The first commercial satellite ground station to be owned by Aboriginal people has positioned First Nations peoples to be leading participants in the global space industry.
When global communications company Viasat wanted to augment its international network of satellite tracking ground stations by adding a facility in the Southern Hemisphere, it was no surprise it settled on Central Australia.
The area around Alice Springs is ideally suited due to low electromagnetic noise, clear access to the horizon and proximity to fibre networks.
After several years of negotiations, two Viasat satellite dishes were installed in July 2020 just south of Alice Springs, adding to the company’s global real-time Earth (RTE) network.
It is the first ground station owned by Aboriginal people. Fittingly, it was built by Ekistica, an engineering and technical advisory firm fully owned by Aboriginal non-profit the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CfAT).
CfAT has been providing technology and infrastructure solutions for more than 40 years to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to enable them to live and work on Country and is now actively seeking opportunities in the burgeoning space industry.
CfAT CEO Peter Renehan, a Central Arrernte man from Alice Springs, says the board’s decision to build and own the Viasat ground station through commercial subsidiary CfAT Satellite
Enterprises Pty Ltd, funded by Indigenous Business Australia, was based on the board’s desire to create a sustainable income stream, generate employment and foster innovation by marrying Aboriginal peoples’ unique expertise with state-of-the art space technology.
“We don’t see Aboriginal people as just passive end users on the end of a technical solution — we feel we need to be a part of it,” Renehan said.
“We are on the crest of a wave of new industries, and times have changed where Aboriginal people are not engaged. We feel strongly it is our role and responsibility to remote communities to promote access to these sorts of technologies.”
The RTE network is typically used by low-Earth orbit satellite operators to provide improved affordability and reduced latency for high resolution Earth observation and remote sensing applications.
Data collected by the new facility will be used by government agencies and commercial entities for shipping, disaster management, the resources sector, search and rescue, and environmental monitoring.
Ekistica’s Managing Director, Chartered engineer Lyndon Frearson FIEAust CPEng, said the project reflects the firm’s aptitude for delivering significant, complex projects in remote locations.
“We have come to have a very strong appreciation of the importance of understanding location and place to solving technical issues,” Frearson said.
“One of our core beliefs is that location should never be a barrier to getting good technical outcomes.”
When Ekistica was engaged to coordinate the installation of Viasat’s Earth ground station on CfAT’s 38 ha site, five kilometres south of Alice Springs, Frearson said they assumed it would be a relatively simple process to project manage.
Their brief was to coordinate the installation and design and build the foundations and plant infrastructure, including communications, server rooms and power supplies, so Viasat technicians could assemble and test the remaining infrastructure for the satellite dishes.
Then COVID-19 happened.
“We had to sit down with Viasat and say we don’t know when we’re going to get the borders open. It could be years,” Frearson said.
“Nowhere in the world has Viasat relied on third-party engineering or construction support to erect, commission and test their satellite dishes. But their technicians were stuck in the US and the clock was ticking, so we needed to work out how to get the equipment shipped and assembled.”
When the 40-foot containers arrived, Frearson said it felt like opening an enormous, but very delicate, IKEA set.
“We couldn’t rely on someone else coming and checking — we had to make it work ourselves,” he said.
“So with cranes and people watching, we opened up the containers and started to work through how to get it assembled, tested and operational.”
Ekistica developed a process to construct the dishes that involved their engineers running video in the live feeds from GoPros through computers to Viasat technicians in Atlanta, while supervising Aboriginal trainees doing the assembling.
The whole process was a resounding success.
“The installation was complete and operational in a timeframe Viasat engineers said had never been done that quickly or efficiently,” Frearson said.
However, once the satellite dishes were installed and operational, another challenge surfaced.
CfAT’s site already hosts Geoscience Australia ground stations with different mission requirements.
“This creates very particular challenges around notching [the filtering process whereby the radio spectrum being used by one user has a small section of their spectrum notched out to avoid the risk of another user overlapping in the same spectrum], so the satellites don’t look at the same point in the sky, communicating with the same frequency, and interfering with each other,” Frearson said.
Ekistica engineered a solution using notch filters that filter out certain types of information at certain times of day.
This required negotiation with other site users, detailed modelling to work out when the ground stations would interface with each other and implementation via notch filters using software and the hardware on site.
Ancient knowledge, cutting-edge tech
“Under the construction of this infrastructure on our land, we included through the procurement processes other Aboriginal organisations doing components of the work,” Renehan said.
“We’ve showed we’ve got the capability and networks to build this really high-end technology and infrastructure in Central Australia.”
Viasat awarded CfAT the maintenance contract for the ground station, generating ongoing training and employment opportunities for local Aboriginal people.
While the construction and maintenance work are welcome, Renehan does not see the facility as simply a way to create employment.
He wants to see Aboriginal people using their unique knowledge and skills, developed over 60,000 years of living in one of the most remote and challenging environments in the world.
“When Aboriginal people are thinking about their land, and when we’re doing artwork, we’re doing that from a process of looking from above,” Renehan said. “If you look at Aboriginal artwork, it’s a bird’s-eye view. So, for Aboriginal people, looking at the world through satellite technology is not a new concept. It’s part of our DNA.”
Now the Viasat ground station is operational, the focus has shifted to how CfAT can move up the value chain and create opportunities for Aboriginal people to be involved in interpreting aerial imagery and bringing insights into observation and analysis of information for activities such as ranger programs, carbon farming or tracking natural disasters.
“We’ve got to develop and roll out training programs and employment pathways that are applicable to Aboriginal people,” Renehan said. “A lot of the ranger groups are using apps, tablets and iPhones to manage land assets, flora and fauna. We’re looking at how we can make their job easier using this newer technology.”
As a registered training organisation, CfAT is investigating how best to develop and fund a digital learning centre on CfAT’s site.
“There’s a whole world of opportunity we can link into such as training people remotely, managing land or tracking bushfires,” Renehan said.
Close to the ground
Chartered engineer Roger Franzen HonFIEAust CPEng is a space expert who leads Engineers Australia’s National Committee on Space Engineering.
Franzen said low-Earth orbit, between 300 km and 1200 km from the ground, is one of the most crowded but important orbit shells, as it is where most communications, Earth observation and weather monitoring occurs.
He believes the Northern Territory’s Viasat ground station will provide significant short and long-term benefits.
“It provides an important increase in capacity for Australia and facilitates access to new and innovative space-based observation and information generating systems,” he said.
“Real-time communication is very valuable. Having real-time access to data means you can act upon the information that data provides, and that’s really important in today’s world of rapidly changing environmental conditions.
“The whole nation’s economy is dependent on space-based services we take for granted today, like water in the tap.
“We have been buying other people’s technology and we’re now dependent on those technologies and where you have a dependency, you have a vulnerability. We have to address that vulnerability with sovereign development. This ground station provides an important piece in the sovereign capability argument.”