Small satellites offer big promise
Until recently, it seemed inevitable that strategic technology advances for military communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance would require large-scale development programs. And it seemed, just as inevitably, that even the best managed of those programs suffered from intractable delays and cost overruns.
That has begun to change for a variety of reasons. A major catalyst is the military's recognition that its lumbering acquisition and certification processes were producing technology products that took too long to get to the field and often were almost obsolete by the time of deployment.
Efforts to speed those processes — through greater collaboration, information sharing and more flexible service-level contracts — are taking root. So has the notion that standardized commercial products can be harnessed faster and more cheaply than costly custom-built products.
But part of the change also stems from the recognition that small-scale projects can deliver big, or at least more practical, results sooner than many of the mega-projects that the Defense Department has commissioned in the past.
An intriguing example of when smaller can be better is emerging in the space industry. An effort to build a new generation of small satellites for a variety of military and communications uses is building momentum.
By their nature, satellite programs have been risky, resource-intensive initiatives, often requiring new and unproven technologies. As a result, they typically took a decade or more to develop and needed to promise big payoffs to win funding and support.
But plug-and-play products, which the military is pursuing for the ground, sea and air, are finding a place in satellites and spacecraft.
Launch costs remain a huge hurdle. What’s changing is the ability to get much more out of smaller payloads, which is bringing a new vitality to the space industry. Advances in self-describing hardware and software modules, which work much like the way a computer recognizes a new printer on a network, are freeing engineers to build wireless systems that can cut harness weight by as much 50 percent — and reduce integration and testing time dramatically. More important, the software in satellite systems can be upgraded over time, expanding their capabilities and extending their service life.
Moreover, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working on a project, System F6, to develop the means to extend wireless beyond the spacecraft. It promises a new era of satellites that can split and share the work of computing, storing data, and providing downlink and relative navigation services.
These and other developments mean the military could eventually launch modules of capabilities rather than entire new constellations of satellites.
As defense budgets and wayward mega-programs come under increasing scrutiny, an era of smaller and faster projects holds a lot of promise.
Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of Defense Systems from January 2009 to August 2010. He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.