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Space Force's data must flow: Microsoft Azure and Ball Aerospace demo satellite to battlefield linkup

Warfare 365?

Ball Aerospace and Microsoft have shown off tech that uses commercial cloud computing to process downlinked data and deliver "actionable information" direct to the battlefield.

The Pentagon picked the satellite-maker and Microsoft's Azure cloud in 2019 for the demo contract for the US Air Force’s Space and Missile Command. The terms of the contract were never disclosed.

The demonstration might not have gone down well with some Microsoft staffers, who worry about how the tech they have developed will get used.

The solution, part of the larger CASINO (Commercially Augmented Space Inter Networked Operation) project – a candidate for Register backronym of the week if ever there was one – is all about the processing of large datasets spewed by the increasing numbers of satellites in Low Earth Orbit. Speed and flexibility were key, with the ability to add more satellites and swiftly switch imagery type priorities.

As well as shovelling simulated data into Azure for processing, the team demonstrated a direct downlink from Telesat's LEO satellites to both Azure in the data centre as well as to an electronically steerable Ka-Band phased array attached to an Azure Stack Edge device in a tactical vehicle, showing "that actionable information could be delivered to the warfighter in the field." Ball provided the phased array technology.

Both Azure instances were used to process the imagery in the data, using machine learning "imagery exploitation" algorithms built by Ball to detect certain activities or features.

Microsoft chirped: "The project also confirmed the potential to transform the analysis of space data across a wide array of industries, including agriculture, ecological study, sustainability, and disaster response."

Ball Aerospace meanwhile, tweeted a pic of what looks like non-combat personnel next to two armoured Hummers, none of whom are wearing battle gear, and one in a T-shirt (possibly a sub-contractor). Also, are those the right colour fatigues for a US soldier in a desert setting? Let us know in the comments.

The company has already unveiled Azure Space, aimed at "discovering insights from satellite data" using Microsoft's cloud, and Azure Stack Edge devices come in a variety of form factors including ruggedised varieties able to fit into a rucksack. Demonstrating the military possibilities afforded by both seems par for the course.

Plenty of military cash on the table

As ever, Microsoft's rivals have also been busy in the defence space. "Amazon Web Services for the Warfighter" is AWS's take on applying its cloud to military purposes. "Our nation's warfighters," exclaimed AWS, "deserve the most innovative and secure solutions at the tactical edge." All the more galling for the company when the lucrative JEDI deal went Microsoft's way.

The US military is indeed keen on Microsoft's wares, signing off on a deal for over 120,000 of the company's HoloLens headsets in March reportedly worth up to $22bn. The single-vendor cloud computing JEDI contract, meanwhile, is worth a cool $10bn to Redmond. ®

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