Swarm of satellites to provide ubiquitous 5G mobile communications

Technology News |
By Christoph Hammerschmidt

The space industry is changing: more and more private players are pushing their way into the state-dominated market and bringing along new business models. One consequence is the increased use of small satellites, which are inexpensive and flexible to use compared to previous large and expensive satellites. According to a consortium led by Professor Armin Dekorsy (University of Bremen, Germany), this trend, which is often summarized under the buzzword “New Space”, offers the opportunity to supply Germany with 5G mobile communications throughout the country. Together, the participants will first develop a software platform for evaluating and optimizing the latest 5G communication technologies for satellite networks and their mission planning.

The 5GSatOpt project (“Design, Evaluation and Optimization of 5G Satellite Constellations for the Internet of Everything and Everywhere”) was joined by the University of Bremen, DSI Aerospace Technologie GmbH, OHB System AG and ZARM Technik AG.

The 5th mobile generation achieves data rates of up to 20 gigabits per second and offers various other advantages over the 4th generation (LTE). In addition to private users and industry, this is interesting, for example, for autonomously operated machines in agriculture and for the precise coordination of rescue services, but logistics companies and shipping also require the “Internet of Everything and Everywhere” (IoEE). Last but not least, autonomous driving can only be used where the network infrastructure is designed for 5G.

The problem: by the end of 2022, at least 98 % of households in Germany should be able to access 5G, but telecommunications provider will only be able to cover 80 % of the area. Thus, many rural regions will continue to be left behind.

A network of small satellites can guarantee complete coverage and make data transmission more efficient overall. This is possible by sending a large number of satellites – a so-called mega-constellation – into a near-earth orbit and networking them with each other. “In addition to the communication level on the ground, a second level at an altitude of around 1,000 kilometers can be set up,” explains Dekorsy.

Dekorsy’s working group at the Technology Centre for Computer Science and Information Technology (TZI) at the University of Bremen has been involved in the development of the 5G mobile radio standard from the very beginning and has the necessary expertise in communications engineering. The working group Optimization and Optimal Control at the Center for Technomathematics at the University of Bremen contributes know-how in the optimization of complex systems, while ZARM focuses on mission planning. ZARM Technik addresses the alignment of satellites in space, while OHB and DSI have decades of experience in the design of satellites and communication modules.

In the first step, which began on May 1, 2019 and is scheduled to run for one year, the project partners are developing a software platform for simulating and planning a 5G satellite network. The platform should be able to answer questions such as how: Which maximum data rate can be guaranteed in a region like Northern Germany? How many satellites are needed? What is the maximum distance between them? And how are they most efficiently networked – also with the ground stations?

In addition to Internet access in rural areas, such a network of small satellites could also be used for other purposes, such as earth observation and climate research. For this purpose, the small satellites only need to be extended by an additional observation module. The cooperation of the Bremen actors lays the foundation for such flexible and modular systems, which can stand out from comparable projects in the USA or China due to their high degree of efficiency.

The project is supported by the State of Bremen with funds from the EU ERDF programme.

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