Satellite Communications

Army’s inflatable antennas make light work of satcom in the field

Army GATR inflatable satellite antenna

Much of what the military does now requires highly secure and reliable networks. Soldiers in the field need to have clear lines of communication with remote operating bases while also maintaining a strong enough connection to relay data back and forth. It also helps if the equipment they take into the field doesn’t weigh a ton, which is one advantage of the Army’s inflatable antennas, which also increase network connectivity allowing for higher bandwidth. 

These ground satellite antennas, called Ground Antenna Transmit & Receive, or GATR, are available in small deployable packages and will be essential for contingency and support operations, as they are easily deployable and are able to function in austere environments, the Army said. The GATR system is also lighter and more easily transportable than traditional hard-shell antennas. In fact, at 25 pounds, it weighs up to 80 percent less than conventional satellite dishes while fitting in just two transit cases that resemble checked baggage on commercial flights. The entire system can be set-up in less than 30 minutes.         

The GATR connects to the Army’s tactical communication Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, and provides personnel with a secure connection protecting sensitive data. Secure IP router and non-secure IP router access does not conflict with previous protocols or systems, as the GATR antenna uses preexisting modems, baseband, encryption and networks for leveraging existing platforms, the Army said.     

The Army awarded a $440 million contract in January 2014 to GATR Technologies for development,  aiming for “Wideband Global Satellites (WGS) certified inflatable satellites and related support, services, and hardware to the Army, Marine Corps, and other commands and services.” 

The Army has piggybacked on the Marine Corps’ desire to procure GATR platforms. The Marine Corps has awarded contracts in the past for military Ka- and X- band use, which both allow for higher and extended bandwidth capacities.    

Equipped with a back-up battery, the GATR antenna can function for up to six hours after conventional power is lost. Additional features include a dynamic inflation mechanism for easy and automatic inflation along with inflation level controls. 

The unconventional spherical design mitigates wind damage and anchoring systems make the GATR antenna capable of withstanding 40 to 60 mph wind speeds. Even under these stresses, the GATR antenna can support networks typically limited to larger antennas that require a vehicle trailer for transport.    

The Army has, however, expressed interest in developing a more mobile antenna that typically requires a vehicle trailer. The larger antenna, roughly four meters in size, would require three cases and could potentially transport communications gear in High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, light tactical vehicles or small helicopters, as opposed to cargo pallet or vehicle-sized transport containers.  This capability will increase the expeditionary nature of the military. 

"Gaining access to the full complement of net-centric warfare applications earlier in operations is critical to establishing and maintaining effective command and control," Jim Sawall, assistant product manager for the Commercial Satellite Terminal Program, said in a statement. "The inflatable antenna technology provides commanders with battalion-strength communications and data links earlier and with significantly reduced logistics burden—and in situations where previously only company-level communications would have been possible."

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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