Evolutionary Antenna Tech Inspires the Future of Satellite Constellations
Newer terminal technologies and electronically steered antennas in the high-end mobility market are advancing ground technology rapidly, just as satellite megaconstellations begin to come online in LEO and MEO. The synchronicity between these will depend on new players — and industry veterans — who are leveraging their new technologies in an effort to capture new customers, and bring broadband capacity to coverage gaps around the world.
Just over the horizon we can see an Earth that is one 100 percent interconnected by broadband, as new megaconstellations go online in the Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) and Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) — at least that’s the idea, anyway.
With today’s satellites maxing out and the demand for High-Throughput Satellites (HTS) becoming off the charts, it’s no wonder that antenna systems on the ground are evolving fast to keep up with the wave of demand for more broadband.
Companies such as OneWeb, SpaceX, LeoSat and Telesat promise to deliver on the first phase of this new reality by the end of 2018. But for these ambitious megaconstellations to go live, new wave electronically-steered antenna systems must mature quickly and complement traditional geostationary systems.
C-Com, which started producing mobile antenna systems in the early 2000’s, has stated its intentions to evolve as a company while producing new systems for the growing flat-panel antenna market. In a joint venture with the University of Waterloo, the company hopes to bring a modular active phase array system to market in order to compete with some of the startups already making noise.
While C-Com is already testing on a small scale, the company hopes to have a product prototype sometime early next year.
“We see big projects from the LEO and MEO constellations being launched as an opportunity to fund new antenna operations,” says Drew Klein, director of international business development at C-Com.
And while C-Com appears intrigued by the prospects of future megaconstellations, at present, the company has a tempered view when considering the expectations being set by younger antenna startups.
“A lot of the cost expectations are really ambitious, and may not be achievable in introductory years unless heavily subsidized or bundled with other services,” Klein says. “Today, choices most people have are mechanically parabolic or flat-fixed panel systems. That’s mainly due to lack of proven technology which can compete. As MMIC technology advances, phased array will benefit along with economy of scale.”
There are limitations to wide-band flat-panel antenna systems, however. They don’t do things like auto inquire. Essentially, they are point and shoot like a traditional paramount dish.
Compared with companies such as Phasor and Kymeta, as industry vets, C-Com expects to have several differentiators. Their Ka-band products will initially be marketed for the commercial segment first, before releasing to the consumer and enterprise market segments.
The future of mobile connectivity at sea and air that we see relies upon the cost efficiency Klein eluded to, as new systems integrate software to control electronic antenna components that automate mechanical means of the past — beam forming, pointing, acquisition, re-acquisition, dynamic adjustments, and adjacent satellite interference mitigation.
In short, the ground game must catch up to the satellite space race.
To close the Earth’s coverage gaps, GEO and LEO/MEO technology must not only work in symphony to communicate with different types of terminals, but the demand for antenna systems must match what’s physically feasible. With phased array systems rapidly maturing, the promise of these LEO/MEO and GEO systems interoperating excites the CEO of Phasor Solutions, David Helfgott, who calls the potential “transformational.”
“There’s so much capacity coming online that the economics of connectivity with the satellite will improve dramatically, allowing it to be adopted farther and farther downmarket,” says Helfgott.
Following seven years of development, Phasor’s electronically steered antennas began testing in commercial use cases this year. These antennas are barely 2.5 centimeters thick, and are designed to be conformal in order to look at a wider angle 180 degrees, with dual-beam technology making them LEO and GEO interoperable.
The Promise of Interoperability
Questions still remain as to how this interoperability will truly function on a large scale, given that many of the wide-band megaconstellations aren’t live. In many cases, network operators are building their constellation infrastructures without knowing exactly how Earth’s terminals will communicate them when they go online.
With nanosatellites being used more and more, that also puts the onus on these terminals to operate with extra power in order to amplify signal strength and transmit to a satellite with minimal power.
AvL Technologies, which has partnered with L3 GCS to develop the DarkWing wide-band satellite communications terminal, has taken note of this tradeoff. Their engineers are working to meet demands from military and aircraft customers who desire lightweight, smaller and more portable systems that can communicate with multiple types of satellites.
