It was timely that BATTLESPACE Editor Julian Nettlefold made our annual visit to Spectra for an update on their latest technology in April. The Editor was greeted with good news on arrival, Spectra Group (UK) Ltd has been named as one of the awardees of the 2019 Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the Innovation category, a much-deserved award.
CEO Simon Davies commented, “Working on the design, and building a business, supplying a product that has the ability to revolutionise communications in theatres of operation, not only for soldiers but emergency services and disaster areas is very satisfying. As a former soldier in the Royal Corp of Signals, knowing that the equipment we provide enables soldiers and first responders around the world to conduct operations with reliable and robust communications so that when they need to call for assistance, that they communicate, first time every time is very motivating for me and my team.”
Development Of Slingshot
SlingShot is an innovative system that uniquely converts UHF and VHF radios to L-Band Satellite frequency, extending the range to BLOS (Beyond Line of Sight). Conceived and designed in response UK MoD requirements, SlingShot offers a number of benefits for those engaged in high tempo operations, and that require reliable and robust COTM (communications on the move). SlingShot is a unique low SWaP system that enables in-service U/VHF tactical radios to utilise Inmarsat’s commercial satellite network for BLOS COTM. Including omnidirectional antenna for the man, vehicle, maritime and aviation platforms, the tactical net can broadcast over thousands of miles between forward units and HQ locations. In addition to C2 voice, the system enables data capability supporting mission critical applications such as; Chat, File Transfer, artillery fire missions, Situational Awareness and the Common Operational Picture,. With increased benefit to traditional TacSat, increased channel availability and almost no increase in the training burden, SlingShot is redefining tactical communications.
SlingShot works with existing tactical military radios and requires minimal additional training to provide BLOS communications without the need for supplementary infrastructure or additional cumbersome equipment. SlingShot supports the majority of in-service tactical radios and has already been operationally proven. Combined with Inmarsat’s L-TAC leased service, it is fully flexible and designed to meet security and reliability requirements cost-effectively. Users can lease the service for periods as short as one a week in either narrow spot beams or beams customized to meet their area of operations.
“How did the concept of SlingShot evolve?” The Editor asked Shaun Barry, Spectra Business Development for AsiaPacific and UK.
“Our CEO Simon Davies was at a regular Inmarsat briefing session in November 2012 covering existing contracts and technologies when it was disclosed that Inmarsat’s I-4 satellite could be configured to provide a 25kHz channel and was able to switch the RF signal at the Satellite by means of a single hop keeping latency to a minimum. In response to this, Simon stated that, in his view, this would meet a significant military capability gap. Spectra then designed and provided a concept demonstrator within a few weeks to prove the system worked and production models were in –service within 9 months. Spectra now has strategic relationships with both Inmarsat, whose L-TAC™ service uses SlingShot and Airbus, which brands SlingShot as TREx. The majority of the system is manufactured and assembled in the UK at either Spectra’s site or utilising local engineering companies ensuring quality and reliability of the product is constantly monitored and remains the highest priority. The Queens’ Award recognises the unique satcom networking technology developed by Spectra’s team of engineers.”
“Since its launch, how many systems have been supplied and to how many customers?”
“SlingShot is now in operation across the World including the US, Canada, UK, Australia, France, Belgium and South Africa, It is used predominantly by Special Forces but also by Conventiontial Forces and other NATO countries. SlingShot, has Manpack, Vehicle, Maritime and Aviation systems, meaning that command and control of all personnel, no matter where they are deployed, becomes notably easier. To date the total number of systems shipped is in excess of the 3000 mark, further endorsing Spectra’s dominant position in the Tactical SATCOM market place. We are also actively pursuing opportunities in other regions where the service is yet to be utilised.
“As well as military applications, does SlingShot have other non-military applications?”
“Yes, very much so, it has a number of key uses in first responder and disaster relief operations. As the frequency of major disasters, health crises and conflicts globally grow apace, so does the demand for humanitarian assistance.”
“With loss of essential services such as electricity, shortage of food and water supplies, and human lives at risk, first responders, aid agencies and other non-governmental organisations face a lack of basic security and communications, this hinders their success and can ultimately result in further risk to life. To overcome this problem, Spectra, in addition to SlingShot, has developed a number of robust and reliable communications solutions, to aid coordination and protect all field workers in unstable environments. Team Rubicon, the Charity involved in disaster relief have trialled SlingShot and have equipment on high readiness for them to deploy when the need arises.”
