Ball-Microsoft tactical vehicle demo (Source: Microsoft)

Ball Aerospace and Microsoft validate satellite-linked cloud computing for DoD use

Space and defense contractor Ball Aerospace and Microsoft announced the two have completed a set of demonstrations showing the utility and practicality of using cloud computing with satellite connectivity to process and deliver information for the U.S. military.

The demonstrations were organized by the Defense Innovation Unit’s (DIU) commercial solutions process in support of the United States Space Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s (SMC) Commercially Augmented Space Inter-Networked Operations (CASINO) Program Office. CASINO is SMC’s “focal point” for making wider use of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) technology, such as the swarms of commercial imaging satellites and broadband constellations being built by numerous companies.

“Our tests showed that the cloud is, in fact, a viable solution for data processing, exploitation and dissemination of data that is not only fast, but also flexible, secure, scalable and resilient,” said Steve Smith, vice president and general manager, Systems Engineering Solutions, Ball Aerospace. “For years, the military has envisioned an agile and connected force structure. During the demonstration, the CASINO team proved that we are ready to field low-latency links today, which moves this vision much closer to reality.”

In the demonstrations, simulated data from infrared imaging satellites was fed to Microsoft Azure cloud resources where it was processed using Ball-developed “event driven” software and processes, then delivered to “multiple end points,” according to the press release.  A final demonstration used a Telesat LEO Lightspeed pathfinder satellite to conduct a direct downlink of data from the Ball/Azure process to a Ball-built Ka-band phased array antenna on a tactical vehicle to prove information could be delivered directly to the field.

“Direct satellite-to-cloud communication and accelerated ground data processing allows the Department of Defense to gain advanced analytics capabilities enabling predictive modelling and new actionable insights capable of reshaping the future as they advance their mission,” said Tom Keane, corporate vice president, Azure Global, Microsoft. “By combining satellite data with other sources directly in Azure, the Microsoft-Ball Aerospace team has demonstrated an innovative approach for ground processing which also opens the possibilities for a huge range of commercial applications.”

A Microsoft Azure blog goes into deeper detail on the software and cloud processes involved, as well as the efficiencies gained in linking everything together. Telesat satellites were used to transmit the simulated infrared satellite data to the Azure data center and directly to the field vehicle equipped with an Azure Stack Edge device.  Machine learning (ML) algorithms processed the images and detected “certain activity or features” with the ML ID then sending out messages sent out to multiple endpoints.

Microsoft said the demonstrations showed data captured, processed, and re-deployed on average five times faster than the customer’s (DoD’s) established target speeds.  The software architecture is a scalable model enabling multiple processing chains, with the ability to replace or add other algorithms without major production changes to the overall system. In addition, customers could use Microsoft’s global fiber network and its data centers to move data securely and quickly.

The news comes as Microsoft continues to hold the $10 billion Defense Department JEDI cloud contract despite repeated protests by Amazon, but the individual services are starting to make cloud contract awards on their own to multiple vendors, using smaller amounts of money.  

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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