New technologies and innovations in satellite communications

Since 1966, there have been significant advances in technology, to say the least.  And none of these would have been possible without the extraordinary development of the miniaturisation of microelectronics.  Microelectronics is silicon wafer technology which has resulted in one generation after another of higher power processors, and increasingly smaller memory chips.   During the 1970s and 1980s, our PCs became redundant every six months as new higher power processors with larger memory were introduced.  I started a software house in 1982, and everything we developed had to be redeveloped continuously in order to take advantage of the latest processing power and memory.  From there on, processors were built into every device and designers ran riot with product ideas.


Three decades later, our man-made technology has expanded and penetrated every corner of our lives for good and for bad.   It is certainly partly responsible for aggravating but also for helping to combat climate change.  It has enabled the faster production of new vaccines.  It has changed the way wars are waged.  Fifty-two years ago, man remarkably landed on the moon using what now looks like ancient technology, and today several countries are still reaching for the moon.  We’re able to land and re-use rockets, and life on Mars is becoming a realistic possibility.


What is Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and Digital Twin?


A buzz acronym in today’s basket of new technology is AI (Artificial Intelligence) which is not quite as scary as it sounds.  AI is simply billions of lines of software code written by man, containing every rule and every instruction developed by all the human experts over the years.  When run using today’s supercomputer processors, AI can make decisions, and do super complex jobs incorporating every rule at the same time and can do so much faster than any man could.  However, the Intelligence itself is created by man, not the machine, hence the use of the word “Artificial”. Getting machines to think and be creative, now that could get really scary.


Machine Learning is when a computer learns every characteristic of a healthy, fully functioning machine.  This could be an electric motor for example, or a propellor.  One of the characteristics would be the recording of the vibrations at different speeds. Once the computer has stored every characteristic of a healthy electric motor or propellor this is then called its Digital Twin.  This requires the storage of billions of test results in massive, memory vaults.


Once these three components are put together, the AI software can compare the actual characteristics of the electric motor or the propellor when running and continuously compare it to their Digital Twins and pick up any anomaly, and as such predict and warn of a failure before it happens.


As for innovations in satellite communications, some very interesting new technology has been developed by Elon Musk’s Space X and Starlink teams. Starlink is well ahead in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite deployment race, basically because Elon Musk also owns the space launch company Space X, so he can deploy batches of new satellites when he wants to.  There are now 1,500 Starlink satellites operational of the planned 30,000, and connectivity is now available over major parts of Europe after the initial beta service in the USA and Canada.  These beta testers have used land-based terminals accessing a cheap, ultra-fast, low latency communications service. Unfortunately, a Starlink maritime service will not be available for a few years.


There are some major reasons why it will take some time:


  1. Starlink satellites need to connect to a ground station to connect to the internet and many of these have been installed on land.  However, there are none at sea.  This means the service can only currently be used on or close to land.

  2. In order to work at sea, Starlink satellites will need to relay their signal to another satellite until it reaches one that has a direct link with a ground station. This will be achieved by setting up laser links between satellites, but these laser links are estimated to cost multiples of the actual deployed satellites.

  3. The current Starlink 1 satellites have not been equipped with these laser links and we will have to wait for the full deployment of Starlink 2 satellites in about 5 years.

  4. All communication connections are more expensive at sea and in remotely populated regions due to less demand.  Therefore, the price paid at sea is bound to be much higher than that paid ashore.

  5. The current land-based beta antenna is being offered at US$500 when the actual cost is around US$2,500.  This is a fixed antenna that tracks the orbiting satellites, but it cannot be used on a mobile platform that also pitches, yaws, rolls and is prone to saltwater corrosion.  A maritime mobile terminal will cost a lot more.

  6. All LEO constellations must switch off when they cross the area of the GEO satellites around the equator. This means that the antenna will have to track multiple satellites simultaneously to keep the connection so a very sophisticated maritime antenna will be required, or potentially more than one antenna will be required.

  7. Starlink will only be able to offer LEO service.   A yacht may be better served with a HYBRID service combining LEO, MEO and GEO.

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