Image: NTT Group

Late last month, NTT and SKY Perfect JSAT announced the signing of a contract to establish Space Compass, a 50-50 joint venture tasked with building an integrated satellite computing and communications network in the stratosphere and in orbit around the earth.

The network is designed to support a wide range of economic, academic and governmental activities, including agriculture; forestry and fisheries; marine transport; environmental protection and climate change research; energy; industry and the internet of things; disaster prevention; and security. It will combine elements of Japan’s national space policy with private sector initiatives.

The venture partners say it should also contribute to “the realization of a sustainable society.” Although “sustainable” may be seen as a popular buzzword distracting us from the dual-use (civilian and military) potential of the technology, the point is valid in this sense: Infrastructure that isn’t defensible may not be sustainable.

NTT (Nippon Telephone and Telegraph) Corporation is Japan’s leading telecommunications service provider and R&D organization. SKY Perfect JSAT Corporation is a provider of TV broadcast services in Japan and the operator of the largest satellite communications business in Asia.

Both companies are listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. NTT is 35.6% owned by Japan’s Ministry of Finance. SKY Perfect JSAT is 8.8% owned by NTT Communications, a wholly-owned subsidiary of NTT.

Headquartered in Tokyo, Space Compass is scheduled to be legally established in July 2022.

The Space Integrated Computing Network has three components: (1) space data centers (optical data relay, computing and storage) on satellites in geostationary orbit; (2) sensing and communications satellites in low earth orbit, and (3) high altitude platform stations (HAPS) in the stratosphere.

These are linked by optical wireless communications in space and mobile radio access networks (RAN) in the stratosphere to wireless 5G and 6G networks on earth. This is part of the Beyond 5G initiative I described earlier this year in “Japan moving beyond 5G to take 6G lead.”

As explained in a promotional video, data acquired by observation satellites in low earth orbit will be sent to computational satellites in geostationary orbit for distributed processing. Once processed, only necessary information will be transferred to ground stations, reducing costs and shortening transfer time.

Space Compass plans to launch optical data services in fiscal 2024 (ends March 2025) and a domestic HAPS business in fiscal 2025. This is explained on SKY Perfect JSAT’s website:

1) Space data center: high-capacity communication and computing infrastructure in space

Space Compass will launch an optical data relay service for high-speed transmission to the ground via a geostationary orbit (GEO) satellite. This will carry a vast amount of diverse data collected in space by observation satellites. Existing services, which transmit data directly to ground stations, have communication capacity limits imposed by the use of radio waves as well as limits on the time at which ground stations can communicate with observation satellites. In contrast, optical transmission via a GEO will enable high-capacity, quasi-real-time data transmission.

2) Space radio access network (RAN) business: communication infrastructure for beyond-5G/6G
Space Compass will use high-altitude platform stations (HAPSs) to provide low-latency communication services in Japan in FY2025. HAPSs make it easy to expand communication service coverage to a wider area. Consequently, it is possible to provide highly reliable communication in times of disaster, high-capacity communication for ships and aircraft, and communications services for distant islands and remote areas. Mobile carriers can improve the overall cost-effectiveness and energy efficiency of their mobile networks by combining HAPSs with an increase in the number of their terrestrial base stations to expand their service coverage.

SKY Perfect JSAT has more than 30 years of experience operating more than 30 satellites built by several different manufacturers. As of November 2021, it had 17 operational satellites in orbit.

These satellites cover Japan, Oceania (including Hawaii), Asia, the Middle East, Russia and North America (the latter two through a joint venture with Intelsat). They are used by the Japanese electric power, gas and oil industries, commercial aircraft and ocean-going vessels, to serve remote islands and other areas without other means of communication, and to provide emergency services during and after natural disasters.

SKY Perfect JSAT also provides satellite monitoring and control services to JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), NICT (Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology), the Japanese Defense Ministry and private sector clients.

The All-Photonics Network improves the information processing infrastructure by using optical technology and “new devices called photonics-electronics convergence elements.” It aims for a 100-times increase transmission capacity, a 100-times increase in energy efficiency and a 200-times reduction in end-to-end delay (latency) – without compression, which can reduce the quality of the data being transmitted.

