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Phased Array Antennas: Can they Deliver?

With the demand for more lightweight, powerful antennas showing no sign of abating, developers are rising to the challenge. But will it be enough to push the market forward?

As someone who has spent more than 20 years in telecom, wireless, and satellite communications, David Helfgott, chief executive officer of phased array antenna manufacturer Phasor, knows technology evolutions can happen quite quickly. Yet it still boggles his mind that barely more than a decade ago, when he worked for SES in the early to mid 2000s, engineers were focused on getting wideband and broadband satellites onto land-moving vehicles — and using the industry equivalent of caveman tactics to do so.

“We got a bunch of Radio Frequency (RF) electronics and a big, domed 1.2-meter mechanically steered antenna, and strapped them onto a Humvee that we bought on eBay to prove you can get a 5 megabit link on the move,” Helfgott recalls with a laugh. “But it was only a proof of concept and not a feasible commercial technical solution, given the weight and very high profile antenna. We needed something better.”

Technologically, Helfgott’s “big domed antenna” days are a far cry from D.C.-based Phasor’s electronically steered, high-throughput, low-profile phased array antennas, primed and ready for their commercial market debut.

Phasor Six module Aeronautical ESA. Phasor

In early March, Phasor announced a collaboration with Canadian satellite communications company Kepler Communications on the use of electronically steerable phased array antennas for Non-Geostationary Satellite (NGSO) applications. Helfgott says we’ll see additional partnership announcements in the near future.

“Everything you used to do on a big parabolic dish with a moving pedestal, plus all of the supporting electronics like amplifiers [and] Block Upconverters (BUCs), was compressed onto a specially designed Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC),” says Helfgott, who was tapped to lead Phasor in 2013. “It took over five and a half years and now we are getting ready to launch. The days of the very limited, defense-industry sponsored, $1 million phased arrays are well behind us.”

Helfgott isn’t the only enthusiast for the sleek antenna that’s poised to ride the next wave of satellite communications, fueled by rising consumer demand for broadband and forthcoming activity in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite constellations such as OneWeb and SpaceX. But if you ask others in the satellite industry, phased array antennas have taken an awfully long time — too much time, perhaps — to prove their worth.

While Northern Sky Research’s (NSR) most recent “Flat Panel Satellite Antennas, 2nd Edition” report forecasts cumulative Flat Panel Antenna (FPA) equipment sales to reach $9.1 billion by 2026, driven largely by the aeronautical industry, NSR researchers didn’t hesitate to note, “cost and performance have been the major factors holding back further development.” One notable failed venture NSR cites in the report, the September 2014 partnership between Panasonic Avionics and Boeing to build a phased array Ku-band antenna targeted at narrow-body aircraft, suggests that airlines still are reticent to pay the higher cost of more efficient antennas.

Given these concerns, are the stars truly ready to align in 2017 to catapult the buzz-generating phased array antenna to stratospheric success? Or are the market challenges that phased array antenna manufacturers seem to minimize — such as whether these antennas can deliver services within a satellite ecosystem at a compelling price point — bigger roadblocks than anticipated?

An Array of Opportunities

Phased array antennas, flat-panel structures composed of and controlled by an array of tiny composite antennas that can transmit and receive data, have come a long way since the 1950s, when the technology was used for military operations (while reports vary slightly, the first phased array transmission occurred sometime in the early 1900s).

“Phased arrays were complex, analog, inflexible, hand-calibrated affairs with very limited functionality,” says Helfgott.

By the early 2000s, the technology continued evolving but there was still no compelling case for the commercial market. Mainstream internet and mobile terrestrial wireless technologies were still in the early days of widespread consumer adoption — so the demand for streaming YouTube videos aboard aircraft didn’t exist. Today, the aviation industry largely favors flat panels for its in-flight broadband services.

“A flatter profile is sexier and, if you’re in an airplane, it’s obviously better for the air drag,” says Dallas Kasaboski, an NSR analyst.

In addition, demand for high-speed broadband in emerging markets such as Mexico and Colombia, and in transportation verticals such as automotive and maritime is contributing to the interest in phased array antennas. Meanwhile, the development of High-Throughput Satellites (HTS) and plans to launch massive constellations into LEO and MEO orbits is opening up new opportunities.

