DARPA dreams of launching swarms of disposable spy satellites

DARPA, which DVICE readers will know from the agency's endearingly insane projects (see here, here and here), wants to send up a swarm of short-lived, rapidly produced satellites to allow for more extensive air surveillance alongside — or even in lieu of — manned recon aircraft and unmanned drones.

Right now, a soldier deployed in enemy territory has to rely largely on reconnaissance planes and UAVs for expansive intel, but apparently there's just not enough of either to go around.

Speaking to the BBC, the Royal United Services Institute in the U.K.'s Elizabeth Quintana framed it thusly:

"Currently UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and other airborne ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] assets are very popular with ground troops but the criticism is that there is never enough and that bandwidth demands make it difficult to get imagery products forward to the front line… UAVs were adopted with affordability and disposability in mind but the most popular platforms are too expensive to use in this way. The trick will be to keep the costs low enough that the system will be cheaper than existing airborne programmes and can be truly disposable."

Launching satellites into space doesn't sound much cheaper, but it would in theory offer a more robust recon solution for soldiers, who could interface with the satellites directly via a smartphone or other handheld, rather than having to jump through hoops in communication channels.

In this artist rendering prepared by DARPA, you can see the perceived benefit of a swarm of satellites compared to an airborne option (click to enlarge):


DARPA's SeeMe satellite system sees the area in a band, while airborne coverage is condensed. Of course, like all of DARPA's research projects, the plan relies on technology that doesn't exist yet. (That doesn't mean that DARPA is just through blueprints into the wind — the agency is looking to fast-track the development of said future technologies.) Specifically, DARPA is looking for a "constellation of small satellites" that would require aerospace companies to think more like smartphone makers:

"To create inexpensive, easily manufacturable small satellites costing $500K apiece will require leveraging existing non-traditional aerospace off-the-shelf technologies for rapid manufacturing, such as the mobile phone industry's original design manufacturers, as well as developing advanced technologies for optics, power, propulsion and communications to keep size and weight down."

That, or DARPA could just cobble together zombie spy satellites out of dead ones.


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