STOTY Winner ThinKom Expands Antenna Tech to Meet Growing NGSO Demand

ThinKom is well-known for its performance in the In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) antenna market. Its Ku- and Ka-band, low-profile, high-throughput ThinAir antennas are in use on more than 1,400 commercial aircraft, and the company has partnered with GoGo and more than 20 commercial airlines. But that’s not what brought the Hawthorne, California-based company recognition with the 2019 Satellite Technology of the Year (STOTY) Award. Instead, the company won for its phased array land gateway that it calls an “array of arrays.”

The software-defined gateway, which was released in August 2019, is a new application of ThinKom's VICTS technology (Variable Inclination Continuous Transverse Stub), which is based on the foundations of ThinKom's CTS (Continuous Transverse Stub) array.

The gateway can simultaneously track multiple Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO), High-Earth Orbit (HEO) and Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites with look angles between 5 and 90 degrees in elevation, and full 360-degree coverage in azimuth. With a visual footprint of less than 2 meters tall, the phased array gateway can occupy an area of less than a 7-meter diameter. ThinKom wants the technology, which is not adversely affected by wind, snow, and ice loading, to replace legacy parabolic dish farms.

ThinKom CTO Bill Milroy talked with Via Satellite after the company’s win about the technology, and how the ground segment market is evolving to keep up with increased demands. ThinKom is Via Satellite’s second-ever STOTY winner, and Milroy said the company is grateful to have the recognition from SATELLITE attendees, the folks “working in the trenches.”

VIA SATELLITE: Congrats to ThinKom on your win. Can you tell the story behind the technology, how the multi-beam array of arrays gateway came about?

Milroy: Like a lot of products or ideas, it’s really a new application of a successful technology and a product that we've already had, our VICTS array. We built our VICTS technology based on the foundations of our CTS array. We built those in the past for X-band and Ku-band and Ka-band and Q-band and all sorts of different frequencies, and up until recently, we've always used them as single antennas.

We've never really imagined being a big player in the very large dish markets. But we learned that the ground infrastructure is becoming much more important than it ever was. Now with the (Low-Earth Orbit) LEOs and the (Medium-Earth Orbit) MEOs, the demands on the antenna have increased. That's really made this whole idea of a software-defined ground infrastructure important. Of course, this is not really a new idea, it's just never been practical before. We're taking our VICTS technology that's already been proven in many applications, and reapplying it, where we take multiples of our technology and coherently combine them. And in doing that — lo and behold — we end up with a very affordable, low-power, low-profile, software-defined gateway.

VIA SATELLITE: I'm curious when you decided that you were going to develop this and market it. Was that something that came from internally recognizing that it was now practical, or was this something that customers were asking for?

Milroy: It was the latter first. This is a market we never really looked at, because it seemed to be served so well by large dishes. We're very wary, we don't want to be pushing a solution to solve problems that don't exist. To be perfectly candid, we didn't think this problem existed, and I don't think it really did until the Non-Geostationary (NGSO) satellites came in. And then the importance of ground infrastructure became all new.

VIA SATELLITE: The big recent news is OneWeb’s bankruptcy, and their LEO system which might not come to fruition now. What does that make you think, moving forward, about working with NGSO systems?

Milroy: First of all, we really feel bad for them, we have a lot of friends who work for OneWeb. Our hearts go out to them. The NGSO industry has its challenges for sure. But it has so many different flavors. We think that the primary starting market for the ground infrastructure need comes mostly from Earth Observation (EO) satellites, which are completely different. These satellites are collecting a huge amount of data, and because they're so small and have so little power, they depend on really large gateways. And because they are in Low-Earth Orbit, there have to be a lot of ground stations. You need hundreds of these different locations, and then each of those locations needs four, eight, 12, 20 beams, and they need to work in different bands. So it's really expanded the market demand for that.

VIA SATELLITE: What would you say you're most proud of about the phased array gateway?

Milroy: It's an example that we're never really sitting on our laurels, either technology- or product-wise. It shows that we're always finding new applications and new technologies that can be disruptive. We've been disrupting the aeronautical satcom market for some time since 2014 or 2015. So, winning this award in 2020 for a different application, it's a nice affirmation that we're doing the right thing. And I’m proud of all the employees who enabled it to happen.

VIA SATELLITE: How are you looking to develop the system further?

