Inmarsat Government has announced that its SwiftBroadband L-band satellite service was used to help General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ fly a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time without any support from a chase plane.

General Atomics’ MQ-9B SkyGuardian RPA flew from General Atomics’ training center in Grand Forks, N.D. to the Royal Air Force Fairford base in Gloucestershire, UK, according to the Inmarsat press release. The medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) RPA was controlled remotely throughout the flight via connectivity provided by Inmarsat Government and the company’s I-4 constellation of geosynchronous satellites, according to Kai Tang, chief commercial officer for Inmarsat Government.

“The General Atomics transatlantic flight … is certainly something we are very excited about, in terms of what this means for the future of RPAs,” Tang said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “Almost every RPA—particularly those from General Atomics—use Inmarsat services to ensure that they have worldwide coverage for reliable satellite services, particularly for command and control, which is very important.

“In this case, the SkyGuardian was using broadband for its first transatlantic flight without a chase aircraft, which is a pretty big deal. It was also used for automatic takeoff and landing, as part of the overall General Atomics system architecture … The command-and-control functions—the remote piloting—is really done by General Atomics. Inmarsat provides the [broadband] service.”

Inmarsat's L-band network can provide data rates of 10 MB/s downlink and 10 MB/s downlink via the I-4 satellite constellation, in conjunction with satellite access stations that are located around the world, Tang said.

“What really makes Inmarsat unique in this space is that we have been providing for decades this satcom-as-a-service [offering], which we believe is really the right way to approach safe and reliable service for all of our customers,” Tang said.

“While it’s interesting and a lot of the news is focused on the spacecraft and satellites, it really doesn’t happen well until you’ve got the satellites integrated with satellite access stations, the ground infrastructure—including all of the fiber rings—as well as a history of being able to provide that service for aircraft flying all over the world. That’s when you have satcom as a service, which means that people are then able to turn on the antenna on their aircraft, on their boat, or on their car and go wherever they want without worrying about the other side.”

Providing connectivity to an RPA on a transatlantic flight is groundbreaking, but similar connectivity could be used to support drones that can be deployed by public-safety and critical-infrastructure entities to conduct important surveillance work safely and efficiently, Tang said. Inmarsat Government has solutions that are very small and weigh very little that would be ideal for drones that could be used in non-line-of-sight scenarios, he said.

“Drones are going to be used more and more for surveying disaster areas, which can be valuable,” Tang said. “People always forget that, during those times, the cell towers are often toppled over, not working or congested. Not only are you going to have trouble making cell-phone calls, you’ve got your drones flying around and—all of a sudden—they may lose control of them [if connectivity is lost].

“Hopefully, the FAA guys who are looking at policy in the United States, as well as others around the world, are paying close attention to this flight, because I think it really underscores the value of satellite communications.”