Satellites launched with the purpose of relaying communications have been enabling around-the-globe transmissions of information for half a century. And in this current era of hybrid warfare, that means this decades-old hardware needs to be able to manage the command and control of unmanned aircraft.

Army unit deploys an inflatable satellite antenna. (Photo: Jett Loe, Sun-News)

The information relay from an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) is only as good as the connection, and there are limited options for transmitting information, particularly in theater, where there is limited infrastructure. Historically, drones used radio waves to be able to fly within line of sight of the operator. But now, with Reapers flying halfway around the globe from the command center, satellite communications (SATCOMs) are essential to drone operations — particularly for medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) aircraft, but also for smaller platforms.

Nevertheless, the legacy networks these unmanned aircraft rely on have their limitations. First is the nature of the satellite hardware itself. Until space-bound robots can go up and tinker with decades-old satellites — a real idea that’s been floated by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — satellites are not going to change. As a result, the military needs software-based solutions to upgrade its legacy SATCOM networks to keep up with the proliferation of unmanned aircraft.

Second is the nature of physics itself. There is only so much the military can do to drive down latency — at the end of the day, information relay is a basic equation based on the maximum transmission speed of electromagnetic waves over a distance. The same reason it takes NASA 20 minutes to talk to a rover on Mars is at play on a smaller scale when it comes to operating an UAS.

These limitations may make it seem like there is no way around improving SATCOMs, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, UAS operators can leverage modernized networks that not only improve the reliability of a connection, but also help them by automatically switching feeds, without the need for manual intervention. Additionally, UASs are increasingly targets of network jamming and potential cyberattacks, and a modernized network is more capable of ensuring the fidelity of a connection against the Department of Defense’s (DOD) adversaries.

Sophisticated medium-altitude, long endurance (MALE) aircraft like this General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAS increasingly depend on satellite communications for command and control. (Photo: U.S. Army)

Upgrading Networks

There’s no such thing as ripping out and replacing a network — not just for the military, but in any commercial operating environment as well. That means that networks that were built for different missions must transform into agile, flexible, automated and secure networks. Doing so requires an emphasis on software upgrades.

Over the years, SATCOMs have been able to provide significantly more bandwidth through upgrades, enabling the transfer of megabytes instead of kilobytes of data. By using optimization protocols, that bandwidth can become even better; however, that doesn’t necessarily equate to more reliable data transfer. Unlike TCP protocols, where every single bit of information gets packeted and transferred from Point A to Point B, a lot of the information drones relay instead follow UDP protocols, which are used for video transfer. In these transfers, the packet doesn’t necessarily get transmitted in its entirety, the same way it would if a television or phone line cut out, the receiving end wouldn’t get the remaining bits of information relayed after a disruption. Command and control would prefer that UAS have a more reliable connection for video, but reliability comes at a price — typically reduced speed.

In order to upgrade these older software solutions, the military needs to have a modernized network that can ride on top of the legacy network — a software-redefined network. These newer networks can control where traffic goes and what path it takes by using this software-defined overlay. The legacy network is like the original dirt road, while the software overlay is like pavement that lets the cars on the road go at much faster speeds.

But to be truly effective, this network upgrade must provide end-to-end visibility from the application to the end user, all the way back to the data center or the battalion commander in theatre. Without visibility, the military can’t optimize for latency issues, which are inherent to operations but can be minimized.