SpaceX Explores Drone Ships as Ground Stations for Starlink

SpaceX is testing the use of its autonomous drone ships as ground stations to enhance its Starlink satellite internet service.This initiative aims to improve internet coverage at sea by leveraging these drone ships as mobile, sea-based ground stations.

A recent application to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) detailed SpaceX’s plan for this innovative approach.

Starlink relies on a network of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites and ground stations connected to fiber networks for data transmission. The introduction of drone ships as ground stations is expected to address coverage gaps in maritime environments, where traditional connectivity options are scarce.

The FCC filing requests authority to operate up to twelve earth stations on drone ships in U.S. territorial waters of the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Plus, no more than four earth stations would be installed per vessel. The experiment would last from January 1st, 2024 to June 29th of the same year.

Communications between the drone ships and satellites will utilize Ka-band frequencies, adhering to operational standards to minimize interference with other spectrum users.

The testing phase includes measures like automatic power adjustments and strict compliance with interference protection regulations to maintain high performance and reliability. The project focuses on evaluating the earth stations’ ability to function as gateways in a maritime setting, using first- and second-generation Starlink satellites. This is part of SpaceX’s strategy to bolster its Starlink Maritime service, which already caters to over 10,000 vessels globally.

In a communication on February 6, 2024, SpaceX’s lawyer, Paul Caritj, outlined the company’s testing objectives to the FCC. The tests are solely focused on evaluating the stations’ ability to manage NGSO FSS traffic, i.e., the data and signal transmissions that are handled by Non-Geostationary Satellite Orbit Fixed Satellite Service (NGSO FSS) systems, and support local networks at sea.

Right now, SpaceX is still awaiting approval from the FCC. We will update this story once this is the case.

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