FCC SpaceX satellite ruling advances autonomous vehicle development

SpaceX Services has been given the green light to use its Starlink satellite internet constellation on vehicles in motion. Gabor Szecsi explores the implications

Marking a major regulatory milestone in the development of automated vehicles, on 30 June 2022 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted SpaceX Services Inc. authorisation to use its Starlink system on vehicles in motion and Kepler Communication Inc. to use satellite services on vessels in motion. This regulatory approval allows the use of the low Earth orbit satellite constellation to provide high-speed, low-latency Internet connection to vehicles on the road for the first time. Usage of this technology is essential for the uninterrupted communication required for real-time decision-making by self-driving vehicles.

FCC decision

In this decision, the FCC authorised SpaceX to operate earth stations in motion (ESIM) on vehicles throughout the US and its territories, as well as on aircraft operating in American airspace, including those that are not registered in the US. Furthermore, SpaceX and Kepler Communications are authorised to operate ESIM on vessels in US territorial waters and throughout international waters worldwide.

The FFC stated in its decision that authorising a new class of terminals for SpaceX’s satellite system is in the interest of the public and that this authorisation will “expand the range of broadband capabilities to meet the growing user demands that now require connectivity while on the move, whether driving an RV across the country, moving a freighter from Europe to a US port, or while on a domestic or international flight. Similarly, authorisation of the Kepler ESVs service will provide much-needed connectivity to vessels in the territorial waters of Hawaii and Alaska, and remote areas throughout the world, including the Arctic and Antarctic polar regions.”

SpaceX Starlink satellite dish
SpaceX Starlink satellite dish

Companies are authorised to use Ku-band frequencies (11.7-12.7 GHz downlink and 14-14.5GHz uplink) for communication between the satellites and earth stations. So far, Ku band frequencies have been used for satellite communications that are utilised for broadcasting satellite television. The FCC decision is not surprising as it follows international recommendations. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the European Telecommunication Standards Institute have recommended allowing ESIMs to use Ku-band frequencies. However, satellite television service providers are concerned about the FCC’s decision, arguing that the new class of terminal will cause interference between different satellite service communications.

Significance for self-driving vehicles

Geostationary orbit satellites (GSO) that have been used to provide Internet connections for aircraft and vessels allowed a high-latency connection. In this context, latency refers to the time it takes for a data packet to travel from one point on the network to another. In the case of self-driving vehicles, it is the time it takes for the data packet to travel between the vehicle and the satellite. Because GSOs are very far from Earth, over 22,000 miles away, GSO satellites have at least 250 milliseconds (ms) latency. By comparison, cellular network signal latency is about 10ms, which would seem adequate to ensure safe operation for self-driving cars. However, the problem with relying on cellular networks for self-driving cars is that they do not provide 100% coverage, which would mean that self-driving cars would not function properly in rural areas with irregular service or in big cities, where tall buildings would disrupt cellular communication.

Conversely, low Earth orbit (LEO) and very low Earth orbit (VLEO) satellites have the potential to provide a signal latency of less than 10ms. In addition, a combined cellular-satellite network would provide sufficient coverage required for the safe operation for self-driving cars.

This regulatory approval allows the use of the low Earth orbit satellite constellation to provide high-speed, low-latency Internet connection to vehicles on the road for the first time

To ensure safe operation, automated systems must rely on real-time data to make driving decisions while on the road. The necessary information might be gathered by the car using cameras and sensors. Other critical information might be transmitted through cellular or satellite networks. Since none of these methods alone could provide uninterrupted data transmission, the technical solution would most likely be an integrated network composed of low-latency VLEO and 5G cellular networks.

The immediate effect of the FCC decision is that SpaceX and Kepler can now provide onboard Internet service for airlines and commercial vessels. For the long term, the decision also opens new avenues to encourage the development of the combined satellite-cellular infrastructure that is crucial for the safe operation of self-driving vehicles. The decision will also help advance the development of Internet communication between cars and their manufacturer.

About the author: Gabor Szecsi is an attorney with Haynes Boone’s Autonomous Transportation Industry Group

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