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Nuclear Monitoring Extends Reach Through the Skies

Pilot Project of Remote Monitoring via Satellite Communications Under Way

The experimental satellite network includes three 2.4m antennas mounted on the roof of the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

A six-month pilot project employing satellite feeds to monitor sensitive nuclear materials and check they are not being diverted for non-peaceful use has been launched by the IAEA with the support of the European Space Agency (ESA).

The satellite-based network will transfer data from surveillance systems and monitoring equipment on a near-real-time basis from four locations worldwide to the IAEA´s headquarters in Vienna, the central hub of the network. A first, remote satellite terminal has been deployed in Hungary, while more are to be located in Brazil, Armenia and the Chernobyl facility in the Ukraine.

"This project is in line with the Action Plan for Meeting IAEA´s Safeguards Needs in the 2020s, in which the adoption of space-based technologies for safeguards and verification was strongly recommended. Satellite networks could help us open up possibilities in communications," says Manfred Zendel, Head of the IAEA´s Surveillance, Seals and Remote Monitoring Section.

The IAEA is working with ESA, which is funding the € 400,000 pilot project, to assess the feasibility and cost of using satellites to relay data from remote surveillance systems directly from the field with no terrestrial segment.

"Within this project, which follows two cost-benefit studies completed two years ago, ESA has a research and development role. However, we believe that satellite communications could provide the IAEA with additional infrastructure capability for its ever-expanding remote monitoring network," comments Pierluigi Mancini, Head of ESA´s telecommunication Future Programmes and Applications Division.

The IAEA first introduced remote monitoring of selected nuclear facilities on a trial basis in the 1990s, using telephone lines and the Internet to transmit the data. Where deployed, satellite networks would make such communications independent of terrestrial networks, allowing IAEA inspectors to gather data from remote locations and from countries where terrestrial telecommunications infrastructure is unreliable or insufficient.

Satellite networks can support a range of two-way communications services, including data and image-gathering, telephone and live video conferencing, delivered simultaneously.


Images, electronic seal and radiation data recorded at locations under IAEA safeguards are encrypted and then transmitted to Vienna. Inspectors then review the data and determine if the facility is operating as declared.

To support the online monitoring of nuclear facilities, the IAEA has a remote monitoring data centre, which downloads data from over 140 locations worldwide. Fifty radiation detection systems and 90 surveillance systems (including 340 cameras producing 150,000 images per day) generate to up to two gigabytes per day of global data traffic.

The satellite communications technology selected for the IAEA-ESA trial is known as Digital Video Broadcasting - Return Channel via Satellite (DVB-RCS), an open standard for two-way transmission of digital data. Development and promotion of DVB-RCS has been funded by ESA as part of its Advanced Research in Telecommunications (ARTES) programme.

Satellite capacity used for the trial test is being leased from Paris-based commercial operator Eutelsat, which operates a global fleet of geostationary satellites orbiting around the Earth at an altitude of 36,000Km, while the system integrator and service provider is ND SatCom of Germany.


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