Low earth orbit (LEO) satellite telemetry is an emerging technology that shows promise for improving both USGS scientist and stakeholder access to critical water quality and sediment concentration data in Grand Canyon.
SBSC’s Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center Adds Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellite Dish to Historic Grand Canyon Sediment Gaging Station
Telemetry background and challenges
The Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center (GCMRC) studies suspended sediment at five long-term monitoring sites along the Colorado River in Marble and Grand Canyons. These monitoring sites are in remote locations characterized by extreme terrain that require a multi-day river trip, helicopter flight or long challenging hike to access. Three of the sites utilize geostationary (GEO) satellite data connections for remote access to field computers and attached instruments to enable access to data between field site visits and to troubleshoot equipment (Griffiths et al., 2012).
While these connections have been reliable over the past decade, GEO satellite technology is challenging to maintain, expensive and provides very slow connection speeds (0.7-3 Mbps). Establishing a connection with GEO satellites depends on an unobstructed or partially unobstructed view of about 45 degrees above the southern horizon. This is uncommon and extremely challenging to accomplish along the Colorado River in Marble and Grand Canyons where the river is bound on multiple sides by cliffs and plateaus that rise over 5000 feet. Poor view of the sky in most parts of the canyon restricts the use of this type of technology to very specific locations. Even where this type of connection is successful, high transmission power is required to overcome obstacles and low data speeds still occur.
Testing emerging technologies
Broadband internet from low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations shows promise for providing high speed connections in geographically challenging locations. LEO satellite constellations are composed of thousands of small satellites that orbit in a mesh pattern at lower altitudes than GEO satellites, improving data speeds and allowing for connection at sites with horizon obstructions. LEO technology is still in the early stages of development with only a small number of companies providing broadband service to researchers and the public.
Scientists purchased a broadband LEO satellite terminal from Starlink (operated by SpaceX) to test at the three suspended sediment monitoring sites with existing GEO satellite connections. The goal was to evaluate if a stable connection could be made in remote, highly obstructed areas and if data speeds were faster than existing GEO satellite connections.
Testing the LEO satellite terminal device at all three sites proved successful. High-speed (5-200 Mbps) connections were established at or proximal to each study site. Connection stability was studied for multiple hours at each site and downtime varied between 5% and 20% dependent on canyon wall orientation. Downtime was primarily a result of the rapid orbit of LEO satellites and highly obstructed views of the sky as satellites passed into and out of view. Despite this, uptime was significant and when a connection was established it was high speed.
Improving access to Colorado River data
Due to the success of these tests, scientists permanently installed a broadband LEO terminal at the historic Grand Canyon gaging station located near Phantom Ranch in Grand Canyon National Park. The previous GEO satellite connection at the gaging station was the slowest of the three study sites with speeds of only 700 Kbps achieved. The new broadband LEO terminal was able to achieve speeds of as high as 200 Mbps at the site, a dramatic improvement. Further testing of connection stability will occur to better quantify system reliability.
Initial success of broadband LEO terminals shows promise for increasing connectivity to environmental sensors not only throughout Marble and Grand Canyon but in many other locations where it had not been technologically possible before.
Remote connectivity benefits researchers by increasing access to data between field work campaigns, allowing for the troubleshooting of equipment remotely and better informing field work objectives. Broadband LEO terminals will likely have strong benefits for emergency response as well because they allow for high quality phone calls and text messaging in places where traditional satellite phones cannot receive a signal.
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