Eutelsat Focuses on Software-Defined Networks

Article By : John Walko

Eutelsat is claiming a new era of commercial satellite services with a geostationary satellite said to be the first to incorporate a software-defined architecture.

European satellite network operator Eutelsat is claiming a new era of commercial satellite services with a geostationary satellite said to be the first to incorporate a software-defined architecture.

Dubbed the Eutelsat Quantum, the novel architecture makes the satellite communications network fully reconfigurable, such that it can respond instantly to changing needs and conditions.

Developed by Surrey Satellite Communications (SSTL) in the UK, the bird was launched last week on an Arianespace rocket and will, initially, provide commercial services for the Middle East and North Africa region.

SSTL, a spin out from Surrey University, has been developing small geostationary satellites for over 35 years. Other partners in the Eutelsat Quantum project include Airbus Defence and Space, which is headquartered in France, who supplied the payload. The project was part-funded by the European Space Agency’s ARTES R&D programme. This is a well-established initiative intended to keep Europe’s already well-established satellite communications sector globally competitive.

Ben Stocker, projects director at SSTL, which is now part of Airbus Defence and Space, said the Eutelsat Quantum programme “presented many challenges for SSTL to overcome during the development of the satellite system design, mechanical design, propulsion system and key subsystems within the satellite platform.”

Some 100 engineers and designers at SSTL worked on the Quantum project, which the company says is the first in a new generation of fully reconfigurable communications satellites that can respond to changing demands on Earth. It will be the first to operate in the high-frequency Ku-band which is targeted at data transmission and secure communications, notably for ships at sea.

The design features eight beams that can be redirected to move in almost real time and thus instantly adjusted to reflect demand. Other potential applications include fast response to natural disasters, such as the recent catastrophic floods in Germany and Belgium.

No date has yet been set for when the service from the Quantum system will commence, but SSTL says it will soon follow extensive testing, notably of the software design technology that allows instant reconfigurability.

It should be noted that despite the name, the Quantum satellite does not actually offer quantum security protocols.

Inmarsat also a player

Meanwhile, other major communications satellite operators, such as Intelsat and Inmarsat, have plans to deploy software-defined satellites, which the latter organization has dubbed the “network of the future.”

Coinciding with news of Eutelsat’s launch of the Quantum satellite, Inmarsat touted its plans for the “Orchestra” communications network that will bring together existing geosynchronous (GEO) satellites with low earth orbit birds (LEO) and terrestrial 5G into an integrated, high-performance network.

Noting that an orchestra brings different instruments together, each supporting the other, Rajeev Suri, CEO of Inmarsat said that “by combining the distinct qualities of GEO, LEO and 5G into a single network, we will deliver a service that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Our customers will benefit from dramatically expanded higher throughput services around the world.”

The company claims the ‘dynamic mesh network’ will bring together the lowest average latency and fastest average speeds with excellent resilience that will eliminate the industrywide challenge of congested network hot-spots.

Suri, who was formerly CEO of Nokia, noted: “This is the future of connectivity, and Inmarsat is perfectly positioned to bring it to the world with its proven technology expertise.” He said the company plans to focus initially on delivering the Orchestra terrestrial network, while preparing for a future LEO constellation in the range of 150 to 175 satellites.

“This is a highly cost effective approach that leverages Inmarsat’s leading GEO satellite network as part of Orchestra’s unique multi-layer architecture,” Suri added.

The company suggests Orchestra will not directly compete against services such as those from satellite broadband supplier OneWeb or Elon Musk’s SpaceX offering Starlink, since it plans to target commercial and government services rather than consumer broadband or video distribution.

The initial five-year (2021 to 2026) investment for Orchestra is expected to be about $100 million, and the first target will be to boost capacity in high-density areas such as ports and airports. The five-year programme is expected to cover delivering the terrestrial network, terminals for maritime and aviation networks, and LEO test satellites.

New services enabled by the Orchestra concept are expected to include close-shore navigation for autonomous vessels, emergency and safety services for maritime crews, secure and tactical private networks and direct-to-cloud connections for airlines.

This article was originally published on EE Times Europe.

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