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2020s: A New Decade in Satellite Infrastructure Flexibility

There’s no shortage of excitement about the coming new space decade, from the U.S. priority to get back to the moon, to the launch of the first Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) broadband mega-constellations. As the countdown to 2020 begins, the industry could see hundreds, even thousands, of satellites being launched.

Amid this high-throughput satellite revolution, manufacturing and launch costs are going down, while software defined satellites, optical technology and integrated electronics are on the rise. Whether connecting over Geostationary Orbit (GEO) or LEO, or hopping on a terrestrial 5G network, satellite users need seamless connectivity across multiple providers, frequency bands, and systems.

NSR projects that the satellite flat panel antenna market — the most challenging and crucial piece of the ground technology for future LEO megaconstellations — is expected to rise to about 1.5 million units shipped annually by 2028 with equipment revenues exceeding $1.1 billion annually by 2028.

Via Satellite spoke to satellite tech innovators to find out the trends they are watching — particularly on the crucial ground segment — and how they are best positioning their products for 2020 and beyond.

“2020 will be an influential year – it will see further validation of new LEO constellations like OneWeb and SES and o3B’s mPower rollout, more progress in Q- and V-bands and further development of the Earth observation market,” says Tony Russell, president, Communications and Power Industries’ (CPI’s) Antenna Systems Division in the U.S. and Canada.

“A big driver [in the LEO market] will be the huge price pressure — where we have one to two orders of magnitude lower price per satellite. Mass production of many, many small terminals will require a revolution in the ground segment,” says Thomas Fröhlich, CEO, WORK Microwave, a European manufacturer of satellite communications equipment. “This represents a huge change for classical companies in the satcom business.”

Industry insiders agree that the new LEO and Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) market led by early entrants OneWeb and SES’s mPower network requires a much more cost-effective, flexible ground segment, starting with antennas.

NSR Senior Analyst Dallas Kasaboski explains that traditional parabolic antennas aren’t feasible given the wear and tear they would incur while linking up to a new LEO satellite as it moves over the horizon. Yet the low cost and efficiency of parabolic antennas are hard to beat, especially given the prohibitively high price of today’s current flat panel antennas, which can track multiple satellites at once, making them crucial to LEO constellations. Their high price tag and complexity have historically made them only feasible in government/military applications. That's something one new startup hopes to change.

“None of the electronically scanned antennas on the market have figured out how to operate in high frequency at low cost. Because of that we decided to increase our focus in Ka- for our first-generation products,” says John Finney, founder and CEO of Isotropic Systems.

A New Breed of Integrated Terminals Using a Transformational Optics Approach

Isotropic Systems has spent the last three years developing a new kind of microwave refractive beamformer that uses optical principles to break the mold of antenna technology. It has attracted major players like SES and Inmarsat to co-develop its low-power, high throughput terminals.

“We don’t believe in antennas alone; we believe an antenna is a component of a terminal, which needs to offer a great deal of flexibility and be easy to use,” says Finney, who previously served as CCO for O3b before it was bought by SES.

The company recently demonstrated its optical beam-forming technology over a Ka-band satellite after previously doing so over Ku-band the year before. The test demonstrated that Isotropic Systems’ electronic scanning and tracking exceed the conventional performance of flat panel antennas and conventional phased array technology. Finney says that the company will begin offering Ka-band and Ku-product lines in early 2021 to early 2022.

Within the small, Non-Geostationary Orbit (NGSO) market, Isotropic Systems will focus on fully funded MEO and LEO Ka-band constellations. Finney explains that these players already serve customers on their existing network who can be converted to the next-generation systems.

Higher Levels of Antenna Precision and Performance

CPI’s Russell also is tracking tech developments — first, how the desirability of higher bandwidth satellites is pushing the industry to higher frequencies like Q- and V-band, which in turn, will require antenna providers to offer more precision; second, how the need for lower latency and more sophisticated Earth Observation (EO) capabilities are driving the full-motion antenna market; and third, mobility to allow for high-capacity links where fixed infrastructure does not exist.

CPI has continued to broaden its product lines, beginning in 2007 with the purchase of Malibu Research Associates, a maker of full-motion antennas for telemetry and common data link antennas used to communicate to and from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). In 2015, CPI added ASC Signal; in 2018 it acquired Viasat’s family of limited-motion antennas and Orbital Systems, which provides EO Telemetry, Tracking, and Command (TT&C) antennas used for launch vehicles; and most recently, it has agreed to purchase the satellite antenna systems business of General Dynamics’ Mission Systems.

Today, CPI offers one of the broadest ranges of antenna products, from which it is looking to generate new classes of product by harnessing the technical synergies within this broad portfolio.

“Our focus has been on getting higher and higher levels of precision and performance, which paves the way into these higher frequency bands and more challenging, full-motion applications,” says CPI’s antenna chief Russell. “This will mean better tracking capabilities, better precision on the actual operation of the antenna, and superior Radio Frequency (RF) performance.”

The Coming of AI, C-band on the Return Link

Antenna providers are not the only companies looking at enhancing their offerings. ViaLite Communications provides RF-over-fiber links to eight out of the 10 largest teleports. The links transport satellite signals to and from antennas and control rooms.

“We’re seeing a requirement for much longer distances where the antenna could be up to 500 to 600 kilometers away from where the data is actually being processed,” notes John Golding, product manager — RF over fiber products, for ViaLiite.

ViaLite is the only manufacturer that produces its own simulation tool, the System Designer, for long distance links.

