Radio sensor nanosatellites opening new opportunities

Being able to observe and monitor radio frequencies (RF) from space provides insights into spectrum usage and availability for wireless companies, civilian and military activities, and data to refine weather modeling.  Nanosateliltes are an affordable and key tool to boost RF monitoring and obtain better climate data.

At least three startups are working to put CubeSats into orbit for RF monitoring.  Kleos Space of Luxembourg is setting up an $11 million (AU) initial public offering (IPO) on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) to raise capital. The company plans a constellation of twenty satellites, with the first pathfinder to be launched in mid-2019.

Being built by GomSpace, the Kleos satellites will gather geo-located radio transmission data from low Earth Orbit (LEO), sweeping up signals from satellite phones, mobile phones, and maritime VHF traffic, enabling the company to passively locate an emitter (radio) within 100 meters.   With a single satellite, updates will be available every 10 to 24 hours, depending on how powerful the radio is.  Putting 10 satellites in orbit would provide refresh rates from half an hour to 2.5 hours, according to the Kleos website.

Kleos will overlay its RF data with maps and satellite imagery to provide “Activity Based Intelligence (ABI),” providing patterns of life.  The information can be used to support search and rescue and spot smugglers, pirates, and illegal fishing activity independent of maritime AIS beacons.  Kleos plans to market its information as a subscription service to government agencies, businesses, and end-users.

HawkEye 360, based in Herndon, Virginia, plans a three nanosatellite constellation precursor mission to be launched this summer on a SpaceX Falcon 9 “rideshare” mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base.  The trio of satellites flying in formation will be able to more accurately triangulate radio signals than a lone satellite.  Ultimately, the company plans to operate a constellation of 30 satellites, providing global data coverage with 30 to 45 minute updates.

Like Kleos, HawkEye 360 will combine RF data with commercial satellite imagery, but the company has a far larger set of applications than maritime activity monitoring and search and rescue in mind.   HawkEye plans to dynamically map radio frequency spectrum use, providing regulatory agencies real-time data on utilization. This will enable regulators the ability to assess the usage of licensed spectrum and potentially lead to release of more spectrum for commercial applications.

Such mapping also enables communication interference detection, enabling both users and regulators to protect legitimate spectrum use and spot inadvertent and intentional interference.  The satellite industry in particular has wrestled with interference issues for decades. Being able to pinpoint issues and sources would be most welcome by wireless operators around the globe.

Little is known about France-based UnseenLabs.  The company describes a 6U, 6 kilogram nanosatelite capable of maritime surveillance, with the ability to localize a signal within 5 kilometers. BRO-1 is being built by GomSpace and expected to be launched by the end of 2018.

RF sensing from orbit has the potential to be a valuable tool for wireless companies, enabling them to rapidly assess spectrum usage across a geographic area without specialized equipment or truck rolls. As noted above, it may also enable regulators to release more spectrum for new applications and quickly trackdown interference issues when they arise.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *