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On point: The junction between defence and space situational awareness

The growing overlap between defence and space situational awareness is one of the key focal areas for a range of defence start-ups including South Australia-based Silentium Defence, which grew out of DST to become one of Australia’s leading defence SME success stories.

Space situational awareness (SSA) is emerging as one of the major battlegrounds of the 21st century. For Australia – a world leader in the development of SSA capability – the capacity will provide an area of strategic advantage for the nation and its allies, highlighting the importance of SSA.

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The increasing dependence and vulnerability of space-based intelligence, surveillance and communications assets, combined with the ever-advancing pace of anti-satellite technology, is opening avenues for Australia to leverage domestic expertise to develop a credible, cost-effective ‘multi-domain’ force multiplying, space situational awareness capability.

While platforms like the Army's growing web of integrated, networked platforms like the Boxer CRV, next-generation air and missile defence systems, Navy's Hobart and Hunter Class ships, the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, P-8A Poseidon and the E-7A Wedgetail are individually highly capable platforms – their reliance on integrated, secure and highly capable space-based networks is a key and rapidly exploitable vulnerability.

This vulnerability is not unique to Australia and its period of modernisation and capability development – rather, every modern military, including those of major powers like the US, Russia, China and India, are all equally dependent upon the uncontested access to their own integrated space-based communications, intelligence and surveillance networks. 

The overlap of dependence of defence systems and infrastructure on space-based systems, combined with the increasing importance of space situational awareness, is emerging as an area of competitive advantage for Australia – Dr James Palmer of Silentium Defence is a key example of this growing area. 

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What is the history of Silentium Defence and how has your history within the Defence apparatus helped you navigate the waters of government?

I did electrical engineering at university, University of Queensland, in fact, and then went into a PhD and then sort of fell into the area of radar through that journey. I guess the specific area of radar that I was developing, or researching through my PhD, was called bistatic radar, which is when we separate the transmitter and receiver from one another to understand what advantages that could convey.

When you've done a radar-based PhD, Defence is an obvious opportunity for employment, and so at the tail end of my PhD, I actually developed some relationships with the DSTO then, or now DST Group, and it went from being a productive, collaborative relationship to an employment agreement.

So I did my PhD, which was in the area that we've discussed. Went to DST. It's got defence relevance so I looked to start, or continue the research that I'd been doing, and so that's actually when Simon [Palumbo, Silentium co-founder and chief technology officer] and I started getting work together. He had some equipment that was available for me to do some experimental research on. We got together, we went out in the field, we collected data, and that began the whole journey, in terms of the passive radar story.

It was very much an experimental focus to the research and development that we did. We were out in the field, as I said, collecting data, working at how to process it. As we matured, we would always put this in front of potential end users to gauge feedback and interest, understand its relevance for the defence context, and we continued along that journey, and matured the technology over that 10-year period.

How does the technology developed and offered by Silentium differ to traditional SSA technology? 

I guess the easiest way to explain it is in the context of a traditional radar. This is not a radar replacement, it is a complementary technology but I think most people would probably ... the traditional active radar is an accessible concept, right?

So for an active radar, we send out a blast of RF energy, it hits the thing that we're trying to detect, the energy reflects back, and from that reflection we can work out what's happening, how far away the object is, how fast it's moving, and using that information and looking around in our environment, we can build up this surveillance volume and get a picture or an understanding of what's happening.

We produced exactly the same information but we don't transmit, right? So by having that action of transmission, you obviously are generating a signature, which for some defence customers that's not necessarily desirable. You also need a radio spectrum allocation and you're creating some level of radiation hazard. Those three things are becoming increasing pain points for a number of customers. So if do away with the transmitter, all of a sudden those pain points are relieved.

What we're doing is leveraging, as I said, those background sources of RF energy that are already in the environment, things like broadcast television, broadcast radio. They effectively act like a big floodlight, they're floodlighting the entire scene. We take the signal directly from that. We take the signal that has bounced off all of the moving objects in our environment and we produce that same picture, but now we've got 360-degree persistent situational awareness and 100 per cent passive, so receive only.

What is the customer base for Silentium like? What is the make-up of the clients using your technologies?

Well, so Defence is an obvious end user for the technology then, partly because of that covert nature, but what we've seen since forming Silentium Defence is that there are a whole bunch of civilian applications of the technology ... or civilian needs for situational awareness, understanding what's happening in their environment, where the pain points that also exist in the civilian space, radio spectrum, radiation hazard, are biting.

The radio spectrum is finite and ... it's increasingly congested, right? So governments are selling it off, 4G, 5G, and that's increasing the value of it and making it harder to access for active sensors like this. So what we can do is actually say, in an environment where spectrum is really constrained or really expensive, is we can give people a level of situational awareness, a level of understanding about what's happening around them, without having the issue of trying to find a means of bringing the energy.

The full podcast interview with Dr James Palmer, CEO and co-founder of Silentium Defence, is available here

On point: The junction between defence and space situational awareness
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