A look at the key announcements and developments driving the current aerospace connectivity market

April 15, 2019


Below we take a look at some of the key developments in the aerospace connectivity market in all segments: Space, stratosphere, air and ground.

Space

In November, the American multinational investment bank and financial services company Morgan Stanley declared that 2019 would “be the year for space” led by the likes of Blue Origin and SpaceX, as well as a “flurry” of young space companies.

CNBC noted that Morgan Stanley said its estimates for the space economy are that it will be worth more than $1 trillion in 2040 — with SpaceX projected to double, or even quintuple, its valuation —”significantly tied to the developments related to satellite broadband”.

A report from Space Angels in February highlighted how investors continue to fund space start-ups, with venture capitalists pouring $3.25 billion into space technology companies in 2018, an increase of 29 percent.

And turning from the market to individual companies, market-leader SpaceX raised $500m in December to expedite work on its Starlink satellite internet service, with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory also awarding SpaceX a contract worth $28.7 million for research work on Starlink.

A “strategic realignment” of SpaceX’s workforce in January saw a 10% cut in headcount to streamline and focus the company’s efforts with regard to space tourism and Starlink. The Huffington Post reported that Starlink’s initial satellites are soon to be launched:

“SpaceX has also embarked on a mission to beam internet services to Earth around the globe through a network of satellites dubbed Starlink, the first set of which will be deployed this year.”

However, digging by Joshua Fruhlinger at Thinknum revealed that SpaceX has been cranking up hiring for the team to build Starlink. Fruhlinger answers his own question on the feasibility of Starlink when he poses:

“So is Starlink really going to happen? According to hiring data that we track at SpaceX, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” That’s because SpaceX has begun hiring a team for Starlink, marking what appears to be the first time it’s publicly mentioned Starlink in its job titles.”

Earlier this month, Amazon joined the ever-growing list of companies planning a constellation of thousands of satellites to deliver broadband internet connectivity to the digitally cut-off.

Amazon requested the FCC permit spectrum rights for a constellation of 3,236 satellites, although the multi-national has not revealed which company will build the satellites

There are, as yet, no details as to when Amazon’s constellation – known as Project Kuiper – will launch.

In January, Iridium announced that its Certus broadband service was ‘live’ and that it had become the world’s first truly global broadband service. A key feature of the Iridium system is its intersatellite links, which create a system with signals travelling up to a satellite and then being passed along from satellite to satellite without needing to make intermediate hops to ground stations. Iridium Next is using Ka-band inter-satellite links with a data rate of 12.5 Mbps.

Just before Christmas, OneWeb announced that, thanks to better-than-expected performance of its first 10 demonstration satellites, its constellation can be trimmed by around a third to 600 satellites, down from 900. The first launch of OneWeb’s initial six satellites – the first satellites destined to be part of the ‘mega constellation’ have recently been launched.

The global constellation builder also announced this month that it has completed its non-debt financing which will allow the company to build its full satellite constellation. Space News reports that Japan-based SoftBank invested $1 billion of the total $1.2 billion, and has also become a strategic partner, with one of its directors, Ronald Fisher, joining OneWeb’s board of directors. Chairman Greg Wyler confirmed that the company has “no current plans to go into the markets to raise more money”.

In a surprise move in late-February, a number of Russian organizations announced that they had bought a majority share of the OneWeb Russian joint venture, easing lingering fears from late-2018 that the constellation was going to face security concerns from the Russian government who saw it as a ruse to gather intelligence and damage national security.

A recent article in IEEE Spectrum magazine focussed on construction permits submitted in Los Angeles by a Facebook subsidiary called PointView Tech which appear to show that the social media giant is looking to build two laser ground stations. The article, which quoted Mynaric and our work with Facebook on achieving air-to-ground laser links, went on to propose that Facebook is quite feasibly looking to utilize laser communication for its low Earth orbit communication satellite, Athena.

Boeing has announced that it has made a HorizonX Ventures investment in Isotropic Systems, a London-based startup pioneering next-generation solutions to better connect people and enterprises around the globe.

