Heritage or ‘here and now’ – what matters most for successful LEO deployment?

24 September 2022

By Mark Whetton, Business Development Director, Filtronic

Communications companies looking to launch large constellations of broadband satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) are in a race to find reliable, qualified suppliers of radio frequency (RF) components to transmit and receive signals in space. But what should they be looking for in an RF component supplier?

Only a small number of RF manufacturers have a track record of supplying precision components for traditional geostationary (GEO) satellites, which remain in fixed orbit for up to 15 years. These companies have ‘space heritage’. Such businesses may seem the obvious choice when sourcing RF components for LEO satellites. But the specification of components for LEO satellites – which are launched in batches of tens or hundreds and have a lifespan of just five to ten years – is completely different to the specification for GEO satellites.

A history of producing high-specification RF components for GEO satellites may not be the best qualification for producing precision components at scale for cost-sensitive LEO satellite programmes. Perhaps satellite companies should look for a RF design and manufacturing company with space ‘capability’ as much as space ‘heritage’. But what do we mean by ‘space capability’?

To have the capability to produce RF components for LEO satellites, suppliers need a combination of knowledgeable and experienced people, proven and compliant processes and products, and precision manufacturing facilities.

Knowledgeable and experienced people

Technical specialists, RF, process engineers and project managers with hands-on experience of developing components and project-managing major satellite launch programmes are rare. But they are essential resources for any supplier bidding to design, build and deliver RF components for LEO applications.

Within Filtronic, we have a senior team of RF engineers with recent experience in developing and delivering pioneering LEO satellite. Such a combination of skills and expertise is unrivalled in the UK.

Proven processes and products   

Filtronic has a long track record of developing transceivers, power amplifiers, filters and other components to meet the extremely high standards demanded by the mobile telecoms, aerospace and defence industries. We have developed stringent production, testing and screening processes to deliver high volumes of high-performance components for these critical applications. These proven processes and components are ideally suited for further adaptation to meet the demands of low earth orbit space deployment.

Precision manufacturing facilities

Delivering high-performance RF components at scale requires precision manufacturing to deliver consistent, repeatable standards in every product. Filtronic has recently invested significantly in its advanced manufacturing centre, introducing the latest automated die-attach and wire-bonding equipment. This enables us to work to much finer tolerances for placement accuracy and bond-wire shaping, which are critical to component performance. It also means we can reliably produce consistent products over large production runs.

Using the latest automated equipment helps us to reduce cost per component, without compromising quality. What’s more, by manufacturing components accurately first time, overall production times and costs are reduced due to minimal reworking and retesting. This enables us to meet tight programme schedules, minimising the risk of overruns that could delay satellite launch programmes. Any delays to planned satellite launches are extremely costly – meaning that on-time component delivery is crucial for these projects.

Heritage v’s capability

Companies with space heritage are accustomed to building small batches of highly specified components for long-term space deployment. Such individually built components are likely to be over-engineered for the demands of LEO satellites. Adapting these one-off components for LEO applications is far more complex than upscaling components already designed for volume production in demanding terrestrial applications. For companies with traditional space heritage, producing LEO satellite components at scale requires a huge cultural shift and a change in approach to budgeting, production and testing.

Companies like Filtronic, which have space capability, are much more accustomed to adapting existing components for new applications, adding new testing processes and innovating to meet fast-changing industry needs.

‘Heritage’ is a fixed company attribute. Whereas ‘capability’ reflects present-day resources and skills. To achieve the ambitious satellite launch objectives of today’s broadband communications companies, it’s the “here and now” that matters most.

Find out more about Filtronic’s capabilities:

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