Intelligence analysts and soldiers on the battlefield could have access to near real-time imagery from commercial satellites as soon as 2021 thanks to new industry partnerships.

Amazon Web Services unveiled Nov. 28 a new product named AWS Ground Station, which includes parabolic antennas at 12 locations across the globe. Those ground stations can download imagery data as satellites pass overhead and then push that information to the cloud at faster speeds than traditional ground stations.

Meanwhile, leaders from satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe said in tests they were able to move imagery data from the ground station to the cloud in less than a minute. Using today’s technology, that task takes about an hour.

Combined, the speed of the new ground stations and the expected launch of DigitalGlobe’s constellation of next-generation imagery satellites in 2021 would offer a new level of immediacy to customers.

“When firefighters are attacking a wildfire, they need the most up-to-date information to save lives and homes,” Jeff Carr, director of mission operations engineering support at DigitalGlobe, wrote in a Nov. 27 blog post. “When first responders are tracking down refugees fleeing danger in flimsy rubber boats, they need real-time information about where those rubber boats are located before they sink. The uses for current and accurate space-based data is growing — and the end-users need it quickly.”

DigitalGlobe provides imagery to the National Reconnaissance Office under the Enhanced View contract and to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency with the Global EGD contract. Several companies that already provide imagery and data to the Department of Defense and intelligence community — including BlackSky, Spire and HawkEye 360 — are also using the ground stations.

Traditionally, ground stations download information from satellites on a rigid schedule, meaning users must wait several hours until the next pass when new information is available and can be processed. The company’s new Legion satellites will double the number of times the satellites contact ground stations. In addition, an imagery satellite could revisit the same target as many as 15 times a day. All of that means defense and intelligence agencies could have access to imagery that is a few minutes old, not several hours old.

Turner Brinton, a DigitalGlobe spokesman, declined to comment on the technical aspects of how the company would support the U.S. government.

“Satellite data is incredibly useful for building a wide range of important applications, but it is super complex and expensive to build and operate the infrastructure needed to do so,” Charlie Bell, senior vice president of AWS, said in a press release. “Today, we are giving satellite customers the ability to dynamically scale their ground station antenna use based on actual need. And, they will be able to ingest data straight into AWS, where they can securely store, analyze and transmit products to their customers without needing to worry about building all of the infrastructure themselves.”

In addition, Lockheed Martin and Amazon Web Services announced a new partnership Nov. 27 that would allow customers to download satellite data faster, more often and from multiple satellites at the same time.

That technology is a shoebox-sized antenna and satellite receiver known as Verge. Each antenna would cost about $20,000 and replace larger parabolic antennas, which are often priced at more than $1 million. While Pentagon officials have worried that larger ground stations for military satellite could make easy targets, the relatively small size of Verge could be an attractive feature to defense officials focused on resiliency.

It’s unlikely the Defense Department would rely on the new technology for its satellite downlinks, but Lockheed Martin leaders said they could envision the military would use the ground stations for experimental satellites, particularly those in low-Earth orbit. Or the technology could be used to create a backup ground station for some of the Pentagon’s more sophisticated satellites.

Already, Lockheed Martin has tested a network of 10 S-band antennas in the Denver area that downlinked from a small satellite from the Air Force Research Laboratory, said Rick Ambrose, Lockheed Martin’s executive vice president for space. In addition, the company has also downlinked data from another, unspecified government satellite and sent that data to the agency’s cloud.

Mike Gruss served as the editor-in-chief of Sightline Media Group's stable of news outlets, which includes Army Times, Air Force Times, C4ISRNET, Defense News, Federal Times, Marine Corps, Military Times and Navy Times.

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