Eye On JADC2, Lockheed Explores Unique 5G-SATCOM Network

By Theresa Hitchins,
Published by Breaking Defense, 23 March 2021

It’s sort of like we’re exclusively dating. We agreed to not see other people right now but we haven’t committed to anything else yet,” explained one Lockheed Martin official.

WASHINGTON: Lockheed Martin has joined forces with startup Omnispace to explore an innovative ‘hybrid’ communications network using both satellites and ground-based wireless tech.

“[T]ying terrestrial and non-terrestrial together to make [connectivity] ubiquitous for a user makes a lot of sense. Omnispace’s vision provides provides that thought process as to how to get there, and how to do it cost effectively with what commercial solution sets are offering,” Clark VanBuskirk, vice president for  advanced program development at Lockheed Martin Space said in an interview today.

Specifically, the defense behemoth is interested in tiny Omnispace’s software design, which would allow users with any 5G-capable device (i.e. a smart phone, etc.) to directly access the network, according to company officials. Indeed, the agreement with Omnispace was negotiated primarily by Lockheed Martin’s Missions Solutions Group, which focuses on software and ground systems, rather than by its space business.

Other potential players in what is expected to be a billion-dollar market for space-based Internet and 5G communications — such as SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat — require special ground equipment (such as dishes) to link to their satellites, Lockheed Martin and Omnispace officials explained.

Omnispace’s direct-to-device system is based on current software standards for mobile communications (known as 3GPP) and standard hardware, said Jay Yass, chief corporate development officer.

“That’s the key differentiation, I believe, to the other very large players — that we’re talking about directed- device using standard devices leveraging this large ecosystem of 3GPP, which is going to now be a 5G ecosystem of chipset and devices which are rolling out globally,” he said.

In addition, unlike many other would-be providers in orbits outside of Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO, where satellites match the Earth’s rotation and where traditional communications satellites operate), Omnispace already has a swath of spectrum sanctioned by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for global usage.

“Omnispace has high priority S-band spectrum from the ICU that’s already been brought in to use, and we have licenses globally in many key countries,” Yass said. “And we believe that’s one of the key components of differentiation.”

From Lockheed Martin’s perspective, the potential value is an ability provide DoD with 5G connectivity as a means to underpin All Domain Operations, including the military’s envisioned Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) concept for managing complex, information-centric warfare in the air, land, sea, space and cyberspace domains simultaneously.

JADC2 will require the services to easily access vast amounts of bandwidth and remain connected all around the globe. This includes remote areas such as the Arctic, where laying fiber optic cables for communications is nearly impossible — and where Russia and China already are jockeying for position as the waters there warm up enough to allow commercial and military exploitation of the region.

“DoD is looking at the value that 5G can bring, and honestly what 5g from space can bring, and they’ve got a number of projects that are underway today to address those activities,” VanBuskirk said. “If you look at things like their Information Warfare Research Project in 5G, they’re actually deploying pathfinders and prototypes at some of the bases in order to determine how to provide that support, and then, in the future, how to provide support to those expeditionary forces when you may not have terrestrial access — i.e., like in the Arctic or in a scenario where our warfighters may need to be somewhere on a Pacific island without having communications.”

For Omnispace, which launched in 2012 and is still raising venture capital, the partnership boosts its street cred with investors. Most recently, Omnispace last month raised $60 million from a group of investment firms led by Fortress Investment Group. The Virginia-based startup has one satellite, called F2, on orbit so far; in November it contracted with satellite rideshare provider Exolaunch to put up two satellites it bought from Franco-Italian firm Thales Alenia Space.

The partnership with Lockheed Martin also could help navigate the complicated US defense and government markets. According to Omnispace’s website, the initial focus for its 5G network concept has been the commercial ‘enterprise’ market for Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G access — that is, businesses such as long-haul trucking and agriculture where autonomous vehicles are already in use.

Ironically, Yass said, most of the Omnispace’s demos so far have been for the military: “Our current satellite has been used for proof of concept and pilots, and we focus them mostly on the military use up to now has dipped only one small toe into the US military arena.”

On March 15, the company announced a successful lab-based demo of its 5G connection capability for the US Navy and Marine Corps. “A number of commercial-off-the-shelf 5G devices successfully communicated voice and data services via an emulated 5G radio access network (RAN), to Omnispace’s on-orbit satellite, leveraging LinQuest Corporation’s lab facility in Northern Virginia,” the press release explained.

“We’ve done a project with SMC [Space Force’s Space and Missile Command],” Yass added. “And we’ve done a couple of projects with the Marines globally, and some of them have been north of the Arctic Circle.”

The bilateral agreement does’t yet involve any commitment of funds, only a promise that the two would partner in any future related venture. “It’s sort of like we’re exclusively dating. We agreed to not see other people right now, but we haven’t committed to anything else yet,” explained one Lockheed Martin official.

Neither VanBuskirk or Yass would talk about specific next steps, but said there is still a ways to go in figuring out the roadmap ahead.

For example, Yass said there is “work to be done” to determine the optimum satellite architecture to provide global coverage. Omnispace’s F2 orbits in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), but the two Thales Alena sats operate in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

“We’re still doing the trades on the NGSS, non-geostationary orbits, whether it’s LEO or MEO in the future to cover the globe — totally global from pole to pole — coverage across the oceans, including those Pacific Atolls,” he said.

VanBuskirk said a key task is refining user needs and honing use cases where the hybrid network concept would provide optimal benefits.

“So part of what we are doing is evaluating and getting feedback from the user communities, as to where do they see the needs that exist out there, and how can this vision address those needs,” he said.

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