5 October 2013
Satellites Drive Drones
By Dave Webb
Global Network


This year the Global Network is focussing once again on drones (or unarmed aerial vehicles). Armed drones, operated thousands of kilometres from where they are flying, are the cause of growing concern. The use of killer drones in Afghanistan and Libya and covert actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and the challenges they present to human rights, and future tactics of war fighting are being widely criticised. The images and video feeds transmitted from these drones are fed through satellites, and satellites are also used to transmit directions to them from their remote pilots, along with commands to fire their Hellfire missiles or drop their bombs, which often result in the deaths of innocent civilians. All this may be generally understood now but what may not be quite so well known is how the increasing use of drones is causing major headaches for satellite communications systems.

The operation of drones through satellites via the two-way data exchange needed for piloting the vehicle, and targeting and firing its weapons, requires an enormous amount of digital communications transfer. The amount of data that a digital communications system handles in a fixed amount of time is called the bandwidth and is usually expressed in bits per second (bps). The bandwidth needed to operate large drones is extremely large. For example, one Global Hawk drone requires about 500 Megabits per second (Mbps) of bandwidth – which is five times the entire bandwidth required by all of the US military during the 1991 Gulf War. The problem therefore arises of how to support the extended use of drones. During the war in Afghanistan the Pentagon could only deploy one-half of its available drones at any one time because there was not enough satellite bandwidth available to allow them all to fly.

According to a January Congressional report, between 2005 and 2010 the proportion of US military air-borne robots increased from 5 to 31% and the military increased its bandwidth use by 1,100%. The amount of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle information being requested has overwhelmed the military’s in-house communications systems and they have had to turn to the private sector to supply the bandwidth. The military purchased as much as 90% percent of the drone bandwidth used in Iraq and Afghanistan from commercial satellite companies and they are expecting to pay commercial providers over $500 million per year for their services over the next ten years.

This presents a problem as, for armed drones, the satellites are used by the military but may be controlled by a civilian or military group and a third group may be responsible for running the downlink operations and the equipment that receives and distributes the data. The last two are often civilian groups who act as conduits for the images and data transmitted from military satellites. We were made aware of this situation when we visited the rocket launch and testing facility at Esrange in Sweden during our 2013 conference in Kiruna. Esrange is used to launch upper atmosphere probes but it also acts as a downlink facility for satellite data that is often for military use. US defense officials insist on commercial providers being held to strict security standards and information assurance is one of the main criteria used to pick private providers – which is why the Esrange personnel were unwilling to tell us who they handle the data for.

As the military use of drones expands and drones become more complex, the bandwidth problems are likely to increase but there is also a growing gap between the information supplied by the drone and the operators’ ability to deal with it. The military want to give drones increasing autonomy in picking and engaging targets but, as if this was not scary enough, a 2010 USAF report has proposed using drugs or implants to help human operators improve their performance as an alternative!

There are so many reasons why the use of armed drones must be stopped and moves towards autonomous robotic systems and/or the ‘enhancing’ of operators are horrific examples of the lengths to which military thinking will go.

Global Network