The LEO Satellite Industry Needs More Engineers

IEEE is holding educational workshops about the field

4 min read

Kathy Pretz is the editor in chief of The Institute, IEEE's member publication

space image of Earth with multiple satellites around the middle on a black background
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Look up. The odds are good that one or more low-Earth-orbit satellites are above you right now. Some 5,000 LEO satellites currently orbit 500 to 1,500 kilometers above the Earth, helping to forecast the weather, transmit data, and provide broadband Internet to underserved areas.

It’s relatively inexpensive to launch the small spacecraft, and more are being built.

SpaceX’s Starlink broadband communications LEO satellites are probably the most famous, but Amazon has begun launching its competing Project Kuiper satellites and expects to begin service this year. Other companies are entering the market, not only to provide broadband access but also to build the smaller rockets. They include Airbus, ArianeGroup, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., and Tata Advanced Systems.

The LEO satellite market is likely to grow from more than US $4 billion in 2022 to nearly $7 billion in 2031, according to Business Research Insights.

Although the market is growing, the number of engineers and technologists who understand the complicated systems is not. That’s why in 2021 IEEE launched the Low-Earth-Orbit Satellites and Systems (LEO SatS) project under the leadership of Witold Kinsner. The IEEE Fellow is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Manitoba, Canada, and past vice president of IEEE Educational Activities.

“The scope of the project is not to start a new space-related movement but to coordinate and expand the existing activities,” says Markus Gardill, LEO SatS cochair. The IEEE senior member is a professor and chair of electronic systems and sensors at the Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg, in Germany.

“There are excellent researchers and educators working in the LEO satellite area, including those from various IEEE societies, but they are not communicating with each other,” Gardill says. “We have to bring together people from different disciplines and create one point of contact within IEEE to coordinate and consolidate what is happening in the field.”

Educating current and future technologists

To date, LEO SatS has held several workshops and events to educate engineers and students about career opportunities in the realm. The project’s leaders also are looking to increase collaborations among academia, industry, governments, and space agencies.

The LEO SatS education and contest working group has held several seminars, now available on IEEE.tv. An introductory workshop on the satellites held in 2021 covered nanosatellites, communication security challenges, and data centers and time synchronization.

During the 2022 IEEE Education Week, the group hosted a virtual panel discussion on space education. Panelists discussed the spacecraft, applications, and career paths.

“The scope of the project’s activities is not to start a new space-related movement but to coordinate and expand the existing activities.” —Markus Gardill

Presenters at a June workshop on using edge computing and AI aboard the satellites discussed techniques for massive satellite networks, benchmarking deep learning models, and the experiments that took place with edge computing on the European Space Agency’s OPS-SAT laboratory. Several presenters later collaborated on “Towards Space Edge Computing and Onboard AI for Real-Time Teleoperations,” which received a Best Paper prize at the 2023 IEEE International Conference on Cognitive Informatics and Cognitive Computing.

The working group also is developing educational materials about the space industry for preuniversity and university instructors to encourage students to pursue a career in the field. The group is building a database of the lesson plans to simplify matters, Gardill says.

He says lesson plans also are being developed for CubeSats, which are designed in a modular fashion based on the 10-by-10-by-10-centimeter base unit referred to as 1U. CubeSats are being used to teach students about the technology by showing them how to build and launch the small rockets themselves. Researchers are testing larger CubeSats, from 3U to 6U, for commercial missions. Universities are studying the sixth generation of the satellites, Kinsner says, with many being placed in the shell of a LEO satellite.

“This type of experiential learning is a unique opportunity in the field of STEM education,” Gardill says.

The satellite ground game

LEOs SatS doesn’t have its eyes only on the skies. It’s also making more down-to-earth strides, such as the workshop it held in November on LEO ground stations.

The ground stations are composed of a series of antennas, communications networks, and processing facilities that provide command and control capabilities. The LEO SatS project leaders believe more cooperation is needed in designing new types of ground stations, Gardill says.

“LEO satellites are continuously moving, so you need ground stations distributed around the globe if you want 24/7 access to your satellite,” he says. “It would be very inefficient, if not even infeasible, if every group working on a satellite mission had to establish its own ground-station infrastructure. This presents the demand to work together on a global scale to create a network of ground stations that everyone can access.”

New terrestrial-satellite networks

The recent emergence of constellations of thousands of LEO satellites has resulted not only in almost complete communications coverage with low latency but also in new, fast, inter-satellite optical communications, Kinsner says.

When combined with the artificial intelligence–augmented edge computing in space, he says, a new opportunity is on the horizon for intertwining traditional terrestrial networks with the new inter-satellite networks (terra-sat-nets) to develop real-time (RT) teleoperations.

“The extracurricular competitions involving the design, implementation, and deployment of CubeSats at various educational institutions around the globe have already prepared many new young students for the space industry and research,” Kinsner says. “Our LEO SatS initiative intends to develop similar competitions through capstone projects to develop the smart links between the terra-sat-nets to facilitate the RT teleoperations.”

Standards and technology roadmaps

The group is encouraging space agencies, industry interests, governments, and academia to collaborate on developing technology roadmaps and technical standards.

To that end, the IEEE LEO SatS team is working on white papers to identify existing technologies and policy gaps to address the lack of laws that govern satellite systems, Kinsner says.

“It’s very important for the IEEE LEO SatS project to broaden our network,” Gardill says, “because we think these satellite systems will have a large impact and are simultaneously a great challenge.”

To join the project, contact the organizers via the IEEE LEO SatS website.

This article appears in the June 2024 print issue.

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