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New Space Requires More Innovative Testing Solutions

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by Russell Roberts, Key Accounts Manager North America, Quadsat

The satellite industry is changing with New Space innovations, primarily driven by consumer demand for seamless connectivity to power next-generation services and IoT. These changes have unlocked new commercial opportunities in space, and as a result, new players are entering the industry, particularly in the LEO market. The number of satellites in orbit has rapidly increased and is set to continue on the same trajectory over the next decade.

Space-based and ground system technology are also quickly evolving, enabling LEO mega-constellations and paving the way for multi-orbit and multi-band networks. Considering all this change, teleport operators are, not surprisingly, faced with new challenges. The teleport operator’s understanding and expertise are crucial in tackling these challenges and ensuring the industry thrives.

Not only are teleport operators tasked with maintaining an increasingly complex system of antennas, but also the demand for continuous connectivity and growing competition from 5G and IP over Satellite (IPoS) have made reliability and Quality of Service (QoS) even more critical. That is, if QoS falls below expectations, customers will go elsewhere.

Maintaining the required service levels can be challenging to achieve for several reasons. First, the environment is dynamic, which adds complexity and new risks of interference. As new technologies are adopted, the risk of errors being introduced into networks increases, and the higher the error rate, the lower the network throughput. Second, as competition grows on the ground and satellites are increasingly relied on for data-intensive services, teleport operators are under growing pressure to optimize and maximize throughput and capacity as much as possible.

Complex Environments and New Technology

All of this complexity can make it difficult to locate and resolve problems. Some issues can remain for years until they are resolved, during which time they become known as “ghost problems” by the teleport engineers. Traditional mechanisms are insufficient to resolve today’s issues related to isolating and troubleshooting errors.

Technology is also rapidly evolving—from cloud computing and virtualization of the ground segment to phased array and beamforming antennas and software-defined radios and networks. New ways of working and adopting new technology introduce complexity and change how teleports operate. Teleport operators are challenged to stay on top of all these changes. Otherwise, there is a risk that errors will be introduced into networks as new technologies and workflows are adopted. But if they get it right, they’ll be able to adopt new technology more easily without risking errors, keeping them at the forefront of innovation.

Figure 1: Quadsat’s UAV

New Causes of Interference

Locating and resolving interference has always been a critical requirement for the satellite industry because an issue with one satellite or network can impact neighboring satellites and have far-reaching implications. The industry has become quite adept at mitigating the risk of interference within GEO networks, where interference is often caused by equipment degradation or pointing errors resulting from human error or sub-standard equipment. In recent years, tools that have become available for operators to detect and locate the source of interference have improved significantly, which has caused radio frequency interference incidents to be significantly reduced.

With the advent of New Space, a lot of unknowns have been created regarding potential sources of RFI. The industry knows from experience that Comms-on-the-Move (COTM) terminals commonly cause interference because moving user terminals creates more chances of errors. We’re now facing a situation where COTM systems increasingly utilize LEO networks to benefit from their low latency and high performance. However, this creates an environment where every layer is dynamic, with both the ground segment and satellites continuously moving. This is not the only reason COTM systems leverage LEO networks, which are a potential cause for concern.

With more satellites in orbit, more ground stations are required, and with an increased number of antennas and satellites in operation, the odds of something going wrong also increase. Another complexity arises from how LEO satellites must function to provide constant coverage. Unlike GEO satellites, which are further from the Earth and can cover a large geographical area with just one satellite, LEO satellites operate closer to Earth and are not stationary. There must be many satellites in a constellation so that when one satellite moves out of the field of view of an antenna, another satellite replaces it, and so on.

This dynamic environment requires a much more complex ground segment. As LEO satellites travel around the Earth, teleports must be able to track and switch from one satellite to the next, and high levels of tracking accuracy during handover operations are vital. Even the slightest misalignment in pointing can have a huge negative impact on RF signals, creating harmful interference that can impact nearby satellites.

Figure 2: The UAV making its rounds at a teleport

Growing Pressure to Maximize Throughput and Capacity

Given that satellites are increasingly being relied on for increasingly data-intensive applications, the amount of data that teleports must transfer has increased dramatically. Therefore, teleports must ensure they can maximize satellite throughput and capacity as much as possible. To do this, teleport operators need to ensure that equipment is functioning as it should, and that use of RF spectrum is optimized.

