Software Defined Satellites

The concept of Software Defined Networks (SDN) burst onto the network equipment market almost a decade ago. It was created in response to the need for greater flexibility across communication networks as applications and storage moved to the cloud and voice moved to IP. Suddenly the older, static structures requiring the physical reconfiguration of switches and servers was too rigid to cope with the required speed of change across corporate networks. SDN moved rapidly to become the de-facto standard allowing a step change in remote flexibility and configurability.

This same level of convenience and flexibility makes even more sense when the equipment is located 36,000 kms above the Earth. Historically satellites have been launched with a pre-defined set of operations which would be fixed for the device’s 15-20 year lifespan. Given the current speed of change of technology and related services on Earth, this is an obvious problem. Thus the idea of reprogrammable equipment has long been discussed, but only recently realised. It’s a complex business. In addition to creating more flexible hardware to put into orbit, the communication equipment on the ground must also be able to cope with multiple mission inputs from different locations and maintain dynamic control of the whole process.

As this idea is finally reaching reality it is spawning a raft of new business models including Satellites-as-a-Service. This aims to replicate the simplicity and scale advantages of the terrestrial SaaS platform providers, allowing companies to provide the services, and access the data they want, without the risk and complexity of launching and operating their own satellites. Alternatively, Amazon and other players have begun to offer ‘Ground Segment-as-a-Service’ to players who prefer to own their own satellites but without the cost of building the ground based capacity to operate and monitor them.

One of the early leaders in software defined satellites (SDS) is the French company, Eutelsat, which launched its first ‘Quantum’ satellite earlier this year. On the surface this appeared to be a largely French success story with the satellite itself designed and built by Airbus and launched from French Guiana by Arianespace. However, a small amount of digging reveals that the satellite was designed and built by Airbus subsidiary, Surrey Satellite Technologies Ltd, near Guildford. The company is a hugely innovative satellite product and service provider, and another example of the depth of expertise in the UK space sector.