It is no secret that both manned and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have played a major role in surveillance and intelligence gathering missions on the battlefield, as well as for helping manage other global challenges that require real-time aerial data for decision making.
As we enter a critical troop draw-down phase in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles will only increase to off-set the lack of on-the-ground intelligence-gathering capabilities. In addition, the U.S. Air Force’s 47-year unmanned aircraft acquisition plan emphasizes that UAVs will continue to be a major priority for the Department of Defense.
Going one step further, one could easily envision a future where the majority of aircraft are unmanned on both the commercial and government sides – think unmanned UPS cargo planes. On the manned side, with the imminent troop withdrawal, we will likely have more aircraft with imagery and intelligence analysts on board gathering and distributing the data in real time.
The challenge with the proliferation of aerial vehicles is managing the satellite bandwidth needed for sharing the vast amounts of data generated by aerial missions. In addition, the gathering and sharing of this massive influx of data requires the latest modem technologies on both the air frame and on the ground, software upgrades on unmanned vehicles such as the Predator and Reaper to take advantage of less expensive but very capable inclined orbit capacity and highly flexible distributed support services on the ground. Unfortunately, it appears that current budget cuts will minimize the government’s future investment in certain modifications to support high-data-rate communications and other commercial satellite and software services.
We at Intelsat General saw first-hand how the swift unrest that occurred in North Africa this year required quick, on-the-spot access to bandwidth for aerial intelligence gathering in order to mount an effective response. When unrest or unplanned natural disasters occur, we need to be able to turn on a dime, leverage our current aerial vehicles and, more importantly, be able to handle any data bandwidth challenges that arise.
If the Department of Defense is making an investment in building manned and unmanned UAVs, it is critical that the agency also make a similar investment in the bandwidth, the technology and the services for handling the data. Optimal management of bandwidth across ComSatCom, to include budgeting, and MilSatCom makes aerial vehicles more effective and able to achieve the purpose of aerial surveillance: keep the warfighter safe and help save lives in natural disasters.