Insight | I-6s: building for Maritime’s future

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I-6s: building for Maritime’s future

Maritime

I-6 F2 is the second of our two state-of-the-art Inmarsat-6 satellites launched on 17 February 2023.

Alongside I-6 F1, which was launched in December 2021, the identical pair are Inmarsat’s first hybrid geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) satellites, and the most sophisticated commercial communications satellites ever built.

Featuring both Ka-band (Global Xpress) and L-band (ELERA) payloads, they represent a key step in our visionary technology roadmap that will see a further five satellites launched by 2025, and the largest ground network expansion in our history.

We designed the new satellites to maximise the available payload onboard and one of the key contributors to this goal was Airbus’ Defence and Space's all electric propulsion system. Not only did the electric propulsion system take up much less mass than a traditional chemical propulsion system, it also carried the environmental benefit of minimising the use of chemical propellants.

F1 has now reached its position over the Indian Ocean and F2 is on its way to be positioned over the Atlantic Ocean but before these sophisticated satellites were launched, they had already set themselves apart from our satellites that came before them in a number of ways.

Innovations in communications

The I-6s represent a real leap in the capabilities we can provide for our customers. “The new I-6 satellites will bring 50% more spectrum,” explains Inmarsat CTO, Peter Hadinger. “They have double the amount of processing power and double the amount of power that we can transmit, and thus we can easily get four times the amount of capacity through the network than we do today,” he adds.

First and foremost, Hadinger makes clear that these new satellites represent a significant investment in our ELERA (L-band) services for the future. As Mark Dickinson, Inmarsat’s Vice President of Space Segment emphasises, “We place a lot of pride in our L-band heritage, and the ethos within Inmarsat still has that at its core - we are providing mission critical systems for those who need it most.”

After all, safety is in our DNA, as we were founded in 1979 by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to develop a satellite communications network for protecting lives at sea. We became the first satellite operator to meet the stringent requirements of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) and have been keeping the world’s 1.6 million seafarers safe ever since.

The extra L-band capacity the I-6s offer is in fact double what was offered by the entire 1-4 generation of satellites that came before them. With 99.95% reliability, resilience and availability, these new satellites will ensure the continuation of our market-leading critical maritime safety services well into the 2040s.

As a dual band satellite, the Ka-band element of this satellite also has much to offer.

“At the same time, we’re taking advantage of the fact that we are putting a new spacecraft into orbit by adding new Global Xpress (GX) Ka-band capacity,” expands Dickinson. “This new capacity is very flexible, offering 20 Ka-band spot beams per I-6 satellite that can be directed to meet customer demand second-by-second, meaning we can steer capacity to ‘hotspots’ around the world,” he continues.

Capacity for the future

“Since we established a base layer of global coverage with our first four satellites, we have been adding to our satellite constellation to overlay additional capacity, to ensure our customers will continue to receive the highest quality of service,” shares Vice President of Solutions Engineering, Frank Bjornsen.

“The I-6s - and the future GX7, 8 and 9 satellites - will allow us to meet constantly growing demand at high demand maritime operational areas and sailing routes with moveable Ka-band coverage, and offer increasingly greater redundancy, reliability and flexibility across our services, plus we’ll have GX10A and B for the Arctic region,” he continues. With I-6 F1 positioned above the South Asia region, where there are multiple hotspots and busy shipping routes, Inmarsat’s newest satellite has much potential to support the maritime industry.

For an industry driving digitalisation with such force, connectivity is a necessity and therefore the reassurance of ample coverage in the future is vital. Especially as ship owners and operators are increasingly relying on comprehensive connectivity strategies to achieve long-term ambitions.

Ambitions such as improving fleet performance, optimising operations, attracting and retaining crew, implementing decarbonisation strategies and generally improving profit margins, as demonstrated by some of our key customers in our report ‘The Network Effect: Strategising Connectivity at Sea for Maximum Impact’. This rising dependency on digital technologies which serve these ambitions requires significant connectivity capacity.

“We know our customers will continuously be looking for more bandwidth and new features, which is why the increased capabilities offered by these new I-6s are an important part of our long-term strategy to cater for their needs into the future,” explains Peter Broadhurst, VP of Safety, Inmarsat Maritime.

Those additional capabilities and features are only set to become more important as connected digital technologies evolve too. Digital technologies already offer a vast array of functions, from AI–enhanced voyage management and IoT–backed condition-based monitoring and maintenance, to trade automation processes, automated emissions reporting, transparent collaboration platforms and plenty more in between. 

The levels of sophistication and functionality of these digital technologies will only be intensified as industry adoption progresses - and they are predicted to be increasingly data-hungry.

Features that go beyond the required GMDSS services, such as new automatic distress alerts sent to a network of over 60 Rescue Coordination Centres in less than two seconds. There’s also a ‘Two-way Distress Chat’ functionality that will put crews into a chat room, offering direct and constant contact with one of the nearby Search & Rescue Teams and local vessels, plus real-time vessel tracking.;

Enhanced safety services

In addition to the need for flexible capacity, which is offered by the I-6s’ steerable Ka-band spotbeams to prevent issues in congested areas, there’s no doubting that the satellites’ expanded L-band offering for our ELERA network has much to offer our maritime customers. ELERA not only enables Internet of Things (IoT) services, which will support the industry’s move towards automation, predictive maintenance and so on, but our critical safety services too.

Although our safety services already deliver an unprecedented level of dependability and availability guaranteed anywhere in the world, our new Fleet Safety services will bring even greater resilience and redundancy. As Broadhurst succinctly puts it, “our services are already dependable but now we’ll have even more backup.”

“Full global coverage for our future safety service, Fleet Safety, will be enhanced with contingency in every area, thanks to the additional capacity of the new satellites,” Broadhurst explains. Again, additional capacity forms part of our long-term roadmap to ensure not only the continuation of our safety services but investment in new enhanced features for the future.

Building a bigger picture

The I-6 satellites will also support our network of networks, Inmarsat ORCHESTRA - a multi-dimensional network that will seamlessly combine our ELERA (L-band) and Global Xpress (Ka-band) GEO networks with terrestrial 5G mesh technologies and targeted low Earth orbit (LEO) capacity to create a single advanced solution for global mobility.

ORCHESTRA will offer our customers the highest capacity connectivity available anywhere in the world for the mobility market, bringing the fastest average speeds and the lowest average latency of any network, planned or in existence.

“Our roadmap for the future will see us manage rising demand for connectivity well into the 2040s. These I-6 satellites are just one step in the journey but it’s a significant and reassuring one, demonstrating that we will remain dependable and capable in the future. Our planning and investing now means our customers can rely on us for the foreseeable future, and that’s exactly why we’re doing it,” shares Inmarsat’s Senior Director of Growth Markets, Marco Christoforo Camporeale.

In short, there’s much to celebrate about this important step on a roadmap that will see us match our customers’ demands in the future - for certain.