US military wants SpaceX to create a miniature, battery-powered Starlink dish

While extraordinarily capable, Starlink user terminals are far from portable. The US military wants to change that. (FSET)

The US Department of Defense wants to find out if SpaceX can make a miniature, wireless version of the antennas currently used to connect to Starlink satellite internet.

The US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) announced its interest in miniaturized Starlink terminals as part of a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) soliciting proposals for dozens of small research and development projects under the US Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. At this stage, just hours after the round of SBIR proposal requests was published, it’s unclear if the US military is already coordinating with SpaceX on the topic of human-portable Starlink antennas or if the request is open to proposals from anyone.

Still, said request [PDF] does provide some intriguing details about its primary goals.

Portable Starlink SBIR US DoD SOCOM by Eric Ralph on Scribd

Hat-tip to Michael Sabo for spotting the SBIR.

In short, the purpose of the research topic is to “conduct a feasibility study to assess” whether it’s possible to “develop a small form factor system that enables reliable access to the Starlink commercial internet system.” In essence, as increasingly capable radio, data, and internet links have become a virtual necessity for a majority of people in the modern world, the same is true for military operations – connectivity is more useful and strategically essential than ever before.

Along those lines, US SOCOM wants to determine if it’s possible to develop an antenna that can connect to SpaceX’s vast Starlink satellite constellation while still being small and efficient enough for individual soldiers to carry – and operate – while on the move. Of note, the SBIR would necessarily be open to virtually any American business or individual capable of meeting its goals – not just SpaceX, in other words. As of today, SpaceX has never mentioned an interest in or willingness to allow third-party suppliers to develop Starlink-compatible antennas – a move that would undoubtedly make waves. As such, it seems safe – but perhaps not entirely safe – to assume that SOCOM is releasing this proposal request under the implicit assumption that only proposals from SpaceX itself will be considered.

Starlink dishes can already be moved and used – while static – in different locations and SpaceX is working to upgrade its network to allow customers to take their dishes anywhere and even access the internet on moving vehicles. However, the current terminal design is power-hungry and heavy – far from human-portable, in other words. (Reddit /u/wandering-coder)

Simultaneously, a miniature, battery-powered antenna capable of connecting to Starlink and providing a “reliable internet connection” would obviously be of immense commercial interest to both SpaceX and competing low Earth orbit internet constellation companies like OneWeb and Amazon. It’s unclear if accepting government funds and performing development under an SBIR grant – particularly for US military special forces – would interfere with SpaceX’s ability to commercialize the same wireless antenna for civilian use.

Of note, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has already stated that a miniature mobile Starlink antenna “sounds like a good idea,” though there has been no sign of any work on such a device.

Regardless, the DoD will accept proposals for the latest batch of SBIR contracts between May 19th and June 19th. If SOCOM ultimately chooses to award a Phase I contract and the resulting feasibility study concludes that human-portable Starlink antennas are within the realm of possibility, SpaceX (or unlikely third-party offerors) could move from theoretical or laboratory research to prototype development through a Phase II proposal. A hypothetical Phase III proposal would follow up Phase II with a focus on building and testing a substantial number of prototypes in the field, possibly resulting in an operational procurement contract.

Eric Ralph: Eric Ralph is Teslarati's senior spaceflight reporter and has been covering the industry in some capacity for almost half a decade, largely spurred in 2016 by a trip to Mexico to watch Elon Musk reveal SpaceX's plans for Mars in person. Aside from spreading interest and excitement about spaceflight far and wide, his primary goal is to cover humanity's ongoing efforts to expand beyond Earth to the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere.
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