Technology Update — Antennas: The Shift to Small
Antenna vendors are constantly innovating to meet the evolving demands of their customers. Today, perhaps more than ever, the onus is being placed upon manufacturers to create antennas that are smaller, lighter, and more powerful. With new small satellite HTS constellations on the cards and the demands of customers increasing, where is antenna technology heading and what hurdles must it clear?
The satellite antenna of today must fulfill an extremely diverse set of applications, and vendors are striving to meet evolving customer demands. Today, customers are looking for smaller, lightweight, more powerful antennas that will fulfill their many requirements. Satellite antennas must be highly versatile, and manufacturers must be innovative and offer enhanced features at a price that is right. It’s a balancing act, and there are some pivotal industry developments that are currently driving antenna development.
“Over the past few years, two big trends in commercial spacecraft are influencing satellite antenna manufacturers and integrators like Datapath,” says president and CEO David Myers. “The first trend has been the launch of traditional geosynchronous satellites using new high throughput designs in both Ku and Ka frequency bands. Intelsat EpicNG and Inmarsat Global Xpress are classic examples of each type. Now the second big industry trend — smaller Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations, from companies like OneWeb, do present some exciting but very real technical, cost and implementation challenges. For these emerging satellite technologies, it will require field-proven antenna and terminal manufacturers to ensure that the user experience is able to deliver on its promise.”
Demand has been heavily focused on terminals that are easy to transport and very easy to use so that no technicians are required to set up or to line up the antenna with the satellite. Terminals must be fast to deploy when required and that could be anywhere, from the scene of a news story to an oil exploration project to a disaster zone. The antenna and its associated equipment must offer this flexibility, not to mention cost-effectiveness. Auto-deploy systems, though very easy to use, must also not interfere with other systems, which is a constant challenge for manufacturers.
C-Com Satellite Systems has been in the antenna business since 1997 and has developed the popular iNetVu range of one button, auto-deploy VSATs. Drew Klein, director of international business development for C-Com, explains how the company keeps up with demand and expectations of the market, saying keeping prices low while simultaneously improving the technology is paramount.
“C-Com is well aware of the strict rules with regard to interference and cross polarization requirements that satellite operators expect their users, and the equipment they have chosen, to comply. Our company continues to seek approvals and certification from all operators to give them and their customers the confidence that we can meet and exceed their expectations. Improving pointing accuracy while minimizing the time to acquire satellite with excellent X-POL, at an attractive price, is always our mission.”
An Evolving Approach to Business
Customer demand is shaping the businesses of satellite operators and antenna manufacturers. Operators are no longer vendors of capacity, they are service providers and they are constantly re-evaluating their business models to tie in with the new capacity that is becoming available.
“Our customers are evolving today to meet the new technical and market challenges of mobile broadband services tomorrow,” says David Helfgott, CEO of Phasor. “This is wide-ranging, as thinking changes from providing capacity to providing services, from megahertz to megabits, and from shared pools and best-effort network to Committed Information Rate (CIR) based service level agreements.”
Myers reiterates this changing demand.
“They [customers] are looking for complete end-to-end solutions from the smallest device on the remote site all the way back to the teleport or data center,” he adds.
Antenna manufacturers are also trying to be more flexible in their design, giving customers more options in terms of how they may use their antennas. Myers points out that, at present, in many cases customers must often choose a stationary or mobile communications terminal, depending on how they will use the service. “We [Datapath] are exploring emerging phased array technologies that would allow customers to use the same terminal whether ‘on-the-move’ or stationary. The technology is there, making a cost-effective product that can scale is the challenge ahead,” he says.
Future Growth Lies in Mobility
Large LEO satellite deployments on the horizon from OneWeb, LeoSat, and SpaceX promise a new wave of connectivity that will facilitate broadband access to moving platforms such as trains, cars, ships and aircraft. The keyword for the future is mobility.
“Customers are looking for more of everything,” explains Bill Marks, CCO and EVP of Kymeta. “The market is saying that they need to connect more devices from all mobile platforms with more data, more capacity and greater coverage.”
