AWS rolls out satellite comms service

November 29th, 2018 | by Amit Roy Choudhury

As a part of its public sector outreach, Amazon Web Services (AWS) has launched a new offering called AWS Ground Station.

Announcing the initiative at the company’s re:Invent 2018 conference in Las Vegas this week, Teresa Carlson, AWS’ vice-president of worldwide public sector, said the “as-a-service” product will make it easier and cheaper for organisations to download data from satellites.

They can also use the AWS global infrastructure to provide faster services like disaster relief and weather warnings, he added.

Satellite imagery is increasingly being used by businesses, universities and governments for a variety of applications, including weather forecasting, surface imaging and communications. However, infrastructure and cost are important inhibitors.

Apart from the cost of fabricating satellites and launching them, customers need to build or lease ground antennas to communicate with the satellites.

This was a significant undertaking because customers often required antennas in multiple countries to download data when and where they need it without waiting for the satellite to pass overhead at a certain location. Speed is key because the more the time that passes the less useful the data becomes.

Capturing the signal is just the beginning of the infrastructure requirements. Operators need servers, storage and networking near the antenna to process, store and transport data downloaded from satellites.

All of this requires significant capital investments and operational costs to build, manage and maintain antennas, compute infrastructure and business logic at each antenna location.

Carlson noted that AWS Ground Station would allow customers to cost-effectively control satellite operations, ingest satellite data and integrate the data with applications and other cloud services running on AWS.

According to her, by using AWS Ground Station as a service, customers would be able to save up to 80 per cent of their ground station cost by paying for antenna access on demand. And they would also be able to rely on AWS Ground Station’s global footprint to download data when and where they needed it.

AWS has teamed up with Lockheed Martin to link up the latter’s new Verge antenna network to the AWS Ground Station service. The two companies will bring together these two systems to provide a solution that would be able to address customer needs for resilient satellite uplinks and downlinks.

Through this integration, customers using AWS Ground Station would gain the ability to download data from multiple satellites at the same time and to continue downloading data even when unplanned outages like a weather event impact parts of the network.

Lockheed Martin’s Verge customers benefit from being able to upload satellite commands and data through AWS Ground Station and to quickly download large amounts of data over the high-speed AWS Ground Station network.

The recency of data is particularly critical when it comes to tracking and acting upon fast-moving conditions on the ground. Timeliness depends on frequency of communications between ground stations and satellites, which can only be achieved with a large, global footprint of antennas maintaining frequent contact with the orbiting satellites.

For example, as fast-moving environmental, geopolitical, or news events unfold on the ground, AWS Ground Station customers could downlink current data to any of the 12 AWS ground stations around the world and quickly combine the data with other AWS services to process, store, analyse and transport the data to keep up with the rapidly evolving conditions, Carlson added.

DigitalGlobe, a Maxar Technologies company, which provides high-resolution Earth imagery, data and analysis, is AWS Ground Station customer.

The company employs AWS Ground Station to augment the capabilities of its global network of ground station antennas, according to Jeff Culwell, DigitalGlobe’s chief operations officer.

“With greater connectivity to DigitalGlobe’s high-resolution constellation and more downlink capability, our collection planning teams can now optimise the interval from planning to image collection, downlink and analysis – especially valuable when time matters,” he added.

Another customer is BlackSky, a global monitoring and alerting service. Nick Merski, vice-president of space operations at BlackSky/Spaceflight industries, noted that AWS Ground Station provided an important growth and scalability pathway.

“This product seamlessly integrates with our AWS hosted architecture, enhancing BlackSky’s ability to deliver an unprecedented level of service to our customers,” he added.

Jeroen Cappaert, chief technology officer of Spire Global, which uses proprietary satellite data and algorithms to provide maritime, aviation and weather tracking, added that the AWS product was “game changing”.

“The world’s weather, ships, and planes don’t wait for us to down-link our data, so a diverse global footprint is the key,” he said.

“The prospect of using AWS Ground Station to quickly scale the depth of our ground station network on the fly gives us more time to focus on delivering our products to customers,” he added.

“Providing machine learning (ML) based technologies like ship location prediction and advanced weather data require intense scalable data processing and storage,” he noted.

“By giving ground station direct access to AWS, we can build on the ways in which we already leverage cloud services for our compute and processing needs.”

Charlie Bell, senior vice-president of AWS, added that the product gives satellite customers the ability to dynamically scale their ground station antenna use based on actual need.

“They will be able to ingest data straight into AWS, where they can securely store, analyse and transmit products to their customers without needing to worry about building all of the infrastructure themselves.”

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