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Money, Not Antennas, Hinder LEO Success

Financing, not antennas, is holding back the brave new world of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations and omnipresent high-bandwidth satellite connectivity, say antenna manufacturers, claiming that the technology is comfortably on track to be ready to meet the demand.

When former O3b Chief Commercial Officer John Finney decided that his new endeavour should focus on satcom antennas and terminals, he had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve. He wanted to build a terminal so cheap that it would do the same for the satellite communications market that the legendary mid-1990s Nokia phones did for the mobile communications sector.

Finney, who started his career in the mobile industry, knows the story well. “The mobile industry began in 1980 and by 1995 it captured roughly 1.1 billion customers,” Finney said during a keynote speech at the SATELLITE 2018 conference in Washington D.C. in March 2018, where he for the first time introduced his antenna and integrated terminal startup Isotropic Systems. “And then something very interesting happened. In just three years that followed, the mobile industry added another billion customers, largely from emerging markets.”

That ‘something’ that happened in the mobile sector in the late 1990s was not dissimilar to what’s currently happening in satellite communications, suggested Finney – improvements in technology, decreasing cost of infrastructure, new economic models. Finney believes that satellite communication services are set to become as ubiquitous as mobile within the next five years, expanding from being a privilege of rich super yacht owners, militaries and powerful enterprises to a service for the masses.

LEO operators, such as OneWeb and SpaceX, are expected to start deploying their mega-constellations in 2019, aiming to stream low-latency high-bandwidth connectivity to the still unconnected half of the world’s population. Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellite operators are stepping up their game with increasingly powerful High Throughput Satellites (HTS). The Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) is set to become more populated with a new generation of spacecraft. Satellites will connect people in isolated areas but also all types of machines and digital devices of the nascent Internet of Things (IOT).

But for this new age of omnipresent satellite communications to arrive, a new generation of antenna and terminal technology is needed that will be at the same time cheap, easy to use and capable to seamlessly handle the increasingly complex space ecosystem.

MEO satellite systems are currently relying on conventional parabolic dish antenna technology suited for the (seemingly) motionless GEO satellites. The technology works, but there are challenges. In the case of LEO satellites, which zoom around the Earth at high velocities and only remain within the sight of a ground station for a matter of minutes, the problem becomes nearly insurmountable with the old-school technology. Similarly, as LEO constellations are expected to consist of hundreds to thousands of spacecraft, there is a pressure for satellites to be as small and cheap as possible and that again poses challenges for antenna technology.

High hopes have been placed on electronically steered, or flat panel, antenna solutions. But the currently available products also have their issues, including a rather high price tag.

“We wanted to be very technology agnostic when we started,” Finney tells Via Satellite on a rainy November afternoon in central London, about seven months after Isotropic Systems, founded in 2013, emerged from obscurity. “We started from what the operators needs are. We looked at what is the market going to look like in five years’ time and set about designing a system that intercepts the new world of satellite connectivity.”

The company looked at various technological possibilities and eventually settled on an approach that had not been explored before. Isotropic Systems uses optical beam-forming modules to create scalable conformal antennas that, according to Finney, cost 70 to 95 percent less than existing phased array and flat panel technology, consume 80 percent less power and require 70 percent less electronic components.

Shortly after its debut at SATELLITE 2018, Isotropic Systems announced an impressive backlog of contracts and partnerships with some of the industry leading players including SES, OneWeb, Inmarsat, and Avanti.

“Nobody really cares about flat more than they care about cheap,” says Finney commenting on Isotropic Systems’ initial success.

For Isotropic Systems, the antenna is just a beginning. Their goal is to create a cheap fully integrated terminal with an antenna, a distributed power system and modems. The company expects to release first Ka-band prototypes to SES and Inmarsat in 2020 and start beta-production in 2021. A range of Ku-band terminals will follow soon after that.

Finney rejects the frequently discussed notion that antenna technology is the major stumbling block that hinders the success of MEO and LEO constellations. As far as Isotropic Systems is concerned, the antenna problem is, if not completely, then at least very nearly solved. “The only real challenge for MEO and LEO constellations is one of financing because you need such a very large amount to have your constellation that can pass traffic for the first time,” says Finney. “But as far as there is this notion that there are meaningful technological challenges on the ground, that’s absolutely not the case.”

Demand will Bring Price Down

Gil Shacham, Vice President (VP) of marketing and product at Israeli/U.K.-headquartered antenna innovator SatixFy seems to agree. “The technology is ready. Now we need the volume,” Shacham tells Via Satellite. “Hopefully, soon there will be OneWeb, Telesat, SpaceX and others and that will bring the price down.”

Satixfy, founded six years ago by Israeli satellite industry veteran Yoel Gat, is developing advanced silicon chips that can be used as building blocks of smart digital antennas. The company unveiled their Electronic Steered Multi-Beam Array (ESMA) antenna in March 2018 and plans to have products in the market in 2019 targeting the aero and IOT segments.

“For the consumer market, the operators want prices of hundreds of dollars or the low thousands. That’s where we are aiming,” says Shacham. “It’s definitely achievable. Since we are designing the silicon, we can achieve what we call silicon economics. In silicon, if you have volume, if you have enough demand then things are becoming affordable.”

The ESMA product, Shacham says, consists of antenna tiles – digitally connected building blocks that can be used to create larger more powerful antennas. Similarly to Isotropic Systems, SatixFy’s goal is not just the antenna but an integrated terminal fitted with software-defined radio chips capable of digitally receiving, transmitting and processing multiple beams.

Both Isotropic and SatixFy say their devices can handle multiple beams, which allows them to track multiple spacecraft and seamlessly manage the handover when one satellite rises and another sets. “When you do things digitally, it’s inherent,” says Shacham. “That’s the beauty of the technology. You can generate a lot of beams and you can point them wherever you want.”

