, cutting test times, and resulting in much shorter delivery schedules.

Another of the company’s recent patents centers on the stacking process for its Small Platform (SP) satellite family, which allows Boeing to launch two payloads simultaneously. Eutelsat and ABS were some of the first benefactors of the technology, launching Eutelsat 117 West B and ABS 2A together in a combined SpaceX mission.

Spiwak additionally highlighted all-electric propulsion systems and 3D printing as game changing technologies Boeing is incorporating across its space business. “We’re implementing this as part of our standard design processes,” he said.

Spiwak sees digital payloads as key to ensuring Boeing’s satellites remain relevant far into the future. Unlike analog, digital payloads in combination with Phased Array Antennas (PAAs) allow operators to track ground terminals, reshape beams and move bandwidth around to suit their needs. “Operators are no longer stuck with a fixed coverage area and fixed bandwidth over the 15 or 20 years of life of the satellite,” he said.

Boeing is also pursuing a “high degree of commonality” between the technology used in its GEO satellites and its NGSO systems, according to Spiwak. Not only will this strategy help stave off smallsat manufacturers encroaching on Boeing’s market share, it will also “drive affordability, drive down the dollar per bit, [and] make things simpler for us to build,” he said. Moreover, it gives Boeing the opportunity to qualify its manufacturing and test processes on a larger scale — a critical capability given that Boeing is toying with the idea of launching its own LEO broadband constellation.

But even as the industry softens its focus on GEO, Spiwak is optimistic the business models surrounding such assets will still have a place, and doesn’t believe that the lower number of GEO orders is indicative of the industry’s overall health. Operators are taking a beat to rejig their strategies due to the breakneck pace of innovation, but growth opportunities remain plentiful, he said. “We’re going to see a continued drive to using bandwidth efficiently,” Spiwak said. “I think there’s huge market potential here to provide greater connectivity and greater value to the customers.”

An Australian startup is developing a new ion engine that could potentially recycle space junk into fuel to provide thrust for satellites on orbit. According to Neumann Space Founder and Chief Scientist Patrick “Paddy” Neumann, the company’s technology will offer a new level of fuel efficiency while also providing an incentive to clean up space debris.

The Neumann Drive, which is currently at TRL 4 according to NASA’s Technology Readiness Level scale, is a wire-triggered pulsed cathodic arc system. In other words, it functions much like an arc welder, using electricity to heat the fuel material on the tip of a metal cathode. Once ionized, the material is funneled out into space, producing thrust for the asset.

According to Neumann, current flight-rated electric propulsion systems such as Hall effect thrusters use xenon as their propellant. A gas at room temperature and pressure, xenon must be held under high pressure to increase the amount carried in the tank volume, he said. Conversely, because the Neumann Drive uses solid conductive propellants, the system doesn’t require a tank to hold the fuel materials — “nor do we need pumps, pipes, regulators or other pieces of support hardware,” he added.

Neumann Space designed the system to use materials such as aluminum, titanium and magnesium for fuel, “thus creating a motive for cleaning up near-Earth space,” Neumann said. Recycling aluminum is a particularly useful capability, as approximately 7,000 tons of space junk sitting above Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) is made of aluminum and could potentially be turned into fuel rods for this technology.

However, Neumann highlighted magnesium and molybdenum as the most promising propellants. “We like magnesium for its very high specific impulse (approximately 10,000s), and molybdenum for its combination of good specific impulse (approximately 5,000s) [and] better thrust-to-power ratio,” he said. Specific impulse is akin to fuel efficiency per pound of material, or “miles per gallon for rockets,” as Neumann phrased it.

Molybdenum is also about 10.3 times as dense as water, he added, making it ideal for volume or power constrained missions.

The higher efficiency of the Neumann Drive relative to current thrusters could potentially enable missions that “would otherwise be uneconomical, such as satellite servicing, space tugs and asteroid mining,” Neumann said. The company has also been able to produce thrust at higher specific impulse than any flight-rated system, which means the drive could send vehicles to more distant destinations while also delivering bigger payloads.

Like Fleet CEO Flavia Tata Nardini, Neumann is an advocate for an Australian national space body. He noted that because Australia is not known for producing space hardware, investors there are not fully cognizant of the risks and opportunities in the sector, which meant it was difficult to secure initial funding for the venture.