The demand for seamless connectivity to power next-generation services poses another challenge for teleport operators. The significant increase in the number of satellites, combined with the dynamic environment in which they operate, makes antenna management a critical consideration for all satellite and teleport operators.

QoS and user experience are everything. Even slight errors can result in loss of service, which in turn can lead to reputational damage and financial loss as customers switch to alternative services. Teleport operators need to be able to identify and resolve potential disruptions to service before they happen.

Another challenge comes from an increase in competition. As the number of satellites deployed soars, demand for teleports is also growing. New teleports are being established to meet this demand, which is, in turn, increasing competition among teleport operators. To succeed in this competitive environment, teleport operators need to eliminate operating errors and ensure that teleports operate at optimum levels while achieving the highest QoS possible.

Addressing Multiple Testing Challenges

It’s clear that as the satellite industry evolves, teleport operators have many challenges to manage. They need to keep ground equipment operating as it should to avoid pointing and other errors, but not only that, they also need to optimize ground stations in terms of performance, efficiency, and capacity. While there are, of course, still some unknowns, a lot of the issues that teleports are currently facing can be mitigated mainly by thoroughly testing and adjusting the ground station antennas.

This doesn’t just mean factory acceptance and site acceptance testing, but rather periodic testing throughout its lifecycle from site acceptance testing, yearly maintenance tests, to testing following upgrades and refurbishments. This periodic testing approach enables teleport operators to be much more proactive and identify problems before they arise.

Unfortunately, many of the traditional mechanisms for testing that worked well with GEO are not as effective with LEO, MEO, and multi-orbit networks. Teleport operators need comprehensive testing that can be adapted to the unique requirements of different orbits. Engineers also need testing mechanisms to be flexible so that they can isolate multiple factors, for example, changing variables such as the direction of testing, changing the frequencies, and power levels.

If engineers can adjust testing parameters in this way, they’ll be better able to troubleshoot complex issues efficiently. Testing using drones is crucial in enabling this, and as engineers gain access to more efficient tools, the troubleshooting process will become more streamlined, enabling operators to overcome longstanding challenges with greater agility.

Efficient testing is not only critical to identifying and solving problems but is also the key to optimization. If ground segments are tested in situ, teleport operators can better optimize the RF spectrum and maximize antenna performance. Optimizing performance ensures that teleport operators can fulfill the needs of even the most data-hungry customers.

Through optimizing performance, power consumption, and capacity, as well as streamlining efficiency, teleport operators can save costs, gain a competitive edge, attract new customers, and unlock new revenue opportunities. If teleport operators can prove a high level of connectivity through testing data, this also gives confidence to satellite operators and adds extra value because satellite operators can maintain quality of service.

A More Innovative Testing Solution

Currently, antennas are tested in conventional test ranges prior to network deployment to prevent malfunctions. However, this procedure is expensive, time-consuming, and a logistical challenge. To solve this problem, QuadSAT has introduced a UAS-based system that offers location-independent antenna testing and enables a range of on-site measurements, such as antenna radiation patterns and antenna alignment. The payload mounted on the drone enables maximal location flexibility. As a mobile test facility, it can operate on antennas of all sizes anywhere in the world.

QuadSAT’s system combines advanced drone technology with a custom RF pointing payload. As a compact system, it is transported directly to the site. When launched as a mission it will provide customers with in-situ testing capabilities, resulting in a cost-effective, operationally flexible, and timesaving solution. The technology uses drones equipped with specialized payloads to fly missions around satellite antennas, enabling highly accurate testing and characterization of antenna performance.

The drones fly predefined paths around the antennas, measuring key performance indicators like radiation patterns, gain, cross-polar discrimination, and others. This allows satellite operators and antenna manufacturers to test and optimize their systems more efficiently and cost-effectively. QuadSAT’s technology has applications across various satellite communications sectors, including maritime, aerospace, telecommunications, and broadcasting.

Summary

While there are many challenges to overcome, they are not insurmountable. Teleports are the mainstay of the satellite industry’s ground segment; satellite connectivity would be impossible without them. Therefore, it’s in the industry’s interest to support teleport operators as much as possible to mitigate current and future challenges.

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