According to Golding, the company is also seeing an increase in software used in day-to-day operations of satellite systems where intelligence is required to make decisions. Operators, especially large-scale LEO networks, will no longer be able to rely on human operators; instead, they will look to Artificial Intelligence (AI) to perform antenna pointing/switching. In instances where there are two antennas pointing at two different geographies, AI will detect incoming adverse weather in one area before it occurs and point the other antenna to that location before service is affected, Golding says.

Another trend involves bandwidth requirements of High-Throughput Satellite (HTS) constellations causing a move away from L-band in favor of C-band for the Intermediate Frequency (IF) uplink and downlink paths.

“C-band supports much wider channels and you don’t have to fragment your IF over fiber,” says Golding, adding that ViaLite has products coming out soon that will help teleport operators better handle C-band, as well as Ka- and Ku-band.

Golding says the company’s piece of the ground segment is changing dramatically because of the coming LEO constellations.

“We see more designs with clusters or farms of antennas in one location, versus one single large antenna — which is needed to keep continuous or multiple connections in the network,” he says.

In response, ViaLite is scaling their product line accordingly — whereas before they would have one outdoor box or two or three RF or fiber links, now they have “multiples of everything,” Golding says. “We’re seeing a need to downsize the size of our products so we are looking at efficient, small outdoor enclosures, like the ODE-MINI, which can be tucked under antennas and that don’t weight much because the antennas move.”

Processing data from these antenna clusters presents unique challenges, too, since the traffic must be routed to one local centralized area. “How do you get all this information back without interrupting the timing and synchronization? RF over fiber is very good for that — it’s very low loss and low latency,” he says.

Higher Data Rate Modem Technology

Modem providers also are adapting their capabilities to keep pace with new market forces. Germany-based WORK Microwave in early 2019 was the first on the market with a recurring product supporting extremely high frequencies such as Q- and V-band.

“The U.S. market has developed into the most important market for us,” says WORK Microwave’s Fröhlich, noting that his firm’s V-band converter is a key supplier to a major IP satellite project.

The company’s DVB-S2X modem also is generating strong market response. It’s used in very large wide-band applications up to 500 Mbps such as connectivity on cruise ships, he adds.

“We are experiencing an increasing pressure on price and that has driven us to develop a new more compact design for converters,” says Fröhlich. He explains that the firm’s new, Ka-band dual-channel converter will soon be used on SES’ mPower network. The company also hopes to capture hub ground station business with LEO constellations and has had early success with two future constellation operators.

Very Small Aperature Terminal (VSAT) and modem manufacturer SpaceBridge is eyeing higher data rates for their modem technology. The company launched its C7700 family of consumer-grade modems capable of receiving a signal from a wideband carrier and can support multi-beam connectivity without the need to reconfigure them.

“Our modem is optimized for next-generation HTS systems,” says David Gelerman, SpaceBridge CEO.

The band-independent modems are designed around a system on chip architecture. Gelerman says his company is working with multiple antenna providers offering both expensive and not-so expensive antennas. “We are looking at using these antennas for future applications in Ku and Ka-band and eventually home/consumer use.”

Gelerman sees integration and open standards becoming huge requirements in the HTS environment, especially with LEO megaconstellations. “For LEO it’s more pronounced because there is bulk volume involved. Companies will need to embrace well defined standards and interoperability between satellite and terrestrial networks.”

Gelerman predicts that the LEO constellations will initially use traditional steerable and parabolic antennas during the field trials and proof of concept phase, but says that flat panel antennas will be available in time for massive deployment. Nearer term, he anticipates more traditional Geostationary Orbit (GEO) HTS installations in 2020, as well as the first wave of LEO installations.

“Long term, I see successful deployment of LEO installations — they will be fully integrated with 5G and working in the same environment and ecosystem especially when we talk about connected cars.”

Fröhlich expresses excitement for seeing how the market for LEO evolves, and is investing internal R&D to develop solutions such as the company’s very compact frequency converters.

He sees a disconnect on the timing of when autonomous cars will be on the road, and the timing of LEO satellite launches. In Europe, it’s believed that autonomous driving cars won’t be mainstream for another 15 to 20 years, when generations of LEO satellites will have already needed to be replaced. “Hence, autonomous driving can’t hardly be a driver for the LEO constellation business plans, but rather institutional customers and militaries,” Fröhlich says.

“We do not yet fully understand the logic of the business plan, but we see very relevant players heavily investing so we need to take it seriously,” he adds.

NSR’s Kasaboski agrees, noting that all the attention directed at LEO constellations is premature.

“The LEO market is going to take time. We believe we will get there but there are technology hurdles to overcome,” he says.

Top Satellite Tech Trends to Watch in 2020

• New, better, flexible antennas — “The ultimate goal of an electronically steered flat panel antenna solution is that it can ‘do it all’ — establish a connection, and flexible enough to be multi-orbit, multi-beam.”

• Intersatellite links or non-intersatellite links — Where do users put the intelligence?

• Different propulsion types such as electric or green — Electric propulsion has been demonstrated on small satellites. Fueling spacecraft with green fuels could speed launch readiness because they require lower power and less stringent temperature requirements not to mention being less flammable.

• Declining space launch costs enabled by reusable launch systems and the advent of 3D printing

• The rise of additive manufacturing such as 3D printing in space can reduce raw material costs, payload sizes and eliminate the need to frequently launch spare or replacement parts into orbit

• The rise of small GEOs — miniaturized, more capable GEO satellites are positioned to compete with the LEO marketplace.

• Lower satellite manufacturing costs. VS