“In 2018, you opened an office in the US, has this development born fruit?”
“Definitely, in 2018 Spectra Group (US) Inc., our new U.S. Company, was selected by the US DoD to take part in the 2019 Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiments (AEWE 2019) at Fort Benning. US forces put SlingShot and L-TAC through it paces in many different scenarios, the final report has not yet been released but the feedback has been extremely positive. SlingShot systems were used within the Brigade HQ, on a HMMV for COTM, Ops Room, and as a Manpack”
AEWE is the US Army’s premier venue for small unit modernization, providing capability developers, the Science and Technology (S&T) community, and industry with a repeatable, credible, rigorous, and validated operational experiment, supporting both concept and material development. The AEWE is an annual campaign of experimentation to place cutting edge prototype technologies into the hands of Soldiers to solve small unit tactical problems. The Manoeuvre Battle Lab, as part of the Army Futures Command (AFC), executes AEWE to accelerate near and midterm Army modernization and provide bottom up input to capability development, by providing early and iterative feedback on prototypes in a tactical setting. AEWE is the ‘first step’ of a larger Army and Joint Experimentation enterprise.
Being demonstrated at AEWE, Spectra’s SlingShot added voice and data BLOS COTM to the service participant’s in-service tactical VHF and UHF radios, allowing interoperability between coalition partner radios. Shaun further stated that SlingShot is a Force Enabler, providing man-portable, vehicle, maritime and aviation-borne systems, useable on the move, delivering flexible and low-cost channel leasing and with minimal increase in training-burden, SlingShot really does redefine tactical communication capabilities.
Simon Davies, President of Spectra Group said, “It’s an important and prestigious step for Spectra Group to be selected to take part in the US AEWE 2019. Our SlingShot system is already in service with the world’s premier forces and it has been battle-proven on multiple occasions. AEWE provided an excellent opportunity to show case SlingShot’s unique, widespread, operational capability which is attracting increasing attention from the other potential US users.
Setting up the US office enables us to provide closer support to our in-country partners and also to the end – users.
Inmarsat L-TAC: Tactical Beyond Line of Sight communications
“What are the key goals of L-TAC and SlingShot?”
“Our aim is to provide the Operationally Proven Go-To Tactical Satellite (TacSat) system for front line troops. Reliable C3 of units that are often widely dispersed and in austere environments is essential to mission success. Deploying and protecting terrestrial repeater stations in order to extend radio range is an expensive and sometimes impractical option, so military forces have tended to rely on Ultra High Frequency (UHF) TacSat communications. A limited supply of UHF TacSat channels, and its cost, means there was a need for a new solution. Without SlingShot, Force Projection troops have limited C3 capability, troops are able to communicate intra Patrol, and back to Company HQs but find it difficult to communicate effectively further back. Equally remote units such as Recce troops find it difficult to remain in communications other than relying on more strategic systems such as HF. This also limits the ability of the troops on the ground to communicate with other platform types such as helicopters, fast jets and ships to call in air cover and artillery support. SlingShot provides for an all informed, platform agnostic approach, where helicopters carrying the first wave of troops can communicate with HQ and air support as they insert. Giving real time C3 across the battlespace.
“The UK in particular is looking at a major upgrade to its existing satcom and comms network through Morpheus and FBLOS. How do you see Spectra contributing to this process?”
“The detailed requirements of future programmes for both Morpheous and FBLOS are not fully defined but it is clear that SlingShot and L-TAC should meet requirements in both these two programmes. It provides flexible Tactical BLOS communications and is able to provide this BLOS in a Comms on the Move high tempo scenario.”
“In addition, the L-TAC/SlingShot combination enables users to transition from larger UHF/VHF antennas to smaller, discreet omni-directional ones, which can be placed on a vehicle, a helicopter or the backpacks of soldiers on the move. This is a transformative capability for agencies requiring fast-reaction deployment worldwide with optimal portability and security. Users obtain a superior level of secured satellite throughput with small, lightweight antennas supporting highly mobile asymmetric missions, such as patrols from Forward Operating Bases and Airborne Intelligence, and Surveillance and Reconnaissance (AISR). L-TAC complements existing capacity with a single-hop, low-latency voice and data service, providing additional capacity when UHF channels are unavailable. The powerful Inmarsat-4 constellation of satellites provides this capability across the globe.”
There is little doubt that Spectra’s Queens Award for Innovation is a richly deserved accolade for a UK company operating at the forefront of international satcom technology.