The development of ground terminal technology will be paramount to the success of the new LEO constellations. Terminals need to be spectrally efficient and capable of switching seamlessly from beam to beam. In addition, with the demand for conformal solutions, terminals need to be extremely low profile and lightweight. When deployed on a moving platform they must not add to drag. Traditional parabolic antennas can be bulky, heavy and there are also issues with steering mechanisms. There are many moving parts that make the antenna prone to downtime or failure. These are big issues for the provision of broadband on mobile platforms.
The FPA: The Answer to Mobility?
Flat Panel Antennas (FPAs) are increasingly viewed as the key enabler for High Throughput Satellite (HTS) and Non-Geosynchronous (NGSO) systems. In NSR’s Flat Panel Antenna Analysis report published earlier this year, the research firm highlighted that “FPAs, especially the electronically-steered variety, are a key technology for unlocking higher satellite bandwidth efficiencies with minimum weight penalty, which is critical in mobility.”
Innovation in FPA technology is moving very quickly and players such as Kymeta, Phasor and more recently, C-Com, are all poised to deliver highly inventive technologies that are aimed at meeting the demands of new generation satellite operators. Kymeta, developer of antennas for mobile broadband based on metamaterial technology, views this as a golden opportunity for the company.
“Mechanically steered antennas are impractical and costly to use,” says Marks. “As an example, fast-moving satellites require a minimum of two antennas to maintain a continuous connection; this is costly, and difficult to maintain and install. Kymeta’s flat panel, Electronically-Steered Antenna [ESA] has no moving parts and can acquire, steer and lock a beam to any satellite. Because it has no moving parts, the chance of failure or need for repair is also greatly diminished.”
Kymeta sees major growth for its product in the mobility market on land, sea and air. The company has established partnerships with Toyota for land-based mobility, Panasonic for sea-going vessels, and Inmarsat for airborne applications.
“Kymeta’s technology makes both legacy and HTS easily accessible to mobile users, and its simple and effective terminals are also available to GEO and non-GEO capacity users. By unlocking fixed spectrum to a mass market of mobility users, Kymeta is helping the satellite industry attain some of the largest growth it has ever seen,” says Marks.
Phasor is developing an electronically steerable phased array, flat panel antenna to address the demands of the enterprise market. Helfgott firmly believes that it is vitally important that NGSOs take a meticulous approach when looking at the ground system component in order to make their systems a success.
“Small satellite operators that are NGSO must think through the complementary terrestrial infrastructure and user terminals,” he stresses. “Most require a ‘make before you break’ capability to see two birds and two beams simultaneously. Dual mechanical tracking antennas are impractical in many use-cases, so NGSOs will have to plan on someone’s ESA technology in order to make their business case (and networks) work. Phasor plans on being a lead option for this market.”
Helfgott is confident that Phasor can deliver future-proofed technology that will remain relevant going forward.
“For Phasor, the rate of change in the ESA technology space far outpaces that of the satellite operators,” he adds. “Our technology is fundamentally ASIC (micro-chip)-based, so we enjoy a rate of innovation and change akin to Moore’s Law [speeds, or overall processing power for computers will double every two years]. We like to think that we are a catalyst to accelerate use and acceptance of the new HTS mobility base services to be offered in the near future.”
With agreements in place with OmniAccess for the super-yacht market, Intelsat for the small-jet market and Harris CapRock for the cruise sector, Phasor sees the changing nature of the market as a huge opportunity and driver for the business.
C-Com has also very recently announced a breakthrough in its new phased array/phase shifting technology. The company expects the 4x4 sub array antenna module technology to have a significant impact on the satellite antenna business. This development will make it possible to deploy low cost, low weight, low profile Ku, Ka or hybrid Ku/Ka-band antenna system combinations for fixed and mobile satellite broadband communication applications.
“Adopting and migrating to emerging Ka-band services will enable us to bring smaller, lower cost antennas and much more affordable broadband services. Our new phased array technology will also be an enabler for low profile, low cost and more flexible antennas,” says Klein.
The antenna is going through a key phase of its technological evolution and it is an exciting time. However, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the antenna. The correct choice all depends on the application that it must fulfill, and some will fit the bill better than others. Crucially, reliability and cost will be the deciding factors in the success of emerging antenna technology while players will focus on a more managed, turn-key approach to their services.
“The key is being flexible enough to enable the customer to solve their communication problem in a way that works for their organization,” Myers concludes. VS