Horizon Technologies Takes Signals Intelligence Into Space

It can be difficult for a small company to manage to attract sufficient attention to win business. Horizon Technologies has managed the challenge, which is formidable even for companies with an in-demand and innovative product range. 

Horizon, a specialist in what are often considered the dark arts of signals intelligence (SIGINT), has been able to access practical help and funding via the UK government’s Department for Trade and Industry. The firm’s flagship product is an airborne sensor system called FlyingFish, but it is also in the process of developing and fielding a satellite-based capability, called Amber. The extensive nature of the assistance came as something of a surprise to the firm’s founder and its chief technology officer, who are both American.  

"It's a UK company," says CTO Gary Goodrum. "John [Beckner, founder and CEO] lives in Germany, I happen to live in LA. Yet the help we get [from the UK government] has just blown our minds. If we were this size of company in America, we’d get no help." 

That help has taken many forms. Horizon is under contract for an IOD (in-orbit demonstration, funded by the Satellite Applications Catapult) of their Amber system – essentially a sensor on a cubesat that will detect radars, shipborne AIS (automatic identification system) signals and satellite-phone emissions in a 3,500-sq.-km area. Funding for this includes a grant from Innovate UK, the UK government’s innovation agency. The first customer for the service will be the UK’s National Maritime Information Center, but interest is building globally – Horizon have run user workshops with potential customers in Italy and, last November, in Singapore. That effort was supported by the UK government. 

The breadth of potential customers and applications will likely prove vital to Horizon as the company continues to grow its business. The stereotype of a SIGINT capability suggests a use case involving clandestine information-gathering and electronic eavesdropping – but one of Horizon’s current customers is a long way from being a secret intelligence agency, and it is using the company’s FlyingFish product to help save the lives of some of the planet’s most vulnerable people. 

"FlyingFish is used a lot in the Mediterranean," Goodrum says. "It's used to help find refugees. These guys in Libya," he continues, referring to people-traffickers, "will pack a hundred people onto a rickety boat and give them a Thuraya [UAE-based satphone manufacturer] phone and the number for the Italian coast guard. So they get about 20 miles out and then call up: 'Help us, help us, we're drowning,' but they don’t know where they are. So the Italians use FlyingFish now to define the area where they are, and then send the coast guard to go rescue them." 

FlyingFish is around the size of a desktop computer, and is typically installed on surface vessels and larger fixed-wing platforms. The company has also developed a variant of the capability – Xtender – that is small enough to be deployed on lighter aircraft and UAVs. The reduction in size, weight and power consumption is facilitated by limiting the onboard work to data-gathering and downlinking, with the processing taking place on the ground. The system will be demonstrated live during the air show.  

"Just in the last few months we’ve got Xtender to where we’re ready to put it into production, and get the software all done and tested," Goodrum says. "At Singapore we’ll have a small unit we can take outside and put on a tripod, so it sees the satellites, and we can test the system. We’re going to leave the FlyingFish unit back in Reading, and the data will go through the internet, into the box, and then back to a laptop or iPad that we’ll have on our booth. It’s all done in real time."