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When it Comes to Antennas, it’s All About Price

With the proliferation of satellites in Non-Geostationary Orbits (NGSO), and the growing capacity and coverage of Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites, antenna manufacturers must continuously adapt. New specifications demand new technologies, in an exciting age where network coverage is reaching new possibilities.

In order to support the upcoming wave of multi-satellite constellations that demand different coverage, transmission power, and frequency bands, these companies must also continue to innovate, at a reasonable pricepoint. Via Satellite spoke to a handful of experts from Ball Aerospace, Kymeta, L3Harris, OneWeb, Panasonic Avionics, and ThinKom about new antenna technologies, potential breakthroughs, and where they see this industry segment headed in an environment where cost rules the realm of possibilities.

One could assume that antennas are evolving to get smaller and cheaper, as is the case with satellites. Spoiler alert — general consensus is that smaller isn’t necessarily better, and size and cost aren’t necessarily correlated — but cost savings are top of mind. Instead of thinking about antennas as “smaller is better,” it’s all about getting the best performance in the smallest possible area.

“It’s really about area efficiency,” comments ThinKom Chairman and CTO Bill Milroy. “In terms of cost, there is indeed a strong push to lower costs at much higher production rates and volumes, particularly for fixed User Terminals (UTs) in support of the various Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) and Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) constellation players. In many cases, the cost of the antenna/terminal can (eventually will) make-or-break many of the best laid [business plans] for these constellations.”

As far as antennas used in In-Flight Connectivity (IFC), Panasonic Avionics Director of Connectivity, Technical Sales Lisa Kuo says that “the trend, as far as our [aircraft] customers, is to get as low profile as possible … Smaller may not be the right way to put it, but they want antennas to be as low profile as possible.”

But, cost is also top of mind. “A lot of times, getting smaller usually means getting cheaper. But for aircraft, they have very different constraints about what they’d like to see on the aircraft. One of the biggest questions they have is: How much times does it take to install the antenna? And then, how much time does it take to fix the antenna? If the antenna onboard is broken, how much downtime are they going to suffer in order to fix the antenna? And, how often is it broken? … We’re going to see an interesting case of cheaper antennas, versus more expensive antennas that are easy to install/antennas that don’t break as much,” she says.

Kuo sees antenna manufacturing going in two different directions. She says that companies could “give you antennas that aren’t as reliable, but they’re so cheap that you don’t care,” or there will be antenna providers that may “be a lot more expensive, but you install it one time, and you’ll never have to take it off for repair.”

L3Harris Director of Space Antennas and Structures Tom Campbell speaks to the space segment, in saying that “satellites are getting smaller, requiring the launch configuration of antennas to be more compact. This allows ride sharing on launches and enables constellations to be put in orbit at lower cost.”

It all comes full circle – with satellites getting smaller, antennas intended for launch must undergo a size reduction. But aside from size, there’s no doubt that cost is a big part of the equation, and Campbell adds that system designers are spending more time and effort on antennas to increase capabilities, while decreasing overall costs.

“They are finding that if they increase the capability of the space antenna, they are able to decrease the overall dollar/bit of the system,” Campbell says. “In most cases this is leading to increased quantities and higher gain antennas combined with frequency reuse strategies to maximize the throughput on the satellite.”

Kymeta Vice President of Product Lilac Muller stitches the ground and space segments together, in saying that, “antenna size is an interdependence of efficiency of both sides of the link.” She adds, “many antennas are expected to remain about the same size, given that they must be compatible with spacecraft that are currently in operation and ones that are still being designed. Price is a function of volume and integration. Price will increase or stay the same for markets that need very custom solutions and will decline for markets that enjoy the benefits of scale.”

Muller explains that the evolution in size and cost depends on the market verticals these antennas are serving. OneWeb Product Management Director Mirna Mekic adds, “there are market verticals, which will significantly benefit from the flat panel design — such as commercial and business jet aero applications, as those antenna designs provide significant OpEx savings in the airline industry.”

In the same vein, Kymeta’s Muller believes that a breakthrough on the horizon is being able to manufacture flat panel antennas in volume, specifically for LEO applications.

Speaking of the variations in antenna design, Electronically Steerable Antennas (ESA) are clearly a hot item. Ball Aerospace Vice President and General Manager Rob Freeman stresses how the greater satcom industry has been waiting for two things from ESAs. “First, fully electronically-steerable phased array antennas that work. Electronically-steerable antennas are flat panel antennas that have no moving parts and are software configured,” he says. “Second, the satcom industry has looking for fully electronically steerable phased array antennas that are affordable. In other words, customers want performance at the right price points.”