“While Australia has the Space Policy Unit and Space Coordination Committee at the federal level, neither of these organizations function as a single point of contact for international organizations looking to partner with Australian entities on space activities, nor do they have the authority to initiate Australian space activities. Personally, I would love for Australia to have a single governing body for space activities — possessing ministerial access and independence — and look forward to the day when we have such,” he said.

Neumann Space is currently finalizing development of its technology before launching the thruster up to the International Space Station (ISS) in February 2019, where it will conduct on-orbit testing atop an Airbus Defense and Space module. The team expects to bring the product to market between 2020 and 2022, initially offering propulsion for small satellites in the 100- to 250-kg range. “Larger vehicles would be to operate multiple arrays in parallel,” he added. “We also believe that we would be able to miniaturize the system so that it would fit into the volume format of a single CubeSat unit, thus providing propulsion for 3U CubeSats and similar.”

Neuman sees this technology as a general boon for the industry, as it could enable more space activities at lower engineering and financial costs. “We hope that pulsed arc thrusters become more common in future, not only for selfish reasons involving the financial success of our company, but also for what it would mean for broader human activities in space,” he said.

                   Rendition of connected transportation. Photo: U.S. Department of Transportation.

While transportation cybersecurity spending is expected to increase from $8 billion currently to around $14 billion by 2022, according to ABI Research, the industry could still be vulnerable. Michela Menting, digital security research director at ABI Research, told Via Satellite that this market has picked up over the last few years thanks to smart airports, e-enabled aircraft, automated/driverless trains, connected vehicles, and self-driving cars. This means the development of operational technologies has been much faster than it has been in the past. She believes it is only now that the effect of digitization is being felt within the transportation sector.

But according to ABI Research’s “Critical Infrastructure Security: Transport” report, this rapid digitization is presenting huge problems. Menting believes there is very poor cybersecurity being applied or implemented within transportation operational technologies and control systems. She said this includes critical functionalities such as engine and flight control, electronic positioning systems, chart displays, and navigation systems within aircraft and ships. For example, Menting highlighted the fact that many of these systems now use commercial off-the-shelf software and are internet connected through Wi-Fi and cellular networks.

“The infrastructure operators are not implementing the appropriate cybersecurity mechanisms in these control features as they would in an IT environment. They are simply not familiar enough with cybersecurity in control systems and that is a huge problem, because as they implement these connected technologies, they are ignoring the huge risks that are being introduced into these operational technologies,” said Menting.

The warning is stark. With satellite companies already well entrenched in terms of connected aircraft and ships, as well as developing plans to play in the budding connected car sector, cyber-attacks involving transport companies could clearly have an impact on their business.

Menting conceded that the communications systems are definitely “highly vulnerable” and that this includes the satellite channel. She said the use of protocols and networks commonly used in IT systems is widespread, from LAN to cellular. While the use of 5G is being actively debated, 3G/4G is already in widespread use. “In addition, there is high usage of short-range connectivity like Wi-Fi, RFID, and Bluetooth and other proprietary IoT protocols such as Zigbee, 6LowPAN, etc. Satellite communications have been the traditional channel for maritime vessels and aircraft, at least for navigation and guidance, and more recently for infotainment, [high speed data communications for passengers and crew],” she said.

Menting points out that security has been less of a concern for this medium. She believes the more pressing risk is really at the end points where the communications start and end. Those end points are now connected to other systems in the craft/vessel or at the terminals/ports that are digitized and have an IP address. Insecure endpoints are a potential threat vector that can make use of the satellite communications channel to potentially transmit erroneous or malicious data, she says.

With connected transportation becoming more of a reality, the threats to this sector are on the rise. When asked what role the satellite industry will play as this sector starts to develop, Menting pointed to aviation and maritime, and said it will also have an increasing role when it comes to the connected car.

For cars, she believes satellite will be used increasingly beyond simply navigation and said that to see the successful implementation of driverless cars, there must be a secure connectivity element. This includes the short-range connectivity to roadside units, and connecting to the wider infrastructure will require expanded satellite services. There is currently a debate on whether 5G is going to be that next communications channel, rather than Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC). Menting believes this will lead to an opportunity for satellite operators to provide that secure connectivity element, including critical updates and real-time information about the roadside traffic.

