QuadSAT drone tests ESA antenna performance in Arctic circle
Satellite communication antennas are used to send commands to spacecraft and receive the important data they acquire in orbit. As we launch more and more satellites, the demand for communication capacity is increasing rapidly.
To ensure the antennas in ESA's Estrack network operate at the highest efficiency and deliver maximum data return for minimum cost, it is vital to periodically measure their performance.
However, satellite communication antennas and their testing facilities are often in remote locations. At ESA’s Kiruna station in Sweden, for example, a 15-hour drive north of Stockholm, a measurement campaign means battling the snows of winter or the mosquitos of summer to construct and maintain testing infrastructure.
What if there were an easier and more cost-efficient way?
ESA enables new technologies
The Danish company QuadSAT has developed an automated and flexible system for the testing and verification of radio frequency equipment such as satellite communication antennas. The system consists of a drone equipped with a special radio frequency payload as well as sophisticated software to enable automation and high-precision measurements.
ESA has supported the development of this technology via funding from the Agency’s ARTES programme. It is now mature enough that the Ground Systems Engineering team and Innovation Office at ESA’s ESOC mission control centre set up a demonstration campaign using the satellite communication antennas at ESA’s Kiruna station in the Arctic circle.
The Kiruna campaign
In September 2021, the QuadSAT team used their drone system to measure the antenna pattern and test the tracking ability of ESA’s 15-metre KIR-1 and 13-metre KIR-2 antennas at Kiruna station – part of ESA’s global Estrack network of satellite communication stations coordinated from ESOC.
Flying the drone approximately 8 km from the antennas, they conducted X-band measurements, pattern cuts and raster scans that provide a comprehensive overview of both antennas’ performance.
KIR-1 is the largest antenna QuadSAT have conducted measurements on so far, with this demonstration proving that the technology is able to meet the greater precision demanded by larger antennas.
“The QuadSAT system has the potential to revolutionise satellite antenna testing and measurement, especially as it has now proven its ability to test large antennas,” says Piermario Besso, Head of the Antenna and Infrastructure Section at ESOC.
“We are really excited to be working with ESA,” says Joakim Espeland, CEO of QuadSAT. “We believe that these tests represent a major leap in the capabilities of testing large antennas, something that has been extremely challenging until now.”
Benefits and next steps
Ground station antenna performance is traditionally measured using fixed calibration (boresight) tower infrastructure constructed on site, often in locations with challenging logistical conditions. Testing an antenna’s ability to track a moving object through the sky has until now only been possible using a live satellite and coordinating with its operator.
A drone offers advantages in both cases. It avoids the costs and challenges of constructing and maintaining fixed infrastructure, often far from large population centres, while also being able to mimic the behaviour and trajectory of a satellite for tracking tests.
“At ESA, we are now looking at how the QuadSAT system could be used to test the performance of other antennas in our Estrack network,” says Fabio Pelorossi, ESA Antenna and Radio Frequency Engineer. “That includes potentially even our largest 35-metre deep space tracking stations used to track and communicate with spacecraft across the Solar System.”
“We were very happy to support this project,” adds Artur Palowski, Innovation Officer at ESOC. “A service for testing and verifying the performance of our antennas will be particularly useful as we continue to upgrade and expand our Estrack network to meet the rapidly rising demand for satellite communication capacity.”
QuadSAT is a Danish company founded in 2017 that supplies drone-based antenna testing and tracking solutions to the satellite, defence, wireless and broadcast industries. The compact system is transported directly to the site and provides customers with in situ testing capabilities, resulting in a cost-effective, operationally flexible, and timesaving solution.
More information about QuadSAT.
Read the QuadSAT Press Release on the Kiruna test campaign.
The development of QuadSAT’s drone-based technology is supported by funding from ESA’s ARTES programme (Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems). ARTES is run by ESA’s Directorate for Telecommunications and Integrated Applications.