U.S. Air Force planners expect commercial communications satellites to have an ever-larger role in operating remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) as war-on-terror funding dwindles and the U.S. military focus shifts to other theaters, including Africa, Latin America and the U.S. border regions.

At the same time, better sensors and more demand for the data they provide to troops on the ground will increase bandwidth needed to keep the RPAs performing effectively, according to experts who discussed the topic at the Satellite 2012 conference in Washington last week.

“The overseas contingency operations funding—it used to be called the 'global war on terrorism funding'—[is] starting to dry up,” says Col. Michael L. Lakos, chief of the Milsatcom Div. at Air Force Space Command. “We need to figure out another way to fund the insatiable appetite our commanders in the field have with RPAs and UAVs, full streaming video, full motion video, et cetera.”

Lakos' service is working on a global communications architecture for RPAs, drawing on expertise in the Space and Missile Systems Center, combat command, special operations command and elsewhere to generate requirements. “We have to leverage you folks in industry to help us solve the problem, trying to do it better, but cheaper at the same time.” Lakos says.

Among the themes industry is pushing are open standards for greater interoperability among space, air and ground systems, and multiple frequency bands on future satellites for more operational flexibility to accommodate different geographic theaters. A continuing and overriding theme is the need for greater bandwidth.

“With sensors that are becoming able to collect more and more information, therefore driving greater bandwidth requirements, as well as more specialization—either systems that are becoming more mission-specific or greater specific capabilities on airborne assets—I see in the mid- to long-term the need for bandwidth increasing,” says Andrew Ruszkowski of XTAR, an operator of satellite-based X-band links. “The commercial satellite industry's ability to support that bandwidth is very much in question.”

One “strong recommendation” from Ruszkowski is a government push beyond Ku-band links for RPAs to “multiple bands” on satellites. Hybrid spacecraft that include Ka-, X- and C-band as well as Ku- would enhance the military's ability to move into new environments as the focus on the Middle East and Central Asia fades.

“We are seeing more interest, or a lot of growth potential, in parts of Latin America, Africa, elsewhere, where the environment is very different,” says Ruszkowski. “That calls for a new approach. I think you'll see the demand for other frequencies go up.”

Mark Dale, vice president of product management at Comtech EF Data, a satellite modem vendor, sees a broad trend to open-standard architectures across the industry, with the Digital Video Broadcasting—Satellite—Second-Generation (DVB-S2) a good fit to deliver the streaming-video updates ground commanders want.

“It is used extensively in the broadcast industry,” he says.

Ultimately, the architecture should support a “data-centric” approach to satellite communications, rather than the current stovepiped “network-centric” approach, according to Sonny Marshall, president/CEO of Marshall Communications, which supports military ground terminals in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Marshall sees “data-centric” as the next big thing. “You can keep on adding, adding, adding to these networks, and it gets enormous, but if it's data-centric you can route it anywhere, send it anywhere to whoever needs it.”