“On a larger scale going forward, new connectivity requirements will emerge beyond traffic-related services and connect around smart city and smart home elements. I think there is a role for satellite operators there. Cybersecurity adoption in the transport sector is still very nascent and immature. There is plenty of scope for satellite players to extend their role within the secure communications element,” she added.

So, while that is the good news, the connected transportation market seems more vulnerable than others to a crippling cyber-attack. Menting said if you look at cyber-attacks within the transportation sector, the issues have been around human error and accidental misuses of systems, and that so far, we have not really seen a fully-fledged cyber-attack. But just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean there are not warning signs.

“We have had some cybercriminal enterprises ongoing, although most of it specifically targeted rather than large scale indiscriminate cyberattacks — although the latest bout of ransomware is revealing vulnerabilities in the transport infrastructure,” said Menting. “In the maritime sector, organized crime groups have been hacking cargo management systems to check if shipping containers have been flagged as suspicious by border control, or to fake delivery data to allow criminals to obtain delivery of valuable containers. There are also instances of ships falsifying automatic identification system’s data in an attempt to avoid boarding and inspection of containers.”

Menting cited a recent event involving British Airways as an example of the damage that could be done. The grounding of the airline’s flights due to a power outage could be seen as a wake-up call as to how a cyber-attack could cripple the business. “There is a negative perception of cost, and a low perception of risk. If the risk is not perceived as dangerous enough or real enough, operators are not going to implement really comprehensive security. They will do the bare minimum. But the transport industry is part of the critical infrastructure, so they should really think about it differently,” commented Menting.

However, it appears the risks are not being taken seriously enough. “The problem with connected digital systems is that a threat actor just needs to find the weakest link. They can easily get into a critical system by penetrating a weaker, or more vulnerable adjacent connected system. The transport sector hasn’t really made the effort to research and assess those types of risks fully. They understand the IT risks, but they have not done that full risk assessment on the operational side,” added Menting.

According Euroconsult’s latest report, Prospects for L-Band, IoT & M2M Markets, the Mobile Satellite Services (MSS) market will grow from 4.3 million MSS terminals in 2016 to more than 12 million terminals by 2026. M2M/IoT (machine-to-machine, Internet of Things) devices will have a significant share in this subscriber growth, while their contribution to operators’ revenues should be more limited. MSS wholesale revenues are expected to grow at a CAGR of 2.2% between 2016 and 2026, driven by MSS aero broadband demand, M2M/IoT applications and other MSS services increasingly addressing lower-end segments and emerging regions, such as the promising small boats segment.

The diversification and improvement in MSS products should be enabled by recent and upcoming MSS systems including Iridium NEXT (under deployment), Inmarsat’s I-6 (expected in 2020), Thuraya’s next generation constellation (planned for 2020 but no satellite yet ordered) and a new generation of hybrid networks from Globalstar and Ligado Networks. These systems should allow for new, higher data-rate services, and will combine with new ground solutions and terminals.

“Increasing competition from VSAT mobile solutions, due to more efficient equipment and lower capacity costs, is expected to weigh on MSS’s market share in the high-end, high-ARPU markets,” said Pacôme Révillon, CEO of Euroconsult. “MSS operators will thus have to review their positioning and address new segments less addressable by VSAT solutions, such as smaller classes of ships, aircraft, not to mention potential upsides related to connected cars and IoT.”

The global IoT market, including terrestrial IoT, should experience exponential growth in the coming years; MSS operators are reinforcing their position in the segment, with the number of M2M/IoT terminals reaching over 20% growth in just the first half of 2017. Moreover, about ten constellation projects targeting IoT are currently under consideration by start-ups, intending to benefit from the momentum of the sector.

Single-digit growth is expected for the global MSS market, despite lower global MSS ARPUs over the period due to increasing VSAT competition:

  • Maritime MSS wholesale revenues are expected to decrease with a -2% CAGR over the next ten years, an effect of the migration toward VSAT solutions in the medium to high-end maritime markets, while low ARPUs of small boats should not offset that churn.
  • The land market is expected to grow at a fast pace in number of terminals at a 10-year CAGR of 12%, with growth led by the increasing demand for M2M/IoT terminals.
  • Driven by strong growth in broadband terminals from business aviation as well as cockpit connectivity for commercial airlines, aeronautical wholesale revenues are expected to increase with a 4% CAGR over the coming decade.