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Satellite Terminal Chomps Down System Size

May 2009
By Rita Boland
E-mail About the Author

The GATR 2.4-meter Ku-band system sits in Germany during a U.S. Special Operations Command planning conference early this year.
Smaller, lighter technology offers same connectivity as its larger, heavier counterparts.

A communications system that is powerful enough to have seen military action in Afghanistan and versatile enough to have supported international humanitarian efforts also is small enough to be checked as airline baggage. The equipment supporting this capability includes an inflatable ball antenna combined with a flexible dish that comes in two sizes. The system is geared primarily toward short missions, but it can be used for months at a time or as a backup to larger systems when antennas need refurbishment.

GATR Technologies, Huntsville, Alabama, developed the Deployable Satellite Communication Terminal, more commonly referred to as GATR, to offer the bandwidth available from large antennas in a much smaller system. The antenna dishes come in 1.8-meter and 2.4-meter sizes, each weighing about eight pounds. The total system, when packaged, weighs approximately 140 pounds (each case is 70 pounds), compared to the more common 800 pounds for a standard antenna system, and it fits into two luggage-sized cases. One case holds the antenna bag, blower, hoses and plates. The other generally is used for electronics such as a modem, spectrum analyzer, radio frequency cables, computer and power inverter. Combined, the equipment creates a complete, high-bandwidth satellite communications terminal. In contrast, most standard military systems require 10 or more cases. “Its main value is it can be packaged in a really small [space] and carried in a vehicle or be airline-checked and then set up,” Paul Gierow, president of GATR Technologies, explains.

For the same packaged volume as a disadvantaged 1-meter class dish, GATR offers a 2.4-meter dish, giving users more power without more to carry. The small size allows users to establish the system in areas that inhibit the deployment of larger systems. “In some instances we actually enable the mission because of the size of the dish,” Gierow states. The antenna is so portable it can be packaged and shipped overnight by a commercial carrier from the United States to Europe. The entire system sets up and can be on satellite in approximately an hour, and people experienced with deploying the equipment can have the system ready to use in as little as 30 minutes.

The antenna itself is a flexible fabric held down by four plates. A blower runs continually to keep the fabric ball inflated, and the flexible fabric forms a precision parabolic surface. The ball serves as the structure and holds the radio frequency components. The flexible dish is suspended around the inside of the rim of the ball at about the midplane. The dish and ball alone weigh only 20 pounds and fit into a backpack-sized bag. The antenna provides Ku-band connectivity equivalent to that of a rigid 2.4-meter dish. It also offers C-band connectivity, and efforts are underway to have the system operate in the X-band by next year. GATR currently operates with an Intelsat commercial satellite.

GATR has established up to a 32-megabit uplink during a demonstration in which it received a high-definition sporting event. The system also has been used to create 8-megabit high-bandwidth uplinks, but typically the technology is used for the 4-megabit uplink, 2-megabit downlink common to military communications. It supports voice, video and data and, according to Gierow, is limited only by what the military can use.

The system’s primary use is for short missions, Gierow states. GATR is well-suited for small units moving in and out of locations quickly, such as those conducting special operations, and it also works well as a backup for other systems. When people on military or humanitarian missions bring in communications systems, they rarely have backup antennas, he explains. The portability of GATR makes it useful as contingency equipment or as primary communications.

However, the company is experimenting with using the antenna for long-term assignments now. The configuration operated for eight months in Afghanistan, running continuously during that time frame. The equipment also is allowing communicators to increase bandwidth. By using the GATR antenna along with the primary antenna, capability could double.

U.S. military organizations are involved with the project as well. The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate has been funding GATR for fielding and material refinement work since 2005. The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command (SMDC/ ARSTRAT) has provided funding since the same year and also is helping to support the technology with system integration and refinement. The SMDC/ARSTRAT’s Small Business Innovation Research program support to the Missile Defense Agency helped evolve the project. SMDC/ARSTRAT worked with the technology from the beginning and continues to offer technical and programmatic oversight enabling delivery to troops in multiple military branches.

GATR is in phase three, where companies focus on commercialization of technology. The Department of Defense (DOD) Quick Reaction Fund program provided the initial phase three funding and support for pre-production development and field testing through the Special Operations Command South organization.

The current focus for SMDC/ ARSTRAT is refinement of the materials used to produce GATR’s radome and the parabolic reflector inside. Gary Mayes, computer engineer, advanced technology division, TechnicalCenter, SMDC/ARSTRAT, says, “Through this current effort we are also supporting continued pre-production fielding and qualification testing and identifying new, unique applications to address specific needs within the military.”

As part of pre-production activities, the system is undergoing performance and environmental testing as well as U.S. Defense Department certification. Federal Communications Commission certification for the Ku-band system is complete, and testing is underway to certify additional frequencies desired by the military. Mayes confirms that GATR is capable of supporting the major satellite communication frequencies used by the military. “While the Ku-band terminals are already certified and field-tested, the C-band and X-band systems are undergoing field testing and evaluation and will be available DOD-wide later this year,” he says.

