COTS and mega-constellations, satellite export reforms, and military space market trends

Every month the McHale Report will host an online roundtable with experts from the defense electronics industry – from major prime contractors to defense component suppliers. Each roundtable will explore topics important to the military embedded electronics market. This month we discuss trends in the military space market with attendees and exhibitors from the Nuclear Space Effects Conference () held this month in Portland, Oregon. They opine on the market growth, the use of commercial-off-the-shelf () in mega-constellation applications, and the impact of export reforms on the U.S. semiconductor industry.

This month’s panelists are: Ken O’Neill, Director of Marketing, Space and Aviation, Microsemi SoC Products Group; Chuck Tabbert, Vice President of Sales & Marketing, Ultra Communications, Inc.; Philip Chesley, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Precision Products at Intersil; Ross Bannatyne, Director of Product Marketing, Vorago Technologies; and from Cobham Semiconductor Solutions Anthony Jordan, Vice President, Product Marketing and Applications Engineering, & Chris Clardy, General Manager.

MCHALE REPORT: This month the rad-hard community gathered in Portland, Oregon, for the annual NSREC. What markets, government, commercial, international are performing best for this community?

JORDAN & CLARDY: NASA is having budget challenge, drawing off money to invest in large programs such as manned space and the James Webb telescope. We don’t see the level of satellite starts as in the past, but we do see an increase in work on payload applications.

The military and the Air Force in particular are in study mode right now. As they develop long-term strategies like Advanced EHF, SBIRS, etc., they are using the interim period to study their options. So during this process we see the military market as essentially flat. On the commercial side it is stable and robust in the traditional applications.

CHESLEY: On the government side, the market has been more flattish, which is typical as that business has a three to four year development process. It has also been generally flat on the commercial side. Key platforms there include One Web and SpaceX to standard geo satellite constellations. Many commercial satellite companies do not just do [low Earth orbit] and can’t afford a failure so that business is good for companies in the rad-hard business.

O’NEILL: The biggest growth in commercial is with the low-cost constellations. From a product standpoint, the military market is ranging from flat to slightly up. When judging the market, you have to separate the market procurement trends from revenue changes that occur as a product ramps up into maturity, which takes several years in the case of radiation-tolerant products. We always see an uptick in interest after a new product launch that ultimately brings a corresponding boost to revenue.

TABBERT: In my business, international markets that involve earth observation are exploding for me in the fiber optic transceiver market as satellite designers really have run up against the “bandwidth interconnect wall.” Qualifying to MIL-PRF 38534 Class L is an accepted qualification/quality regime that has gained acceptance worldwide. This trend will continue as satellite designers are telling me within three to five years they will require 25 GBPS channels for intra satellite connectivity.

MCHALE REPORT: What impact will the development of have on the rad-hard community? Will this drive more of a demand for COTS in space and upscreening of said devices?

O’NEILL: The low-cost constellations are purchasing a lot of commercial products and achieving radiation mitigation and reliability through non-conventional means. For instance, rather than relying on built-in triple redundancy within components, they create redundancy at the system or satellite level. Generally, they are not using radiation-tolerant parts, although there is a demand for rad-hard components in some cases.

A big problem with using commercial parts for low-cost missions is that, if you have a common failure mode in a manufacturing lot of commercial parts and it escapes commercial testing, that failure mode in one part will then affect not just one system on one satellite, but also possibly a whole fleet (perhaps rendering it completely inoperable). Even though the cost per satellite is low, the constellations themselves are expensive and the owners risk jeopardizing their investment by using less reliable parts.

JORDAN & CLARDY: What makes this market so interesting it that there are no consortiums of engineers that serve the commercial constellation market to develop standards or best practices. These guys are moving so fast with such dynamic range and they are driven by time to market methods we don’t typically conceive of in the satellite market.

It is really a venture capitalist model. They are showing capability, and then delivering data maybe with imaging or basic communication. The whole demonstration process may only be for two years or until they the get next round of funding. They’re looking at rounds of performance. For example for the first round they want a certain bandwidth and a certain frequency in a full-scale model. The first demo will be only two years. Then they start putting up 20 at a time with full capability. Your product has to catch the first ride to be considered for the second ride.

We are developing an approach to this market by looking at qualified COTS as a way to solve this challenge in the long-term. For the commercial constellation market what used to take six months they want you to do in three, and what takes a year you have to do in six months. This is not a process that works for platforms with traditional rad-hard requirements. So we are looking at identifying commercial technology solutions and manufacturing processes that can meet these unique demands.

CHESLEY: COTS means lots of different things to different people and it really boils down to the satellite’s mission as to whether COTS can be integrated for example mega-constellations in LEO with a five-year life will leverage this technology as they are low cost and low risk, but manned space missions, deep space missions, and military satellites that have 10-15 life spans likely will not.

The other thing people have to realize when you heavily upscreen COTS is there are different physics involved with digital vs. semiconductors, especially when it comes to the thickness of gate oxides. Thicker gate oxides are needed for analog and high voltage applications, but the thicker gate oxide also makes it more susceptible to total ionizing dose (TID).

TABBERT: Mega constellations are looking for reliable products at automotive pricing. What I’m seeing is that customers are forgoing consecutive lot qualifications on every lot to a more periodic qual and just want production products with burn-in and Group A testing only. They are also doing economic quantity orders and then authorizing the products released over time. This allows me to build in bulk and pass the savings on.

BANNATYNE: The mega-constellations will drive a demand for more affordable rad-hard components. There are quite a few options for very expensive rad-hard processors (mainly ) that are priced too high to be used in picosatellites and are overkill in performance, but there are currently very few options for affordable rad-hard devices that can be used in mega-constellations. Upscreening is also expensive and not as desirable as a guaranteed rad-hard device. Although mega-constellations tolerate failures by virtue of the networked constellation architecture, we cannot expect to see the current high rate of failures that exists in picosatellite missions today. Engineers do not want to be faced with the choice of using a $10 commercial MCU that is not recommended for use in LEO or a $10,000 FPGA that will work just fine. The mega-constellation market will drive the demand and supply of reasonably priced rad-hard components more quickly and embedded engineers will celebrate this as a big step forward.

MCHALE REPORT: How have the recent export reforms to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations () and Export Administration Regulations (EAR) helped U.S. satellite manufacturers?

O’NEILL: From our perspective as a component and system supplier, any change has been lost in the noise related to the ebb and flow of the satellite business. International business has become a little easier to do, and we have seen smoother transactions with our international customers. A bigger factor that could offset that is the sanctions on Russia, as a few U.S. companies had a growing business there. Now, indigenous suppliers have an opportunity to take advantage of the restrictions placed on U.S. vendors.

Sanctions are a double-edged sword. On one hand, they may be beneficial geopolitically, but on the other, they inflict pain on U.S. companies. A viable business is hurt in the short-term by lost revenue, and also potentially loses ground long-term as the sanctions permit the creation of a strong Russian semiconductor industry to compete with the U.S.

TABBERT: The word ITAR does not even enter into my conversations anymore! I guess I’ve been the pied piper of ECR to the satellite community and it has now taken hold! The world believes us and they believe we won’t revert back to our old ways.

CHESLEY: It’s changed for the positive even though the reforms have yet to reach their not full goals. While you still can’t ship to China and Russia, other countries have been opening up.

JORDAN & CLARDY: Export compliance even with the reforms comes down to following the logic correctly and submitting to the process. We’ve reacquainted ourselves with the new rules and following them appropriately.