Even as U.S. and coalition forces withdraw from Middle East hot spots, satellite service provider Inmarsat doesn’t necessarily expect a dip in demand for satellite data relay from military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
On the contrary, UAV data services are likely to grow even as troop numbers fall, according to Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pearce, who sees ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) data from unmanned aircraft as a significant driver of demand for the company’s upcoming Global Xpress Ka-band satellite service.
“Ironically, the drawdowns don’t mean people go away,” Pearce tells Aviation Week. “To some extent, the boots on the ground are replaced by eyes in the sky. The U.S. and the coalition forces are not about to withdraw from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, which is actually at the heart of their ability to engage in net-centric warfare and asymmetric warfare.”
The $1.3 billion Global Xpress constellation, set to be deployed next year, is aimed at delivering Ka-band satellite services to government and commercial users around the world.
The first of three702-based Global Xpress satellites should be delivered in mid-2013, with launch expected about a month later. The second satellite would likely follow in six months, with a shorter interim before delivery of the third. Inmarsat expects the system to be “fully global” before the end of 2014, and to deliver $500 million in wholesale revenue within five years of that.
“Broadband has always been the choice for command and control, but for those extraordinary bandwidth requirements coming off these medium- and high- and heavy UAS platforms, Global Xpress is global, built for mobility, and with military Ka- capability, entirely fungible with proprietary programs,” Pearce says. “So suddenly you can support missions in 3-D, HD, full-motion video, which is the holy grail of airborne ISR.”
Inmarsat has its sights set beyond government customers. The company currently counts 15% of its revenue from commercial aviation-related satellite services, and expects that percentage to roughly double with the launch of Global Xpress, as it seeks to gain a firm foothold in the airliner broadband market. But government users are still expected to make up the largest single segment of the Global Xpress customer base.
“If you’ve got an active theater of conflict, that dramatically expands the need people have for commercial satcom, which is already 90% of the overall expenditure on satcoms by the U.S. government,” Pearce adds.
Despite the optimism, Inmarsat’s government business is currently declining as forces pull out of Afghanistan and governments around the world tighten their fiscal belts. Nonetheless, Pearce still sees significant potential in government demand for mobile satellite services, provided the company can maintain an “agile” relationship in which it adapts quickly to its users needs and constraints. “If we get that right, I think the opportunity to grow our government business is profound over the next five or six years,” Pearce says.