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Software Can Bring Out the Best in Hardware to Enhance Military SATCOM Networks


Leaders from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and its Allies around the world recently met at the SMi Global MilSatCom Conference & Exhibition in London. Europe’s leading military communications event for satellite professionals brought together more than 600 attendees to discuss a variety of topics, including the need to transform satellite communications (SATCOM) within defense agencies, militaries, and governments.

In a session titled Commercial SATCOM: The Next 5 Years, presenter Dr. Rajeev Gopal, vice president of Advanced Systems for the Hughes Defense team, provided insight into the power of “using software to bring out the best in hardware at the right place and the right time.”

Dr. Gopal discussed two of the areas where a software-defined network (SDN) approach can be applied: at the terminal equipment layer and the network management layer (at the network operations center, or NOC).

“Today, if a terminal does not work, it can take days and weeks for most service providers to correct the issue,” he explained. Field engineers simply are not available to provide engineering expertise to remedy the situation; it takes translating complex knowledge, business arrangements and configurations to deal with networking and to point an antenna towards a new satellite or orbit.

However, solutions comprising technical knowhow and environment can be coded into the system using text-based rules. Artificial intelligence (AI) rules-engine and machine learning (ML) numeric models can then drive flexible, real-time terminal management to solve problems and ensure network performance.

“You don’t have to change the software code, the rules system selects a service provider or the right orbit at the right frequency to achieve resiliency,” he said. “And I’m not talking about having this capability in 5 years, it’s available right now.”

In fact, Hughes provides software-defined networking for SATCOM, wireless and terrestrial communications to facilitate interoperability between government and defense networks, including different military branches of the US armed forces. Agile software-defined solutions like these simplify and automate complex tasks across a variety of areas, such as validating equipment install standards, conducting fault finding, and managing performance against quality-of-service agreements. Hughes utilizes AI/ML driven technologies to improve the performance and management of its own network, as well as for commercial enterprise and defense customers.

To illustrate one small example of the types of common problems that can be resolved, Dr. Gopal pointed to one of the SMi live video conference keynotes done by a DoD General that experienced glitches during streaming. The disruption likely occurred, he said, because there was no agile software-enabled technology, like Hughes ActiveTechnologies™, to distribute the data load or select alternate transport.

“If our technology was there, these types of corrections would happen more quickly than just in minutes, but in seconds and milliseconds. We’ve demonstrated this not only for ground terminals but for aero terminals,” he said.

As he mentioned, Hughes is delivering enhanced connectivity and resiliency to the United Kingdom’s next-generation Sky Guardian Remotely Piloted Aircraft and the U.S. Army’s narrowband communications. These Hughes customers see firsthand that hardware can become more efficient and resilient, so soldiers and decision-makers can rely on their communications networks and focus on their mission.

Such capabilities are needed everywhere, not just in commercial and military networks, but also in multi-national or non-profit work led by humanitarian relief and disaster response efforts. They can benefit any organization through greater networking resilience and interoperability. Additionally, soldiers can access uninterrupted communications for both on the move and on the pause applications, from remote locations like the Arctic to the vast oceans worldwide.

“Connectivity must always be present. Every organization must have primary circuits and backup circuits, and it shouldn’t take days or even hours to correct disruptions. It should only take seconds,” Dr. Gopal stressed.

In their own presentations, military leaders agreed. Both Mr. Mike Dean, DoD SATCOM Chief for the DoD’s Chief Information Officer, and Col. Ray Colburn, U.S. Space Force, talked of the need to create next generation enterprise SATCOM architecture. They urged DoD and its Allies to rethink SATCOM, from its user terminals and ground infrastructure to hybrid and multi-transport technologies. Doing so will increase warfighter capabilities and position militaries to take advantage of new 5G capabilities. Solutions will also be simpler, faster and less costly to deploy and operate.

Whether it’s network management, terminal management, or any global communications ecosystem, the future will depend on using software to deliver flexible, agile and interoperable solutions.