Digital twin computing “means building a twin of a real person or thing in a digital world” in order to provide new services and applications. As explained by NTT:

The digital twin framework up to now has been to map individual targets from the real world represented by automobiles, robots, etc. into cyberspace, then analyze those targets and make predictions. The results of such analysis and predictions are then remapped into the real world and put to use.

NTT proposes digital twin computing as an extension of the conventional concept of digital twins. By freely combining and performing calculations on digital twins of objects and humans in diverse industries, we are able to accurately reproduce combinations that could not be comprehensively handled up to now, such as humans and automobiles in cities, and thereby make predictions about the future.

The Cognitive Foundation

has the function of optimally matching all manner of ICT resources and distributing necessary information inside the network. As one concrete example, typhoons No. 15 and No. 19 of 2019 were major disasters and had a tremendous impact on telecommunication services… we will enter a wide variety of information into the Cognitive Foundation of IOWN, including weather information such as typhoon intensity and path, event information, and other information that cannot be known simply by monitoring network devices… Based on the collected information, the system will optimize the network autonomously so it can plan and execute measures against a disaster before it occurs.

NTT is developing IOWN “with the aim of finalizing specifications in 2024 and realizing the initiative in 2030.”

The final goal is a “universal non-terrestrial network” that also provides situational awareness, satellite quantum key distribution, and a laser debris removal system. For more information on quantum keys, see my article “Japan building a lead in quantum cryptography.

Quantum keys are essential for the security of communications. Situational awareness and debris removal are essential for physical security.

HAPS Alliance

NTT Docomo (the NTT Group’s mobile phone network operator) and SKY Perfect JSAT are members of the HAPS Alliance, an association led by Airbus, HAPS Mobile, Intelsat and Nokia that includes nearly 50 private corporations, universities and governmental entities from Japan, the US, the UK, Australia, Europe, India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and South Africa.

The HAPS Alliance aims to “unlock the potential of Earth’s stratosphere as the next great frontier for advancements to enhance connectivity around the globe … to research, develop, and launch a robust, interoperable ecosystem of HAPS technologies to benefit people and industries globally.” 

HAPS Mobile was established in 2017 to create and manage businesses using unmanned solar aircraft as High Altitude Platform Stations. Headquartered in Tokyo, it is owned by Japanese mobile telecom and investment corporation SoftBank and engineering partner AeroVironment. Softbank and Japanese telecom carrier KDDI also members of the HAPS Alliance.

Last September, SoftBank announced that it had acquired around 200 additional HAPS-related patents and patents pending from Alphabet’s Loon LLC after Loon was shut down earlier in 2021. SoftBank and HAPS Mobile now own some 500 patents related to network technologies, services, operations and aircraft for High Altitude Platform Stations. This makes them the intellectual property leaders in the HAPS industry.

HAPSMobile and Loon founded the HAPS Alliance in February 2020 and demonstrated the world’s first wireless communication (5G LTE) from an unmanned solar-powered aircraft during a test flight in the stratosphere that September. The aircraft, known as Sunglider, was designed and built by AeroVironment.

AeroVironment is an American defense contractor headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, that designs and manufactures unmanned aerial vehicles for the US Department of Defense and American allies. It is perhaps best known for its Switchblade drone, which can hover over the battlefield and then dive bomb tanks and other targets at a range of up to 30 miles. On its website, the company notes that 700 Switchblades have been supplied to Ukraine for use against the Russians.

Summing up the potential of the technology, Japan-based space and defense expert Paul Kallender, a senior researcher in the Keio Research Institute at Shonan Fujisawa Campus, notes that:

HAPS not only decreases latency but also adds to diversification, disaggregation and distribution of assets; and don’t forget that HAPS also have excellent military ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] and communications applications since they don’t have to be refueled. Further, of course Japan’s open source and collaborative approach and use of RAN not only means that Space Compass is upgradable as NICT develops and tests 6G solutions, but also probably adds to resiliency vs. jamming and electronic and cyber attacks.

Now that space has become the high ground, it should be obvious that the security aspect of Space Compass includes national security – and that Japan has become a key player in high altitude and orbital military technology.

Scott Foster is an analyst with LightStream Research, Tokyo. Follow him on Twitter: @ScottFo83517667