Design-wise, phased array antennas have evolved remarkably, graduating from mechanically steered “gimbaled” models to electronically steered flat panels. The latest breed of phased array antennas are thinner, lower profile, and more reliable than their predecessors, and possess very high gain.

“As we move to HTS and antenna bandwidths grow wider, operators are putting the pressure on antenna manufacturers to create equipment that can perform in those higher-channel bandwidths,” says William Milroy, chairman and CTO of ThinKom Solutions. Recently, the Hawthorne, California-based company, which makes phased array antennas for military and commercial applications, forged a partnership to lend its antenna technology to In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) provider Gogo’s 2KU product line.

For C-COM, a 20-year-old antenna manufacturer best known for its fixed and mobile Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) antennas that sit atop vehicles, phased array antennas are more technologically compelling for communication on moving vehicles. The Ontario-based organization recently announced a partnership with the University of Waterloo to explore phased array technology for future applications.

“We did look at other technologies, but one of the biggest advantages we see in phased array is that you can do beam steering … electronically, or you could do a hybrid-type electronic or mechanical steering together,” says Bilal Awada, chief technology officer of C-COM. “We think the technology could go to a low-cost basis, and that’s what we are aiming for. We want an antenna that is affordable and scalable. Phased array was the natural choice for us.”

One of the ways antenna manufacturers are cutting costs is through the use of lower-cost materials, produced in larger volumes.

“OneWeb is talking about deploying 5 million terminals over a five year period, so the price target for those is going to have to be very low,” says Milroy. “We’re very elastic in our cost. We don’t really have much challenge in getting our antennas below $1,000 in very large production quantities. The reason is we’re not using a lot of components … we’re really using metalized plastic in those areas [which] makes it pretty easy to get the cost down and we don’t have a lot of RF or electronic components to buy or assemble. [Also], we’re not propagating in expensive or lossy dielectrics or meta-materials, we’re propagating in air … and that’s a pretty hard material to beat for loss or cost.”

Just a Phase?

Nathan Kundtz, president and CEO of antenna manufacturer Kymeta, paints a more cautious picture of phased array antennas within the larger flat-panel landscape. While he clearly admires the engineering and design aspects of phased array antennas, Kundtz has a hard time buying into the business case.

“If you look at companies who have built electronically scanned antennas, it’s companies like Boeing … and Lockheed Martin,” says Kundtz. “They’re really expensive and really high-tech devices. And that’s driven by the complexity of getting literally thousands of individually tuned elements to operate in harmony. A receive phased array antenna consists of thousands of small elements that all have to be in phased alignment with each other, and they have to do that over time and at varying temperatures and ruggedized environments, as well as with a power supply that needs to actively control power-hungry phase shifters, related amplifiers and other components.”

For these reasons, Kymeta has passed up phased array architecture and is banking on different kind of flat-panel antenna, composed of different materials on a holographic panel (see sidebar).

“Certainly people try to make phased array antennas cheaper, but miss the fact that there are integration costs, system costs, and power consumption costs — and the combination of a transmit and receive aperture is not something that most of these platforms can address,” says Kundtz. “We think the answer is not going to be phased array architecture, and so our approach is completely different. We don’t have expensive, power-hungry components. We have a single Low-Noise Block (LNB) and a single high-power amplifier for transmit and receive, which are the conventional tools of the satellite industry. The antenna itself is also a passive structure, which means it does not require actively controlled phase shifters. This ultimately means the antenna is lighter weight, smaller size, and has lower power consumption.”

John Finney, founder of Isotropic Systems, says the problem with current phased array and flat panel antennas is that it’s impossible to decouple the number of feeds from the scanning performance of the antenna.

“That stood out a mile for me when we analyzed the challenge in commoditizing the technology,” says Finney. “If you have a 65- or 70-centimeter antenna in Ku, you need literally thousands of feeds. The number jumps around depending on the size of the antenna, but in all cases an incredibly large number of feeds are required to scan to wide angles and to create a beam in any given direction. Until now, there has been no way to reduce the components that drive the cost of phased array and the performance that you want from it.”

