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3/13/2012
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DOD Proposes Disposable Satellites To Aid Soldiers

DARPA's SeeMe program aims to use small disposable satellites to provide soldiers in remote locations with images of their surrounding terrain.

NASA's Blue Marble: 50 Years Of Earth Imagery
NASA's Blue Marble: 50 Years Of Earth Imagery
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The Department of Defense (DOD) plans to add new satellite technology to its efforts to create better communications for warfighters in remote locations.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on small, disposable satellites that will give soldiers images of their surrounding location via handheld mobile devices, according to the agency. This information is often difficult for them to access from remote locations with limited satellite coverage.

The Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) program aims to create constellations of up to two dozen satellites, each lasting 60 to 90 days in orbit not far above the earth, according to the agency. After their useful time is up, the satellites will de-orbit and burn up without leaving space debris.

Soldiers will use handheld devices to communicate with the satellites, basically pressing a button requesting that a satellite "see me" to download location images in less than 90 minutes, according to DARPA.

[ DARPA is very active in developing satellite technology. Read DARPA Seeks Satellite Programs That Stick. ]

To keep the cost of the satellites to $500,000 apiece or less, DARPA aims to use off-the shelf components--such as those used by the mobile phone industry--to develop the technology, said DARPA program manager Dave Barnhart in a statement. It also aims to develop advanced optics, power, propulsion and communications technologies to keep the size and weight of the satellites down, he said.

SeeMe will be a companion technology to the DOD's use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to provide location information and images for soldiers, but which are limited by the aircrafts' need to refuel, Barnhart said.

"With a SeeMe constellation, we hope to directly support warfighters in multiple deployed overseas locations simultaneously with no logistics or maintenance costs beyond the warfighters' handhelds," he said.

To meet potential bidders and generate ideas about how to proceed with the project and meet its low-cost and development goals, DARPA will hold an industry day on March 27.

DARPA already has a number of satellite projects under way, and SeeMe may leverage one--the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA)--that's developing a better launch system for small satellite payloads, the agency said. Typically, smaller satellites must hitch rides on rockets carrying larger satellite payloads, but the agency wants to build a dedicated system for rapid and less expensive launch of payloads under 100 pounds.

SeeMe joins other DARPA efforts aimed at giving soldiers in remote locations better communications capabilities. DARPA recently unveiled a pair of wireless networking projects to that end--one called Mobile Hotspots to create a scalable, mobile, millimeter-wave communications backbone, and another called Fixed Wireless at a Distance to build a fixed-mobility infrastructure to connect limited-range warzone mobile networks to provide more reliable mobile device coverage.

InformationWeek's 2012 Government IT Innovators program will feature the most innovative government IT organizations in the 2012 InformationWeek 500 issue and on InformationWeek.com. Does your organization have what it takes? The nomination period for 2012 Government IT Innovators closes April 27.

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