The US aerospace giant stated:

“By taking advantage of optical beam steering, Isotropic’s innovative user terminals can simultaneously connect with several different satellites without increasing cost or complexity. This capability will help enable low-cost, mass-market broadband connectivity for consumers and help companies meet growing demand for satellite data, mobility and broadband services even in the most remote places.”

In November, the Russian space agency – Roscosmos – published a report unveiling plans to set up a satellite system called Marathon in an effort to enter the Internet of Things (IoT) market.

According to Roscosmos, Marathon will be created within Sfera (Sphere), Russia’s global satellite constellation, and will be designed for the IoT market. It is still unclear at this moment in time how many satellites will comprise the Marathon system.

Moving away from communications, a report published by Northern Sky Research (NSR) in December anticipated strong demand for commercial Earth observation products and services in the next decade as satellite constellations offer an increasing array of optical, radar, hyperspectral and video imagery and data.

From 2017 to 2027, NSR expects annual demand for Earth observation data and services to rise from just over $3 billion to $6.9 billion. By 2027 small satellites will claim 24 percent of the revenue compared with 11 percent in 2017, according to “Satellite-Based Earth Observation, 10th Edition”.

And if to prove the point, Finnish Earth observation start-up ICEYE announced in February that it was expanding its staff to prepare for the completion of its SAR satellite constellation.

Stratosphere

Google parent-company Alphabet has announced that its company Loon has paired with telecommunications provider Telkom Kenya to provide extended 4G/LTE coverage to rural and suburban areas of Kenya with lower population densities.

Loon and Telkom are working to enable more Kenyans to access the internet via their mobile phones.

At the end of April, Loon also announced a partnership with Telesat in a deal that will see Loon’s custom software service for managing its LTE balloon fleet be put to use controlling Telesat’s new constellation of low Earth orbit satellites.

This second commercial deal for Loon is part of a drive on the part of the company to push more of its technology into the commercial space and telecom sectors. Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth stated:

“The opportunity [of offering global connectivity] is bigger than any of us. During the learning process, we decided that we needed collaboration.” Westgarth hinted more technology will be pushed to the commercial space and telecom sectors: “As we develop a capability — some intellectual property or some tech applicable outside Loon — we will make a determination.”

In December, Airbus Defence and Space formally opened its Wyndham Airport operating site which will be home to the Zephyr ‘pseudo-satellite’ unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

Not long after this announcement, it was reported that Facebook had been in talks with Airbus about possible test flights scheduled for late last year. While it is not clear if these tests took place, reports draw comparisons between Facebook’s mothballed Aquila drone and the new record-breaking drone from Airbus.

The social media giant also revealed in February that it was working with Viasat to “accelerate the deployment of affordable, high-speed, high-quality internet to communities that lack reliable internet or have no connectivity at all”, largely for communities in rural Mexico.

Other developments in the High-Altitude Pseudo Satellite (HAPS) sector include Thales Alenia Space’s Stratobus surveillance and communications airship program passing its design review and the late Microsoft founder Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch nearing its first flight.

Aviation

The inflight internet company GoGo announced in January that it had installed 477 aircraft with satellite technology during 2018.

The company said it ended the year with 1,296 net commercial aircraft installed with satellite in-flight connectivity (IFC).

Ground

Amazon will build 12 satellite facilities around the world with a view to having them online by the middle of this year. The retail giant’s AWS Ground Station cloud business is partnering with several satellite companies, including Spire Global, DigitalGlobe and BlackSky.

Charlie Bell, Amazon Web Services senior vice president, said in a statement:

“We are giving satellite customers the ability to dynamically scale their ground station antenna use based on actual need”.

Peter Platzer, CEO of partner company Spire, added:

“I wouldn’t be surprised if in five years they have hundreds of ground stations around the world”.

And ending where we began – with SpaceX – it was recently revealed that the company had filed the paperwork to begin building over 1,000,000 ground stations required to relay data from its proposed Starlink constellation; a constellation that will eventually consist of 12,000 satellites.

Observers see no problems with SpaceX securing authorization to build the ground stations from the FCC given the commission’s prior approval of the satellite part of the infrastructure.