Air Force Special Operations Command forces conduct training on 2.4-meter Ku-band GATR terminals at Hurlburt Field, Florida.
Mayes notes that GATR provides higher gain and performance than small-dish terminals and offers a significant advantage in transportability over rigid large-dish terminals. He confirms that GATR improves operations by reducing the packaged weight and volume compared to existing transportable satellite antennas. The reduced shipping time and cost allow operators to transport the terminal more easily to more remote environments.  

Mayes agrees with Gierow’s assessment of GATR’s primary value. “GATR offers the greatest value to units that require high-bandwidth communications for time periods ranging from several hours to several months but are required to travel without a large number of heavy, oversized transit cases. Because of its extremely compact packaged size … the GATR system can also provide an excellent redundant capability during command relocation or contingency operations,” he shares. Through the SMDC/ARSTRAT’s pre-production field-testing efforts, GATR has supported Defense Department operations in Afghanistan, and other federal agencies have deployed it in additional hostile regions.

“SMDC/ARSTRAT continues to look for new opportunities to further the maturation of the technology through expansion of the system capabilities and applications of the inflatable antenna,” Mayes states. He adds, “SMDC/ARSTRAT continues to evaluate the potential applications of the various antenna designs within the Army and throughout DOD.” His organization will support the maturation of the technology by identifying new customers and applications.

Humanitarian organizations were the first operational testers of GATR, using it after Hurricane Katrina. At that time, a prototype unit was used at a Red Cross shelter near Biloxi, Mississippi. After setting up the antenna, users had bandwidth for more than a week and were able to access the Internet and use voice over Internet protocol telephones and other communications technologies.

More recently, the organization Mission Aviation Fellowship used GATR during operations in Latin America and Africa. Mission Aviation Fellowship does not own a GATR system, but GATR Technologies donates the antenna when the nonprofit requires one. The humanitarian organization has the necessary electronic equipment to go with the system, and it provides the transportation and personnel as well as pays the satellite service providers.

David Hoffman, who works in the information technology department of Mission Aviation Fellowship and who serves as a field communications services manager, took GATR on a humanitarian effort on the USNS Comfort in August and September of 2007. He used the system to support onshore clinics set up during the day in Ecuador, Colombia and Haiti. Hoffman says the system provided all the communications he and his partners needed. Before GATR, all the communications had been over Inmarsat Broadband Global Area Network, or BGAN, terminals, which are smaller, slower and more expensive to use than GATR.

Hoffman used GATR to access the Ku-band and provide basic ship-to-shore voice and data communications, including chat and e-mail access. Comfort mission personnel used Microsoft Groove, a shared workspace tool, and GATR supported that application and its capabilities. Hoffman also used GATR in February and March of 2008 in the Kingdom of Lesotho, a landlocked nation in southern Africa. During that activity, Mission Aviation Fellowship supported the group Partners in Health, which sets up health clinics on the continent. Part of the work was installing a very small aperture terminal (VSAT) system in a mountain clinic. Hoffman took the GATR system to test it and to provide an Internet connection to the clinic while the permanent VSAT was being installed.

According to Hoffman, the testing conducted in Lesotho was the first done on GATR’s C-band frequency, so there were gains for the system’s development out of the trip because they learned about operating problems to fix. The area is rainy, and the C-band is preferable in that type of climate. GATR successfully established connection, and users could make telephone calls and send e-mails. Though users were able to operate the system, they had to work through signal issues such as trouble with the radio frequency feed and the mountains.

Hoffman says GATR offers a huge advantage over traditional antennas for the types of missions he and his organization undertake. For example, in 2004, he traveled to Sumatra a month after the tsunami struck Southeast Asia to set up an Internet café to serve the United Nations and nongovernmental agencies. Even after that much time had elapsed after the disaster, the fixed, rigid-dish VSAT still was not in place, and Hoffman says the delay was typical for other organizations using that type of technology.

Even when installation of the VSAT was complete, the problems continued. After workers dug a huge hole, filled it with cement, covered it with sand, set in the antenna pole and mounted the dish in place, United Nations officials changed where they wanted the capabilities located. The workers had to set up the entire configuration again, and in the process they discovered that two support arms were missing.

With GATR, moving the antenna would have been easy, and no large, heavy equipment would have been necessary. “For me, to get on a plane, take two checked suitcases with me, have it all and set it all up in one or two hours—that’s huge,” Hoffman says. He adds that the portable system offers him all the capabilities of a fixed dish but without the weight. And the weight and size differences are considerable. Hoffman ordered another 2.4-meter dish for his organization’s headquarters in Idaho, and it came in a 3-foot by 4-foot by 9-foot crate that weighed 604 pounds. After heavy modification, it fit into seven airline-sized cases with a total weight between 400 and 500 pounds. “GATR simplifies the logistics aspect of things,” Hoffman says.

In addition to military and humanitarian operations, GATR has applications to intelligence and broadcasting. Gierow says that some intelligence agencies have bought the systems, and his company is fielding the equipment and training personnel on its uses. The company also will launch a business to provide a backup for television broadcasting later this year. Gierow explains that his company could offer a transportable high-definition uplink that would eliminate the need for most of the equipment on a satellite truck. 

Web Resources
GATR Technologies:
U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command:
Mission Aviation Fellowship:
AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate: