How a Multi-Orbit Satcom Solution Gives Ground Stations the Best of Both Worlds

Apr 22, 2024

Scott Leach, Product Line Manager, Adjacent Products - Kinematics

This article was contributed by Scott Leach who works as Product Line Manager at Kinematics

Satellite communications have traditionally been segmented with ground station infrastructure for low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites on the one side and positioners for medium-earth orbit (MEO) and geostationary orbit (GEO) satellites on the other. LEO satellites orbit up to 1,200 miles above Earth's surface. MEO satellites range in altitude from 1,200 to 22,000 miles. GEO satellites hold steady at about 22,236 miles high. For ground station operators, the contrast between different types of infrastructure adds cost and complexity to the business. Operators can have fast-moving LEO positioners or lower-cost MEO and GEO positioners. Until recently, they could not have the best of both worlds.

The advent of commercially developed ground station positioners—combining an X-Y drive, custom-engineered motors, and encoders optimized for 2.4-meter class ground stations—fill a significant need in the market. These positioners deliver the unique capability to perform LEO, MEO, and GEO tracking. They also support multiple dish sizes and axis positions, including larger and smaller units, built with aerospace-grade reliability on a common technology platform. Ground station operators get engineering and manufacturing expertise in a ready-to-integrate solution that can be deployed at scale.

The arrival of a commercial, multi-orbit solution coincides with rapid changes in the satcom market, challenging the industry to reexamine traditional services and stay prepared for a dynamic future. As various providers expand LEO networks to offer lower latency services and MEO and GEO networks continue to serve reliably high throughput, ground station operators can no longer favor one satellite technology over another. Nor can they expand deployment with separate infrastructure for each technology type. The costs and risks would be prohibitive, and the opportunity cost would be substantial.

Using a lower-cost, complete solution for Satcom tracking, operators can develop communications with groups of satellites that work together as constellations, bringing LEO, MEO, and GEO assets together into one powerful capability. A cost-effective deployment strategy enables low-latency communications for reliable, high-speed service from LEO satellites and high-bandwidth data transfer from GEO satellites. With a multi-orbit solution, providers can serve today’s market with LEO satellites while preparing for any number of changes that the future might bring.

A solution for today’s market

Historically, Satcom positioners have specialized in addressing one of two distinct use cases. They would either track LEO orbits that require fast retracing as the next high-speed satellite goes by, or they would perform slow and precise pointing for GEO satellites. The level of precision required for GEO satellites is technically challenging because at a great distance and with a narrow beamwidth, the smallest changes in positioning can result in signal loss. Positioners used for LEO applications face an entirely different set of challenges as they reorient antennas to track satellites traveling closer to the Earth’s surface and at speeds that may top 17,000 miles per hour.

In today’s market, ground station operators want interoperable equipment that can transmit data with a variety of technologies, including LEO and GEO satellites. Operators also want modular and flexible equipment that can adapt and scale amid dynamic change. A multi-orbit solution must resolve greater technical challenges than the specialized products of yesterday. It needs to align with a variety of operational requirements, balancing high-altitude, low-speed tracking with high-speed, low-altitude tracking.

As Kinematics set out to develop a single unit that can track LEO and GEO orbits, we also resolved to create a pre-engineered solution that improves reliability and drives down the total cost of ownership. Our hundreds of engineering hours dedicated to system integration and validation means you get a fully assembled package including motors, encoders, servo controls, bracketry, and documentation. Positioners come through the same reliable manufacturing and testing processes that have delivered more than 2 million tracking system drives to the solar photovoltaic industry. Compared to existing satcom technology, commercially developed positioners for multi-orbit applications can drive down the total cost of ownership for positioners significantly.

Engineered for optimal performance

Traditional aerospace development often drives teams to perform all development in-house through a collection of component suppliers requiring significant system design and integration effort. We found that ground station developers were carrying extra risk and diverting resources away from core competencies to design and procure components for antenna positioning systems. You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars integrating equipment only to find that some products do not perform to spec. This is why custom engineering can be a time-consuming and resource-intensive process involving lots of modeling, testing, and validation.

Kinematics has custom-designed a dual-drive system, removing mechanical backlash that can lead to inaccuracies in tracking and positioning. Ground station operators need positioners with no backlash to increase precision, achieve faster response times, and improve stability while repositioning antennas of various sizes. The larger the antenna, the more precise your points and therefore your tracking needs to be.

Kinematics KX-3™ Positioner with 1-meter optimizationOffering multiple dish sizes and axis positions, these positioners provide a robust platform for you to optimize infrastructure according to the specific needs of each project. Looking at each stage in the Satcom positioner lifecycle, from installation to operations and maintenance, designers need to consider and reduce the total cost of ownership.

New infrastructure for a new market dynamic

Technology innovation and relentless demand for communications services have reshaped the satcom market in recent years and promise to hasten further changes. LEO satellites enabled advances in mobile communications. Now we are entering a new phase of interconnected constellation services that leverage networks of mixed satellite technologies.
As service providers start looking at LEO and GEO assets together, part of one service using LEO for low-latency networking and GEO for high bandwidth, satcom companies need a cost-effective way to track and point to both groups of satellites. Downstream, telecom companies are preparing to integrate satcom with 5G networks to extend coverage, enhance resilience, and extend service to remote areas. The Satcom market has changed. So must the solutions that serve ground station operators.

Kinematics KX-6™ Positioner with 2.4-meter optimizationFuture-proof infrastructure

Many satcom applications are distinctly associated with LEO satellites or GEO satellites. Even if your entire fleet is currently pointing at LEO satellites, you can effectively future-proof new infrastructure by integrating affordable step-up capability to track and connect with GEO satellites. The assets become “multi-orbit ready” with the flexibility to serve dynamic customer needs. Satellite positioners no longer serve only some customers’ needs. They can make good on the best of both worlds.

About the Author

Scott Leach is a seasoned professional with a background in delivering complex products to customers globally, gained during his tenure in the satellite communications industry. He joined Kinematics in 2021. At Kinematics, Scott plays a pivotal role in catering to customers' unique requirements by collaborating with various stakeholders such as sales, customers, manufacturing teams, and vendors. He specializes in designing solutions that effectively address clients' needs by identifying and implementing a blend of standard and adjacent products. Scott's academic background includes a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and an Executive MBA from Kennesaw State University. With his expertise and commitment to providing tailored solutions, Scott is an invaluable asset to Kinematics and its customers.

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