Help & Advice

Our experts are on hand to guide you to the right solutions

> Click for support

Satcom Ground Engineers Target Innovations to Enable the LEO Era - ViaSatellite Feaure

Over recent years we’ve seen some impressive advancements across the satcoms industry with boundaries pushed further than we once thought possible. It was recently reported that SpaceX’s satellite broadband service - Starlink, is now being tested in the UK after it was issued with an “earth station network licence” back in November. This licence permits Starlink to sell satellite dishes and other communications equipment in the UK and means for the first time ever, people can pick up signals emitted by Starlink’s ever increasing network of satellites.

However, despite what the fanfare might lead you to believe it’s not just a small handful of big names and global tech giants behind these achievements. In fact, there are thousands of others working behind the scenes, developing vital components to ensure these projects can run as smoothly as possible.

Here, Andrew Bond, director at ETL Systems explores some of the key considerations for the satcom industry as we look to the future, including the importance of reengineering infrastructure to provide greater flexibility to ensure the rapid pace of development can continue.

Who is driving change?

During 2020, Elon Musk's personal fortune continued to rocket, largely thanks to the interstellar trajectory of his electric car company Tesla. On a similarly exceptional path, in just 35 months SpaceX put a total of 895 high-throughput low earth orbit (LEO) satellites into orbit, which minus the 51 that have had to be deorbited due to problems of various kinds, adds up to a total of 844 meaning the company’s production rate currently stands at an impressive four satellites per day.

It isn’t just Musk leading this charge, according to one McKinsey report, there are currently around 2,500 active satellites in orbit and over the next decade this number could grow significantly to exceed 50,000. This highlights the task ahead for ground segment engineers if companies such as Telesat, OneWeb, Amazon and SpaceX are to achieve their ambitions.

Developing the infrastructure for a hyper-connected world

Musk’s Starlink project certainly looks set to gain impressive ground over the next few years, requiring cutting-edge ground segment infrastructure to effectively function. LEO satellites move across the sky at several kilometres per second - creating new opportunities but also challenges for ground station engineers.

RF equipment, frequency converters, amplifiers, switch matrices and RF over fibre technologies are already being re-engineered, ready for manufacture at a scale we’ve never before seen in this industry. While keeping costs down is, of course, a key factor, this needs to happen without compromising on resilience, redundancy and the extremely high quality and reliability synonymous with satcom systems.

Once launched, LEO constellations will require multiple tracking antennas, or programmable flat panel antennas, with RF connections being routed intelligently to offer redundancy, as well as ensuring that within existing teleports new antenna arrays and new Master Control Rooms (MCRs) or Network Operating Centres (NOCs) can facilitate local or remote control.

It’s also crucial that multiple LEO tracking antennas can be connected and switched via the master control system, something that engineers are taking incredibly seriously. Through the development of a new standardised range that can do more, operating over wider IF bandwidths to provide high speed, low latency services across the globe - our team are already pushing boundaries in engineering.

This is of course all very much achievable, but what’s required is on a scale not seen before in our industry and as part of a business model only now being tested in the real world.

Multiple ground segment antennas














An industry within an industry

Making up a small section of an industry developing at lightning pace, ground segment engineers such as ETL Systems, are finding they need to adapt from designing extremely high quality low quantity RF equipment towards producing high quality high quantity at a lower cost – of course maintaining the key characteristics of reliability, resilience and dependability.

Of course, this is no easy task.

Whole RF distribution chassis are now becoming modular and can be re-designed and hot-swapped in and out of the chassis in a matter of minutes. With multi-function mix and match modules such as amplifier, switch, splitter and combiners less rack units are needed. At the end of life, modules can be renewed without the need to replace entire chassis. This is also especially important where operating parts such as power supplies and fans can be easily replaced, allowing the RF system modules to remain operational.

Over the next few years we predict that this style of chassis will become even smarter, forming a habitat for remote control modules functions such as gain, switching and other auto-redundancy features - offering 24/7 operations for the new generation of satellite constellation signals that need to reach the ground.

Ultimately, the success of Starlink rests on the wider industry’s ability to remain adaptable, engineers working on the ground segment and infrastructure must also remain poised to develop and roll-out the exciting new technologies required to make the dream of ‘connectivity for all’ a reality.