ESA is specifically of value to the In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) arena, as noted by Kuo— she believes that the ESA antenna is the next big breakthrough for the aviation segment.

“For IFC, a lot of people believe the ESA antenna is the next big thing,” she says. “There’s definitely a good reason for that, with the rise of LEO and NGSO constellations — it makes ESA antennas a lot more technically feasible. Because we’re also focusing on the lower antenna profiles with higher reliability, ESA antennas have a lot of really good features that meet all these trends.”

In terms of form factor, Kuo believes that mobile antennas will eventually become part of the vehicles they support. “Another thing is expanding ESA to a bigger scale — having an antenna that is embedded entirely in the aircraft body,” she says. “I believe that at some point, aircraft manufacturers, Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), will start embracing that. I remember when 10 years ago, GPS didn’t come standard in a car. You had to order units separately. But nowadays, it’s silly for a car not to have GPS — it’s part of what you have to have in the car. I’m sure antennas will become something like that on the aircraft. So, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes an essential part of the aircraft. I’m definitely looking forward to aircraft manufacturers to embed it as part of their permanent structure.”

Although some see ESA antennas being the next big breakthrough, Kymeta’s Muller generally believes that the next breakthrough is “more capable and feature rich antenna products, higher integration of the terminal to reduce cost and complexity, and more standardized configurations to support high volume emerging markets.”

Muller then delves into antenna applications in the connected vehicle market. “Land mobility has traditionally been a communications-on-the-pause market or required an expensive solution for military or high-end applications,” she says. “We have opened and will continue to open the land mobility market to more opportunities to solve business needs with our next-generation terminal product. The components available in the satellite industry have not been built to the grade necessary for automotive environments and we are working to bridge that gap.”

“Kymeta identified a market problem for connectivity as it relates to the automotive sector which has only increased with the shift to autonomous driving,” Muller continues. “The need is clear for contiguous communications for a connected and autonomous future. This applies to both on-road, off-road and industrial applications in the automotive market. We are developing a full, integrated solution to address the needs of this emerging market. That solution will incorporate both satellite and cellular connectivity and related subscription services into a unified product offering targeted at these markets.”

The automotive vertical clearly agrees with the aviation segment in that a fully embedded connected car or aircraft has not been developed yet, but Muller adds that “the need for this kind of solution in the industry is here and now.”

Although technology development continues to steer itself in different directions — and often dependent on the market vertical — multiband antennas continue to be a sought-after pipedream for many. Fortunately, the consensus is that the technology is plausible.

“Multiband antennas are plausible but not yet practical,” according to Ball Aerospace’s Freeman. “For the foreseeable future, the end user will need to sacrifice performance and deal with higher cost if they require a single antenna system operating over multiple satellite bands (i.e. Ku- and Ka-band). “

OneWeb’s Mekic further adds that the plausibility of multiband antennas depends on the market, and the antenna’s intended applications. “We are seeing examples of technology maturity which will enable multi-band antenna designs,” she says. “The application of those antenna designs will depend on the needs and requirements of the customer and end-users. You can expect end-users to want to see a value in the antenna they chose, which balances connectivity and service flexibility with design parameters such as — power consumption, size/profile, and ultimately the price.”

Panasonic’s Kuo brings the discussion back to aviation. “This is a highly contested topic in the land of IFC, especially for Panasonic. At this point, we are offering a Ku-band solution, and we are also offering a Ka-band solution to our airline customers. When we look at our antenna roadmap as well as the features we are planning on embedding in our roadmap, we talk amongst ourselves and say: ‘Hey, what about a Ku-/Ka- band antenna that allows you to do either Ku- or Ka- band?’ That is a really attractive thought, but when you look at the technology we have today — in order to make a Ku-/Ka- band antenna, the efficiency is not there, and the size is also not there. Our customers are looking for smaller and flatter — not heavier, bigger, and bulkier,” she says. “That’s not to say that in the future we won’t get there, but we still haven’t seen it yet.”

The antenna market has seen a lot of technological growth, but as with anything, there is still a long way ahead. Whether it’s the aviation or connected vehicle markets waiting for a time where antennas can be installed in the entirety of the aircraft/vehicle, or others simply waiting for a practical multiband antenna, markets continue to seek prices that are right for both suppliers and customers. VS