Stepping up the Game

Industry veteran AvL Technologies which offers three types of MEO antenna solutions, rely on multiple mechanically steered parabolic dishes, is also looking into electronically steered technology to cater for the LEO needs in the future.

“The MEO systems that we are dealing with now may have about 12 satellites in orbit,” says AvL Technologies Principal RF Engineer Dr. Ian Timmins. “SpaceX has filed for about 7000 satellites so there will be a lot more going on and a lot more to track.”

AvL introduced their first flat panel solution, the Ka-band DarkWing Flat Panel VSAT, in March 2018. Timmins says the electronic technology would allow future products to have more differentiated features. However, he says, the technology still needs some maturing to match the performance of the tried and tested parabolic dishes.

According to Timmins, LEO doesn’t present only challenges but also offers some benefits. The close proximity of the satellites will lead to lower power consumption of the terminals and a much higher bandwidth for the user. Similarly to Shacham, Timmins believes that while the cost of the technology is rather high now, it will inevitably go down once demand goes up.

“What you are seeing now is a lot of media about LEO constellations but you are not seeing a lot of systems that are available yet,” says Timmins. “When those constellations become operational and usage is widespread, then it will be for the ground segment to really focus on cost effective solutions.”

Multi-orbit Solutions

Bill Milroy, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of California-based ThinKom, says the antenna manufacturer, while already offering LEO-compatible low-profile antennas for the aero market, sees LEO-only technology at this stage as an uncertain business.

“We don’t feel anyone is going to feel comfortable with a LEO-only solution or a MEO-only solution,” Milroy says. “We love OneWeb but if you buy a OneWeb-only terminal, you are banking on their system being healthy technically and financially going forward.”

ThinKom has a reason to be cautious about LEO. The company started at about the same time as Teledesic, the 1990s venture backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates that hoped to build a LEO broadband constellation quite similar to OneWeb. Teledesic’s plans never came to pass, mostly due to financial reasons.

Moreover, Milroy says, only a few malfunctioning satellites of OneWeb’s yet unproven fleet of 720 satellites would result in coverage gaps, which might be a problem for many applications. “If you need to have 100 percent availability, oftentimes there will be instances when the MEO or LEO satellite will not be available,” says Milroy. “Perhaps it’s that a location has been blocked by a tree or the system doesn’t have an available beam for your location. When those particular scenarios come up, these systems could work on a GEO satellite because usually, they are predictable.”

ThinKom’s Variably Inclined Continuous Transverse Stub (VICTS) antennas, which comprise of layers of lightweight discs rotating around a single axis to steer the beam and control polarization, offer, according to Milroy, the best of both — the phased array and mechanically steered antenna technology. The terminals can already support LEO, MEO, and GEO systems, giving customers more comfort.

Systems working across multiple orbits seem to be the holy grail that other antenna developers are aiming for as well.

SatixFy’s Shacham says that with multiple operators already owning or planning to operate fleets spanning multiple orbits, terminals that can serve multiple orbits and multiple frequencies at the same time are a logical next step. “SES already has both GEO and MEO, Telesat has GEO and plans LEO and there has been some cooperation planned between OneWeb and Intelsat,” says Shacham. “GEO is very good, for example, for video streaming. But if you want to do Internet service provision, it makes a lot of sense to receive it from a MEO or LEO satellite, which are much closer and have a much lower delay.”

Shacham says SatixFy’s digital technology could already serve satellites in multiple orbits. Isotropic System’s Finney confirmed the company plans to provide a similar capability within the next few years.

“The right solution is an environment where you can access the right satellite to carry the right traffic in the right way,” says Finney. “The fact that we can offer the customers as many beams as they want without substantially increasing the price will give service providers the flexibility to interface with this new world of next generation satellites,” he concluded.

Next-gen Onboard Antennas and Smart Payload for LEO

ThinKom, SatixFy, and Isotropic Systems all suggested they hope to put their technology on LEO and MEO satellites in the future, although no commercial agreements have yet been signed.

“The key attributes that they need in a spacecraft antenna is, of course, high -reliability, light weight, compactness, and low power consumption,” says Milroy. “Those are all the attributes that we are already bringing in on the ground side.”

He says ThinKom is actively bidding in programs looking at antennas to provide user beams but also gateway crosslinks and future satellite crosslinks. The company is aiming to develop even smaller versions of their technology to be used on satellites and hopes to have devices in space in two to four years.

“Gimbaled dish antennas particularly on small satellites can be problematic,” Milroy says. “How to deploy it? How to ensure it deploys reliably and operates reliably? Because we are fixed to the satellite bus, we don’t need to deploy, we just operate from the get go. That’s a big advantage from the reliability standpoint.”

Finney says that the trend to shrink satellite sizes, especially for constellations, challenges antenna manufacturers. “Right now, there is no way to have a medium to high gain satellite multi-beam performance without having effectively a very large satellite bus,” he says. “We believe that our Intellectual Property (IP), which is applicable to space, could solve this problem. We would have to work with different materials simply because the operational environment is different.”

SatixFy too hopes its digital technology will catch the eye of LEO satellite operators. Shacham says the company’s antennas and terminals could form a basis of future smart payloads that would enable satellites to talk to each other and allow operators to run the complex next-generation space networks in the most efficient way.

“Smart modems on the satellites would be a huge advantage,” Shacham says. “The new constellations are promising connectivity between satellites, inter-satellite links. When you want to do this, you must have a smart payload that can actually route the traffic from the gateway links to the inter-satellite links and to the user beams. And that’s what we are developing.” VS