Because of the cost and deployment challenges, Global Eagle, which provides aircraft connectivity systems via its flat-panel and gimbal antennas in the Ku and Ka bands for airlines such as Southwest, expects to have early versions of flat panel antennas available in one to two years — but with maturity in about four years.

“Everybody wants to be very optimistic and positive about what the next generation can bring,” says Simon McLellan, chief engineer and vice president of Research & Development (R&D) for Global Eagle. “But what’s really curtailing throughput is the economics of providing 100 megabits per second on an aircraft. It costs a lot of money. Can you make a case for paying $30, $40 for high-speed Internet on a flight? Some people can, but there’s a balance there. As satellite costs come down we can create that balance even without major technical upgrades to existing equipment.”

ThinKom phased array antennas. ThinKom

McLellan notes that new technical developments and products have to focus on efficiency.

“It is traditional to focus on throughput and advertise high numbers but if these systems are not efficient in the regions they operate, there will be no revenue model to support them,” says McLellan. “Under GEO satellites, flat-panel antennas have a variable efficiency and can be very inefficient above 60 degrees latitude. This will not change until after the introduction of the LEO/MEO constellations where satellites are placed above these panels. This will finally put flat panel antennas in the forefront of efficiency.”

Moving on up

While the market outlook for phased-array antennas is mixed given the unanswered question of whether these antennas make sense for satellite industry partners, staying up to speed with advances in technology and constraints in the satellite ecosystem will present new challenges in the future. Keeping technology agile, in particular, will present a greater challenge for antenna manufacturers, says Milroy.

“In LEO and MEO systems like OneWeb and SpaceX, the satellites will be moving across the sky, and we will be moving, so the need for higher scan agility is really important,” says Milroy. “You need to be able to track these satellites … but also you need to make quick setting to rising satellite hand-offs as there’s only a finite amount of time before any one satellite gets too low, so this is driving customers to demand higher beam agility.”

In addition, as satellite providers move into higher frequency bands, antenna designers will be tasked with tweaking the antenna infrastructure, which is no picnic.

“Ku-band is popular, and as SpaceX is planning to use that same exact frequency band, and OneWeb is using that same exact frequency band, there’s going to be a lot more concern about interference,” says Milroy. “So from an antenna standpoint we have to do a lot better job of controlling antenna sidelobes and do a better job of concentrating more energy into one beam.”

However, phased array antenna manufacturers say they’re up for the challenge.

“We’re going to a domain where satellites are fixed in the sky to a domain where satellites are moving in the sky and you have to hand off between satellites,” says Milroy. “So the whole management of how you point the beam, how fast you can move the beam, how fast you can track the beam, are all trends in terms of how demands are changing on us.”

The Post Phased-Array Antenna Market Heats Up

With the bounty of new opportunities in mobile satellite constellations, flat-panel antennas are hotter than hotcakes. But not everyone is betting on phased array antennas to capture the market share. While these antennas, which are composed of thousands of tiny antennas, are technologically sexy, many believe they won’t be able to deliver at the right price points.

And so, an emerging crop of antenna manufacturers is working on equally buzzworthy equipment they believe will scale better in new applications and new markets.

One of the most well known flat panel manufacturers in the post-phased array movement, satellite technology provider Kymeta, hopes that its holographic panel antenna, which consumes little power in comparison to other flat panel antennas, is an ideal fit for more reliable applications in cars, planes, boats and more. “The way that panel is made … is with a series of resonators at the frequencies of interest that are actually produced using liquid crystal display technology. That active region right now is produced by Sharp Electronics … and on the same manufacturing lines as television display,” says Nathan Kundtz, CEO, Kymeta. “The key points are that prices for televisions are well understood, and there’s a $250 billion set of manufacturing infrastructure already in place with decades of experience producing those at scale.”

Two-year-old satellite communications developer Isotropic Systems, which recently secured an additional $5 million in its second round of funding, is also betting on the post-phased array antenna for the future.

“We need to fundamentally collapse the cost of phased array systems to meet the business case for the next generation of satellite systems,” says John Finney, founder. “Our antenna offers the same performance as phased array, but we are aiming to be one-tenth of the manufacturing cost.” VS