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Fresh approaches are propelling the UAV space to new heights

Aviation

By designing agnostic core technology components for partners to build their own solutions around, Inmarsat and TTP are pointing towards a new way of working in the UAV market

The history of industry and technology is littered with moments when new ways of working required new ways of thinking and operating. And so it is with the rapidly expanding and revolutionary unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) market.

The unlimited potential that this space offers the worlds of business, emergency services, transport, and the subsequent wider societal benefits, has necessitated a step change in how companies functioning within this sector operate. Partnerships, collaboration and working together with a shared common goal for the future are in. Siloed working is out.

This is the essence of the productive relationship Inmarsat and the aptly named TTP (The Technology Partnership) have developed since 2015, when the two companies began working together on a core radio module for Inmarsat’s BGAN service.

In the intervening years, this relationship has developed to the extent that Inmarsat and TTP have devised a terminal technology roadmap they can show to their customers and partners. This roadmap not only demonstrates an existing set of ready-made solutions, but also how these services are future-proofed – a crucial component in the fast-moving UAV world.

“It’s been very important for us to show – and for Inmarsat to show its customers – a clear roadmap,” confirms TTP’s Head of Satellite and Space, Tristan Barkley. “It allows customers to understand and buy into what we’re all working towards.”

Buy the kit and build around it

These innovative and new methods of working and thinking are mirrored in TTP itself. Barkley describes TTP as an independent, employee-owned technology and product development company. At its heart, it’s a problem-solving organisation. By inventing, designing and engineering new technologies it allows other businesses to develop and evolve their products and services.

“We’re a project-based, research and development business, rather than a traditional product company,” explains Barkley. “We’re quite diverse and work across health tech, life sciences and the new Deep Tech business unit that I’m part of.”

This nimble and flexible approach was one of the reasons it won the contract to develop a radio module for Inmarsat’s BGAN L-band network. This module – the BGAN radio module (BRM) – was designed to be no bigger than a credit card and it enables Inmarsat’s partners to easily integrate BGAN technology into their user terminals. “It takes all the heavy lifting off partners who want to develop new Inmarsat terminals,” says Barkley. “They can just buy the module and build their terminal around it.”

This agnostic pre-developed core technology design approach is crucial. It obviously enables partners to build their terminal around it, but critically it means partners can avoid lengthy R&D and the (oftentimes prohibitive) costs associated with that. By allowing partners to connect to Inmarsat’s L-band services the BRM is now being used across a variety of use cases including maritime, aviation, enterprise and government.

Computer generated render of the TTP terminal

Optimised for UAV applications

TTP didn’t stop there though. It then developed the BRM Blueprint – a full user terminal reference design that enables customers and partners to take the design information ‘as is’, or modify it for their unique application.

“We used our experience from the initial development to come up with, again, a unit that was as universal and flexible as possible,” says Barkley. “An evaluation kit version of Blueprint enabled partners to quickly evaluate Inmarsat’s BGAN satellite communications capabilities on L-band.”

This took TTP into the world of UAVs. Moreover, it deepened the company’s relationship with Inmarsat, in particular, Anthony Spouncer, Inmarsat Aviation’s Senior Director of UAVs & Unmanned Traffic Management.

Barkley acknowledges that the small weight and size of the BRM made it an ideal candidate for UAV connectivity given the small aircraft sizes. This formed the basis of many conversations with Spouncer.

“I spent a long time last year with Tony working on what you could do with the BRM,” he says. “We had a good starting point and from there we began looking at what a UAV terminal technology roadmap would look like.”  This is a notable demonstration from Inmarsat that it is committed to the UAV market and to the innovation required that will benefit its partners. It’s a move that Barkley is clearly impressed by.

“Inmarsat invested in developing the core modem that we worked on for them,” Barkley explains. “So it’s taking another brave step by saying we’ve got that and we’re going to take it apart and optimise it for UAV applications.”

A future-proofed roadmap

The next logical step is the future roadmap. By sharing plans with their partners and customers it demonstrates how the terminal technology will be future proofed for Inmarsat network upgrades plus terrestrial cellular networks. Inmarsat’s fully funded technology roadmap is key here. As the network improves, this same terminal technology can still be used as it will take advantage of the upgrades and enhanced connectivity that are coming. This gives partners sufficient time to plan for the future and factor in their own upgrades and plan developments.

This ‘build fast, test fast, iterate fast’ also has benefits when it comes to UAV regulation notes Barkley. “They’re also taking an innovative approach in the regulatory space,” he says. “Flight trials give evidence to the regulators how these systems work in practice and they’re looking to regulate around what is practically achievable – rather than impose historical regulations, which aren’t necessarily going to work in the UAV market.

Barkley says Inmarsat’s experience of working with regulators is key here. He also believes Inmarsat’s 30-years-plus experience as a pioneering aviation services provider and its market-leading connectivity solutions make it the perfect company for the UAV space.

“What you’re looking for as an operator is somebody that’s reliable when it comes to command and control,” he explains. “And Inmarsat is the world’s leading mobility satellite network. It’s the perfect network for UAVs because it’s built on that heritage of reliability, resilience and safety services.”

An exciting future powered by innovative partnerships

This heritage is nothing, however, without embracing the future and adapting to change. Inmarsat’s ongoing innovative partnership with TTP is borne from such a belief. Inmarsat has not only put its money where its mouth is – quite literally – in developing an agnostic piece of kit its partners can build around, it has also, alongside TTP, demonstrated how this solution is future-proofed, thus providing peace of mind for its partners.

The world of UAVs is an exciting one to be part of. And it’s thanks to new and innovative ways of looking at the world of technology.