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Building an integrated communication network architecture to optimise defence response

Using space technologies to support communications across land, sea and sky

Aude Vignelles

Chief Technology Officer

Australian Space Agency

The importance of communication infrastructure in defence operations

In our modern, connected world, the speed and ease of communication greatly matters. Many of us rely on devices and the internet not just for work, but for our entertainment and leisure, and when there are outages or disruptions, they affect us on a visceral level. The stakes are even higher for deployed forces across the Australian army, navy and air force, where reliable and efficient communication infrastructure can have serious safety and security implications.

In essence, connections and communications need to be stable and constant in order to support defence operations, both locally and in collaboration with allied forces. Aude Vignelles, the Chief Technology Officer of the Australian Space Agency (ASA), says that in most organisations , “you want to be able to communicate anywhere, whether you are across land, sea or sky,” and thus “communication should be agnostic of whether we use a tower, wireless technology, a satellite or a solar cable.” Surprisingly for some, it is the Australian Space Agency that is at the forefront of ensuring that defence communications are stable and consistent across all formats, and working with the Department of Defence to ensure that communications are “accessible and highly resilient.”

The ASA was created in July 2018. Its purpose is to “transform and grow a globally respected Australian space industry that lifts the broader economy, inspires and improves the lives of Australians, and is underpinned by strong national and international engagement.” Improving communications is part of the mantra of improving the lives of citizens, and part of the way of achieving that is by “tripling the size of the Australian space economy, and creating 20,000 additional space jobs by 2030.” Currently the agency is very small, but it has good contacts and leadership, and is poised to achieve its goals.

Practical and achievable space goals

Although space is obviously the focus of the ASA, “we also reflect on the areas where there is a customer need on the ground,” and where this need can be applied to space. In other words, the agency looked at its “competitiveness, research ability, industry position, geographical location and geopolitical relationship with the rest of the world, and came up with 7 civil space priorities,” published as part of an overarching strategy in 2019:

  • Positioning, navigation and timing
  • Earth observation
  • Communications technologies and services
  • Space situational awareness and debris monitoring
  • Leapfrog research and development (R&D)
  • Robotics and automation
  • Access to space

The size of Australia’s landmass and position in the world shows a growing need for the development of some of these areas. For instance, since 1957, “there are more and more satellites orbiting the earth each year.” Some are active but many are not, and there is therefore “something like 9,000 tons of debris orbiting the earth right now. We need to monitor these to ensure there is no risk of collision.”

““There is an insatiable thirst for information, which is an opportunity for the space industry to capitalise on. Australia needs to significantly advance our commercial competitiveness if we are to succeed in growing our space industry. This is a big opportunity to create high skilled jobs.””

This of course can be done from anywhere, but one advantage of being in Australia is that there are “few others monitoring the southern sky and we have quite a lot of start-ups developing some cool technologies to track objects in orbit.” Also in Australia, under the R&D banner, “we have identified space medicine and life sciences as having a big role to play” due to the country’s expertise in radiation cancer therapy R&D and other similar therapies.

One of the biggest areas for development regarding space and defence communications is in robotics and automation. And in this case, the mining industry has a lot in common with the space industry. “It’s very common for operators to be in or near Perth, but to be operating equipment remotely, sometimes up to 2,000 kilometres away.” The ASA is working with the mining industry to further develop some of this technology for greater consumption, both in space and in other formats on the ground. The mining industry often “moves earth, does drilling and digging, and tackles safety and maintenance from a remote location. Much of this can be exported to space and back again.”

Apart from working with the Department of Defence, the ASA regularly publishes reports on some of its work, ensuring that there is always a link to the practical concerns of citizens. For instance, the most recent report, published in February 2021, was the Communication Technologies and Services Roadmap 2021 – 2030.[1] This was created together with a number of “universities and government organisations from multiple jurisdictions,” and sits specifically under the third of the priority areas (above). Each of the 7 priorities has a “technical advisory group, and we meet often to build this roadmap altogether.”

For each of the priority areas, there are 4 phases that lead to the roadmap, along with a series of “cross-cutting technology and services areas.” These go from “assessing the opportunity, to setting targets, devising pathways, and enabling implementation and monitoring progress.” This “strict methodology” allows the agency to assess where Australia is currently at, “where we want to be in 10 years, and how we get there.” There are some common fields amongst all 7 areas of priority, like cyber security and protection in general, as well as manufacturing. The point is to leverage all the areas of commonality to develop government policy in a “holistic manner according to the roadmap.”

Despite there being 7 areas of priority, the one associated with communications has the “greatest opportunity,” especially at a grassroots level. “The satellite communications market in Australia is worth at least A$1.6 billion annually,” based on KPMG estimates, and “there is no reason why Australia couldn’t have a big part of that.”

In every state and territory, Australia currently hosts a lot of ground stations and defence communications infrastructure. These include “a farm of dishes for deep space, communications for NBN, and for private industry.” The vision of the ASA is to move from hosting these to “also providing solutions for increasing demands on radio frequency (RF), by incorporating optical communications and moving towards quantum technologies enabled by our own network management tools.” Previously, geostationary earth orbit (GEO) satellites were the norm. To achieve the vision, Australia needs to move to low earth orbit (LEO) satellite services, “which have a nearly 100% coverage,” as well as “optical ground stations with a lot of bandwidth, and hybrid RF optical, which is the best of both worlds.” Ultimately, for better defence communication, “wherever the demand is and whatever the spectrum allows you to use, we should have the capability from the satellites from space, but also on the ground.”

Australia has a great opportunity to “invest in the space industry and grow the capability of the industry so that we can all have better communications together.” There are many parts to this project and this investment, but “working with Defence and ensuring we have the latest technologies for better communications, is the next big thing and the most exciting part.”

[1] https://www.industry.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-12/communications-services-and-technologies-roadmap.pdf