What is COTS software?

Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) describes components that aren’t made to order and instead are available to simply take ‘off the shelf’. These are items that anybody is free to buy, much like walking into a supermarket and picking up goods at your leisure.

Though software is intangible, the same terminology can be applied to describe a similar approach to its development. COTS software is an ideal option for many, and when it comes to the software needed to run a satellite, it’s often the very best choice.

What is COTS software?

COTS software describes software products that are marketed and sold ‘as-is’. Though they can be highly specialised in their functions, they’re designed to be accessible, easy to set up, and integrable with other computer systems so that adopting them is as seamless and user friendly as possible.

This is why software of this kind has adopted the off-the-shelf name; though there is no ‘shelf’, it can simply be picked up without any specific barriers to entry.

Common COTS software examples include operating systems like Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s macOS; product suites like Adobe Creative Cloud, which contain apps that can be chosen depending on the needs of the user; and video game engines like Unity and Unreal Engine.

By using ready-made COTS software, businesses are relieved of the pressure to develop their own solutions or pay a company to create it for them, both of which increase lead times and project costs.

Why is COTS software effective in space missions?

COTS software fulfils a unique niche through its use in space missions due to the vital nature of the software itself.

Satellites – even the smallest and most basic examples – need onboard software to control their various functions which can range from synchronising time to sending and receiving telemetry signals.

Without it, the satellite essentially ceases to function, and if the software fails then options to rectify the error are slim to none. If a small satellite like a CubeSat fails, it may need to be abandoned. Pre-validated COTS software that is designed to be integrable minimises these failures.

COTS solutions reduce both the cost of developing a satellite and lead times, shrinking the time to market for a satellite project. This is especially important for private companies and educational institutions sinking their own investment into a satellite project, where deadlines for launch need to be met in order to carry out business-critical missions or essential research.

Ready-made satellite software also eliminates any trial and error that may come with trying to build satellite software from scratch, which is a particular risk if a team has never handled a project of that type before. Mistakes can cause delays in development cycles and delay launch, something that a polished and actively supported COTS solution avoids.

Benefits of FSDK and MCS being off-the-shelf

Bright Ascension’s Flight Software Development Kit and Mission Control Software are two instances of COTS software for satellites. Both of these solutions are designed to be picked up and quickly integrated to a satellite mission, and this approach carries some strong benefits for satellite developers:


Using COTS software is simply quicker than creating an in-house solution or hiring an external party to write one for you. Being purchasable in a ready-made state, it can simply be bought and worked into your project.

Furthermore, the FSDK can evolve alongside your mission and be changed easily thanks to its modular architecture – no fundamental redesign needed even in case of software updates or different hardware systems, which may be the case with a bespoke piece of software.


Being scalable means that your software isn’t confined to the scope and capabilities within which you first used it. That means that the same software can be used between two different missions by simply modifying the software’s components (i.e. functions and roles), allowing your space system to grow with a lot more flexibility and efficiency.

For instance, new satellites in your expanding project may have slightly different requirements – e.g. new or updated functionality, hardware or modules. These new components will need to be integrated into the existing and functioning constellation, increasing risk and delivery timescales. The modular structure of the FSDK solves this problem by allowing you to use your existing software package and simply swapping the relevant components in and out.

Bespoke software developed for a specific mission may not be useable for other missions that aren’t similar enough and have different functionality or even simply use hardware from different vendors, meaning a new piece of software needed and new costs to see it done. Scalable COTS software means more for your money by being a malleable, long-term solution.

More reliable

COTS software, by its nature, is more reliable without worrying about poor programming or clashes with existing systems. COTS solutions are designed to be conducive to your existing software and easy to implement, but they are also generally more reliable in their usage thanks to the ongoing development and support.

Turn-key solutions don’t last long if they constantly fail their customers. This incentivises mission-ready software to be as polished and useable as possible from day one.


When software can be bought by virtually anybody off-the-shelf, it needs to be as widely accessible as possible. Not everyone buying it will have the same skill sets or technical knowledge, so COTS software needs to be composed in a way that makes it as useable for the wider market to which it’s designed to serve.

Companies may be swayed to hide private software developers by the promise of making something easy to use, even if it means the software costs more. To combat this, COTS solutions need to be intuitive and simple to use. The FSDK minimises the need for specialist skills and uses a library of ready-to-use components that can simply be chosen and implemented according to the mission.


The licence-based payment structure of COTS software makes them the cheaper option when contrasted with a one-off purchase of software. This allows flexibility with the useful lifespan of the software for the end user, as it can be utilised for as long as it is necessary and demands no large upfront payment.

This makes the FSDK and MCS the best options for small satellite missions that have tighter budgets and no use for a bespoke software solution after the mission has concluded.

COTS software for your next mission

Bright Ascension’s COTS software for satellites is unique in its simplicity, convenience, and ease of use. Our Flight Software Development Kit and Mission Control Software are the answers to frustrating software issues in small satellite missions. Scale and configure your copy with ease to give your satellite every function it needs.

To book a demo and see our software in action, contact us today.