Krystal Dredge, Director of Marketing, AvL Technologies says AvL shares its concerns with C-Com and Phasor about the future of interoperability. “There are significant challenges associated with steering the transmitted beam as the LEO satellite moves across its arc; managing the hand-over from one satellite to the next, and avoiding interference with other satellites,” she says.
That hasn’t stopped these companies, and others, from pushing forward with development and use-case testing on technologies that investors (and megaconstellation developers) expect to be mass-produced in the near future.
No One Company will Have All the Power
There will be multiple winners in this market space of high-throughput systems, as demand from the enterprise market by the U.S. military and other high-end use cases continues to increase.
LeoSat, for example, sees itself as a disruptor in the defense market — which has traditionally relied upon GEO systems.
On-the-move military applications will rely on newer phased array systems that suppliers will contract to the military in order to service aircraft communications, unmanned vehicle communications, and manned vehicle communications — at air, land and sea.
“The military has been using on-the-pause, backpackable, flat-panel antennas for many years, and these antennas recently have evolved from receive-only technology to two-way (transmit-receive) communications, and they have evolved from commercial Ku-band to commercial and military Ka-band,” says Dredge, whose background includes time with defense suppliers in addition to her work with AvL.
That the military is taking cues from the commercial market is not insignificant. The hope is that, as adoption of these newer phased array systems continues to spread, it will reach more downmarket venues in the near future.
Nonetheless, major players like Phasor and Kymeta remain in competition over the high-end market exclusively, as its insatiable demand has been proven as the driver of success for these newer technologies, and a market payoff that makes sense with today’s terminal economics.
Bringing the Masses Online with Broadband
By their own admission, Phasor will never be at the bottom of the food chain. And, while the super yachts of the world number in the thousands, fishing boats number in the millions. Right now, we have six-man crews at sea who can’t FaceTime home, and they can’t Skype home.
The maritime market is there waiting to be serviced, as-is the aeronautical market in some of the world’s emerging economies.
To illustrate this point, flight paths in high GDP countries have airlines signing big contracts for new terminals that speak with the latest phased array systems — the ThinKom KU3030, for example, is effective for providing a benchmark but, economically, these systems make it impractical to focus on emerging markets where some of the biggest coverage gaps exist.
That screams opportunity to the teams manning research and development over at Isotropic Systems, whose OneWeb-compatible terminals aim to deliver ultra-low-cost broadband to emerging markets in a quixotic quest to bridge the digital divide.
“We’re at a crossroads where the requirement to distribute so much capacity coming online at once requires a complete step-change in the economics of ground terminals versus what’s already available on the market,” says John Finney, Isotropic’s founder.
While OneWeb may require more funding to come online, the SES Networks O3b mPOWER network is destined for success, and with it, satellites will triple the number of terabytes of broadband communicated back to consumers.
“We’re enabling the operators to ship lots and lots of megabits,” Finney says. “And so, the only way that you do that is you go away from the high-end niches — which the other guys focus on, and that’s very clear.”
Isotropic Systems aims to be one of the leaders working to connect smaller maritime vessels and flight routes in India, Africa and Latin America. One way to achieve that, they believe, is by reducing the price point of terminal systems by 70 to 90 percent.
“That sort of range depends on whether it requires single-beam or multi-beam, the size of the aperture, whether or not it has integrated modems. Generally, we’re trying to create a massive transition in the price of these terminals, without compromising the performance — in fact, we endeavor to improve the performance,” says Finney.
One common thread with high-end vendors is that they have a strategy working to commoditize their terminal designs by leveraging a manufacturing capability, under the assumption that a mass market event will exist sometime in the future.
Isotropic Systems is trying a market strategy markedly different, and SES Networks, Inmarsat, and OneWeb have all given the company a vote of confidence through recent partnerships. From the first units shipped, Finney’s team will include designs that have a lower price point so that the consumer broadband market will be satisfied.
“With our model, should we be successful with OneWeb, or able to leverage the 5G supply chain — or if connected car takes off — that becomes an added bonus,” Finney adds.
Time will tell which strategy proves most successful, but there is a consensus and an expectation that the combination of these evolutionary technologies will bring to life the satellite constellations of tomorrow. VS