4 mins read 26 Aug 2021

Airbus Assembling Australian SATCOM Team to boost sovereign capability

Space has become the data superhighway, and Airbus is assembling a partnership of Australian companies who are developing the technologies and infrastructure to give us our own high-speed, space-based data communication system.

Team Maeir was formed last year to work on JP9102. Sydney-based company UGL is the latest addition to the team. Credit: Airbus

As the world’s insatiable demand for data grows, there is an increasing reliance on space-based communications technologies to get the data expeditiously to where it is needed. Australia is right now in the process of developing its own sovereign satellite communications (SATCOM) capabilities, and Sydney-based engineering company UGL has become the latest partner in the program.

Team Maier was formed by Airbus last year to provide a complete Defence Satellite Communications System as the solution to a government project called Joint Project (JP) 9102. Up to $3-billion has been set aside to be spent on enhancing SATCOM through to 2029 and creating the Australian Defence SATCOM System (ADSS).

To understand the need for the system we only need to look as far back as the bushfire crisis in eastern Australia in 2020. For communications, the Australian Defence Force – who played a critical role in medical and disaster relief – relied on the US military’s Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) network. The WGS consists of a constellation of 10 satellites in geostationary orbit and provides high-speed broadband for the US and allies.

But it belongs to the US. That means that Australia must request, and be granted access to, this vital resource. During the bushfires access was facilitated in under 24 hours, but what if the US had been faced with its own crisis, requiring full access to the bandwidth for itself?

Australia does have its own legacy satellite-independent high frequency (HF) network, and also has the aging Optus C-1 satellite that should remain operational until 2027. But a modern satellite constellation would provide more resilient and responsive communications beyond the range and capacity of existing solutions.

Airbus representatives welcome UGL to Team Maier. This photo was recently taken in Canberra. Credit: Airbus

Airbus is collaborating with Australian stakeholders across space, technology, and academia as it engages with partners for the JP9102 industry team. UGL will be involved in all aspects of the design and construction of the ground infrastructure supporting the project and brings with it two decades of experience working with the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

They also have a partnership with Barpa, a proud and dynamic Indigenous-owned commercial construction company whose expertise will be invaluable in supporting UGL and hence the JP9102 program. But Barpa is not the only connection in the program to Indigenous Australia.

Permission to use the name ‘Team Maier’ came from the Meriam people of the Eastern Islands of the Torres Strait. According to tradition, the word Maier refers to bright meteors that inform observers about the passing of a person in the community and lets the spirits of the dead communicate with those still alive.

With one eye on the future, the JP9102 program needs to develop a resilient architecture that can be upgraded as the operational environment evolves. This is all about ensuring that Australia has complete control of, and assured access to, communications capabilities that extend beyond visual line of sight. In other words, we are aiming to be entirely self-reliant.

In 1982 the United Kingdom sought the use of American signals satellites to monitor communications during the Falklands conflict. On that occasion, they were not granted adequate tasking time. This is precisely the type of scenario that Australia is keen to avoid.

The UK is now on to the fifth generation of Skynet military communications satellites, with the first Skynet 6 satellites scheduled to launch in 2025. The satellites are operated by Airbus who have proposed that Australia use the same technology for its narrowband communications solution.

In today’s world, it is more important than ever for nations to have control over their own data and communications, and space is lowering the barriers to achieving this.