IP in the sky

ROUTERS IN SPACE. NASA sent this satellite into space carrying a modified Cisco IP router. The experiment was considered a success.

From disaster management and homeland security to orbital communications and exploration, agencies are turning to IP-based communications via satellite

When Lt. Col. Forrest Burke returned from a six-week tour of logistics bases in the Iraq theater earlier this year, he came away with one, unmistakable conclusion. The Army's accelerated program to deploy IP-based communications over satellite had paid off'big time.

'To a man or woman, the logistic commanders have told me this is the number one best thing that has happened in their logistics careers,' said Burke, who serves as Chief of the Logistics Network Task Force for the Army.

No wonder. Burke says logistics officers are much more efficient and effective, thanks to highly portable satellite-based communications the Army procured from Segovia Inc. of Herndon, Va. Field communications that once required bulky equipment and elaborate setup can now be deployed at forward positions in hours. Burke said troops are getting the materiel they need significantly faster and more reliably than before.

99.5+ percent network reliability

'Going into Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Third Infantry Division'the folks who made the rush to Baghdad'went 45 days without [logistics] communications because they didn't have satellite-based IP,' Burke said. 'Today 3rd ID is back in Iraq. Their network reliability has run better than 99 and one-half percent. As a result, instead of it taking months to get materiel to the users, they are averaging between 12 and 16 days to get a high-priority part. And that makes a huge difference in their ability to generate combat power.'

It almost didn't happen. The Army originally planned to deliver proof-of-concept, satellite-based IP links in 2007, with field deployments schedule to roll out from 2008 through 2011. But when the prospect of a conflict in Iraq became imminent, the Army put IP communications on a fast track.

'The compelling factor was the Army realized how critical satellite-based IP was, and it was willing to kill other programs of interest to the Army to get it,' Burke said. 'We began fielding in earnest in late 2004 and we will be done middle of 2007.'

Satellite-served Internet access is hardly new. Hughes Network Systems debuted its consumer-oriented DirecPC service in the mid-1990s. Early services required a dedicated phone line connection to send data upstream to the ISP's network operations center, limiting flexibility and upload speeds. Today's consumer satellite-based services use compact, parabolic dishes for both upstream and downstream communications with the satellite. Downstream data rates can run as high as 2Mbps, while upstream performance typically tops out at 256Kbps. Most important, this broadband access is available almost anywhere in the continental U.S. or places where agencies have satellite coverage available.

It's precisely this flexibility that has made space-based IP so attractive to government agencies. Brad Greenwald, vice president of sales and marketing for satellite ISP WildBlue Communications Inc. of Greenwood Village, Colo., said his company has focused on residential access, but government and other organizations have inquired about its services.

'We've been approached by a number of different groups who want to tie their branch offices into a network onto the In- ternet,' says Greenwald. 'The main thing is in disaster situations, where you want to be able to deploy a system and have Internet connectivity virtually anywhere, anytime. We're looking at homeland defense [and] are working with third-party resellers who focus on these types of things.'

On the ground, satellite systems provide outstanding flexibility. 'One man can easily carry one of our dishes. It's very small,' Greenwald said.

Even as the Army reaps benefits from deploying dish-based satellite access, the Defense Department is working to put that access on the move. The Transformational Satellite Communications System program is designed to eliminate the need for bulky dishes and enable combat vehicles to have always-on broadband access.

'Vehicles moving at 35-45 miles an hour would have a T1 (1.5 megabits per second) laptop connection with a one-foot antenna,' said Erik Simonsen, spokesperson for Boeing Co.'s Air Force Space Systems division. 'This contrasts with how warfighters communicate today, where vehicles must stop to set up a 4.5-feet-diameter reflector dish to receive and transmit information, and then move on.'

The technology, said Simonsen, will dramatically improve battlefield awareness as troops on the ground gain real-time access to topological maps and are able to freely exchange data, imagery and video.

A lot of work remains ahead. To achieve extremely high bandwidth, the TSAT program plans to employ laser-linked satellites'a departure from the mature signal technology used to date. Currently Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp. are engaged in a $514 million program to study risk reduction and system definition for the TSAT program. A multibillion-dollar contract to develop the advanced satellite-based network will likely be awarded in 2006, with actual deployment expected early next decade.

Outer limits

And while the Defense Department and other government agencies look to satellites for Earth-bound communications, NASA is setting its IP sights on the skies. The agency has already tested a modified Cisco Internet router on an orbiting satellite launched in September 2003. NASA hopes that future satellites and space missions can be crafted using IP communications gear to help hold down costs and shorten lead times.

'Cisco was able to get [hardware] fully qualified and ready to roll and in orbit in four months, which is unheard of,' said Phillip Paulsen, project manager for the Earth Science Technology Office at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. 'I talk to people in the space community and they say 'How did you do that? That's impossible.''

To make IP gear work in space does take some special tuning. For instance, the soldering had to be changed to prevent the whiskering that occurs with tin in a zero-g environment. At certain temperatures, tin can grow tiny whiskers that can flake off, weakening components. And then there is the challenge of hardening systems against radiation.

'We would want to see network devices that are upgradable in orbit, but flash [memory] is not radiation friendly. Shielding can work but it is heavy and bulky,' Paulsen said. 'The low-Earth-orbit environment is benign, but if we took this device where it had to fly in and out of the Van Allen Belt, there would be some challenges.'

Still, Paulsen said the trial exceeded all expectations. 'The surprises were all positive.'

Desktop satellite control

The success of the Cisco Router Low-Earth Orbit (CLEO) experiment paves the way for more flexible mission management, Paulsen said. Spacecraft and satellites that were once controlled from a handful of dedicated signal stations can now be monitored and operated directly from virtually anywhere. In fact, Paulsen said he proved it during a presentation in which his team asked Gen. Lance Lord, Commander of Air Force Space Command, to control a satellite directly from a computer on his desk.

'I think if you look across the spacecraft development programs and mission programs that are out there today, I am not aware of any that aren't looking to leverage commercial technologies'and specifically TCP/IP'to reduce cost and enhance overall lifecycle and price performance,' Paulsen said.

Ultimately, Paulsen added, IP-based imaging applications used by the military today will trickle down to civilians tomorrow. He envisions a day when a farmer can assess the health of his crop based on spectral imagery. 'There will be money to be made,' he says.

Lt. Col. Burke, meanwhile, says the money the Army has poured into its IP satellite communications effort has been worth every penny.

'We like to say that the cost of being connected, while high, is much less than the cost of not being connected.'

Michael Desmond is a technology writer and publishing director at Bock Interactive in Burlington, Vt.

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.