Monday, December 03, 2018

The New Amazon Web Services Ground Station (AWSGS) Will Disrupt Existing Ground Stations

          By Brian Orlotti

The recently announced Amazon Web Services Ground Station (AWSGS), a cloud-based product offering scalable computing power for satellite ground stations and data processing, stands poised to disrupt the current satellite industry and serves as a precursor to the ramp up of space activity in the coming decades.

As outlined in the November 28th, 2018 Next Big Future post, "Amazon is Bringing Cloud Computing Economics and Convenience to Space Data Operations," Amazon unveiled the new systems at its annual AWS Re:Invent Conference, which was held from November 25th - 28th in Las Vegas NV.

Amazon is targeting AWSGS at smaller commercial satellite operators and research groups; organizations now embracing micro/pico/nano satellites.

Traditional large satellite fleet operators typically build large multi-million-dollar ground stations (including big antenna farms and multiple buildings) to monitor and process data from their fleets. These large fleet operators also lease these facilities out to other groups at high prices. AWSGS will allow offer small satellite operators a lower cost, scalable alternative.

AWGS ground stations will essentially be an extension of Amazon’s current AWS cloud computing infrastructure. Each Amazon ground station (antennas included) is associated with a specific AWS data centre (or "region," in Amazon parlance).

After account setup, which involves providing Amazon with your satellite’s NORAD ID, FCC licence ID and AWS account number, customers can access their ground stations to capture, process and distribute their data on an as-needed, pay-as-you-go basis.

Raw analog data from a satellite is converted into digital data and then routed to an AWS instance (virtual server) that performs signal processing to turn it into a byte stream. From this point, customers can make use of existing AWS data storage, processing, analytics and streaming services.

Amazon currently has two ground stations active and plans to have twelve online by mid-2019.

As fast as new technologies open up opportunities to utilize the "high frontier," politicians and bureaucrats rear their ugly head. For example and as outlined in the June 21st, 2018 post, "The Special Senate Committee on the Arctic Holds a Hearing on Northern Infrastructure & That "Unlicensed" Inuvik Groundstation," even the intervention of the Canadian Senate was unable to facilitate the federal licenses needed for an international consortium of Canadian, US and Norwegian based businesses to open a ground based receiving station in Inuvik. The consortium was in direct competition with the Federal government owned and operated Inuvik Satellite Station Facility and so, it didn't move forward but maybe the new Amazon service will finally inject some much needed competition into the marketplace. Graphic c/o Commercial Space blog.

In embracing this new option, however, small satellite operators would do well to avoid the various pitfalls of cloud computing encountered by other organizations, such as:
  • Vendor lock-in: AWS services typically require the use of proprietary APIs that can severely limit the portability of your data
  • Security: Incorrectly configured AWS instances can leave data wide open to theft and tampering
  • Diminishing returns: Past certain bandwidth and data storage thresholds, cloud computing can be more expensive than building in-house infrastructure. In addition, some organizations have used cloud computing simply as a pretext to eliminate staff, depriving themselves of valuable in-house technical talent
Small satellite operators should weigh the pros and cons of cloud computing and plan accordingly.

AWGS’ fusion of satellite operations and cloud computing marks another step in the evolution of the commercial space sector. AWS turned computing power into a scalable commodity; it now offers to do the same for space operations.

AWGS, when combined with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ other space venture, Blue Origin, could be the pieces that unlock the puzzle of an off-world economy.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operator at the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a not-for-profit network service provider to the education and research sectors.


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