UAVs vs Satellites

By John Liang / August 3, 2010 at 7:52 PM

Traditional satellite manufacturers should be quaking in their boots every time someone says a certain three letters: UAV. That's among the assertions made in a recent study conducted by independent research organization Market Intel Group LLC, which states that future UAVs "pose a commercial threat as well as a significant opportunity to existing and planned satellite networks." Specifically:

Truly persistent UAVs, first lighter-than-air then more traditional fixed-wing aircraft, will soon behave like satellites. At least five efforts are currently underway in the United States to prototype stratospheric airships as a means to fly UAVs over one point for between a month and five years. DARPA, the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, finished initial work on such airships nearly three years ago and should reach the same point for aircraft by 2013.

Such persistent UAVs may end up taking away from satellites "traditional" and evolving functions as well as customers. They may also provide a robust opportunity for satellite vendors to "join-in on the action" in this market, by taking, for example, a healthy slice of the Command and Control sector.

The next technology forecast in Market Intel Group's (MiG) UAV series: UAVs for Commercial Applications – will detail traditional space capabilities that will probably migrate, to some extent, to persistent UAVs. Satellite vendors' response to this evolving threat is mixed: For example, Boeing's leadership is "bullish" on persistent UAVs and their space experts have partnered with their unmanned aircraft team. That company recently announced that its military aviation divisions would concentrate on unmanned aircraft for the foreseeable future.

On the other end, a number of satellite service providers have no idea that UAVs could be more than the flying camera and Hellfire platforms of current military operations.

Typical Stratospheric UAV Coverage Area (Radar, Laser & Optical)

Why is this important? UAVs that hold position at perhaps 65,000' over one point, indefinitely, function more like geostationary satellites than like aircraft. Such systems are sometimes called "pseudolites" by the GPS community, for example, because they will deliver 'satellite' capabilities from other platforms. But the UAV capabilities will be delivered at perhaps one-tenth of similar space capability costs, while also reaching unmodified transceivers like cell phones.

MiG's available UAV forecasts include studies on Border Security and Counter-Insurgency. Both of those fields will also be revolutionized by true persistence. For example, insurgents require anonymity to survive. The fight is essentially over when they are identified. Most of those prototype stratospheric airships are intended to strip that anonymity and so end the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today's satellite technologies will never deliver similar capabilities.