Milroy: We want to eventually pivot to different frequencies and different sizes and none of that's really defined yet. We're talking to all the different players, like Kratos and Atlas, KSAT (Kongsberg Satellite Services), and Swedish Space Corp., Amazon. We're starting with the X-band version of this, which appears to be the band in greatest demand right now for Earth Observation LEO’s. We've just finished completing our design of the X-band sub array, and we will be building that out on our own to do a near term demonstration on it. And then we're hoping … if we just do this in X-band and show the coherent combining, show the utility, show the efficiency, that that will check the box to give confidence and risk reduction to the folks who are really interested in this novel approach to solving the gateway problem.

The visual footprint of a ThinKom phased array gateway, in comparison to traditional parabolic dishes.

VIA SATELLITE: What else are you working on from an R&D point of view?

Milroy: We're pretty well known already in the aeronautical domain. We have 1500 of our Ku-band systems flying, we're deploying our Ka-band aeronautical systems. We also just debuted our offering in the enterprise/consumer LEO and MEO marketplace. This is based on our CTS technology. In that particular case, we worked with a contract manufacturer … to really drive the cost down and to support the high volumes. And that's really increased our confidence in expanding our breadth of offerings, to be able to not only work on commercial and business aircraft with our antennas, but to work for businesses to do cellular backhaul, and even to push down to the consumer and small business market and hit those cost targets.

VIA SATELLITE: Are you in the backhaul space?

Milroy: Well, we're not yet. But it's public information that we are working with Telesat. One of their key markets for their LEO constellation is the backhaul market. They want to really span all the enterprise market, also the aeronautical market as well, with that LEO system. So we are working on a terminal that will be useful for them. That same terminal will also be useful for other really established groups. As an example, another one would be SES and O3b, and then O3b is going to move through with their mPOWER system. So we really think we are going to play a key role in providing both fixed and mobile terminals for both of those systems.

[In October 2019, SES demonstrated IFC speeds switching between GEO and O3b MEO satellite beams using a Hughes ModMan integrated with the ThinKom Ka2517 phased-array airborne antenna.]

VIA SATELLITE: What's your mix of customers between commercial and government or military?

Milroy: Right now, we're probably about 75% or 80% commercial. So meaning 20% to 25% military. Both of those markets are growing aggressively. The DoD and the rest of the world’s governments are very interested in the military benefit of NGSOs, being that they're less susceptible to cyber, less susceptible to single outages, with more robust networks. So we're actually seeing a pretty dramatic trending up on the military and government side. We actually are flying our antennas on government aircraft right now, and we are pursuing some government ground programs. But the commercial market is also expanding pretty quickly, too.

VIA SATELLITE: Intellian won the first STOTY award in 2018 for its v240MT Tri-Band antenna, and now ThinKom has won for antenna technology as well. What does this say about the importance of antenna technology in the satellite industry?

Milroy: I think it shows that the focus on the antenna, the remote, really has increased. Antennas can sometimes be kind of a commoditized, kind of boring product. But I think that's all changed now as we go to NGSOs and LEOs. I think it changed even with working with GEO on airplanes and other more challenging platforms.

The antennas have really been in the spotlight, in a lot of different dimensions. One obvious one is cost. So for the NGSO systems that are going to require these more sophisticated ground terminals, if you can't field a very high performance, but very high value, low-cost terminal … in some cases, hundreds of thousands of these terminals, you are going to have a hard time closing your business plan. Cost has always been important, but the ability to do two antithetical things — one is dramatically increase the capability, while dramatically decreasing the cost. Obviously that's not an easy thing. That burden has been placed on the antenna community. And so I'd like to think that just as Intellian was responding to that with their particular product last year, that's exactly what we're doing with our product.

VIA SATELLITE: How do you think that antennas are going to continue to step up? I'm sure that those demands are only going to increase.

Milroy: So, the trends are, the bandwidths are getting wider and wider. Not just the tunable bandwidth, the whole bandwidths that are allocated to the satellites, but also the channel bandwidth, because the throughput demands are forever going up. This means the antennas have to be more efficient, they have to operate over wider tunable bandwidth, over wider channel bandwidth.

And then the other trend, we expect to see sometime in the future are frequency bands. Ku-band is well known. C-band of course is well known, X-band is well known, Ka-band has become well known. But now people are talking about going to other bands — Q-band, V-band, E-band, these are higher and higher frequencies. The push to go to those — it's like the new frontier of the West — these are new areas that aren't occupied right now. Satellite would love to use those to quench the thirst of bandwidth. At ThinKom, we're already doing a lot of work to be ready for those areas. I don't think they're going to come next year. You can see them already creeping in from the military side there are … Q-band and V-band are already used by the military conventionally, and starting to be used commercially for gateway links. VS

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