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Innovations in Satellite Antennas Attracting New Markets & Opportunities

By Carol Patton | October 31, 2014

      The antenna market has renewed life as vendors, both new and established, look to provide better technologies that will allow certain vertical markets to progress. We look at the latest trends in the market.

      Night Sky

      They may not be sexy or anything that consumers pay much attention to, but recent changes to satellite antennas are helping the industry expand its services, lower prices, improve efficiency, and open doors into new markets for antenna manufacturers. The potential for innovation is huge as evidenced by the number of emerging technologies.

      Consider flat panel antennas designed for different bands; in-motion antennas that are gaining traction in avionics; satcom on the move or auto-tracking antennas that operate while a vehicle is moving; and phased-array antennas that feature low-drag, high efficiency, robust bird strike compliance, and equatorial or skew angle performance. Perhaps best of all, just about anybody can be quickly trained to operate them.

      “We’re on track, on budget, and on schedule to bring our products to market early next year,” says Vern Fotheringham, CEO and chairman at Kymeta. “We’ll augment [them] with some very dramatic decreases in the costs of access to satellite networks, legacy satellites, emerging [Medium-Earth Orbit] MEO and [Low-Earth Orbit] LEO satellite constellations for both fixed and mobile platforms.”

      For years, he says the satellite industry has been plagued with problems involving high costs, cumbersome equipment, and lackluster performance. To make matters worse, the industry lost its battle to cellular, terrestrial wireless operators over penetrating the global telecom infrastructure.

      How times have changed. Fotheringham believes the antenna segment of the satellite industry is “back on the march,” hoping to snatch more market share by offering a new array of ground segment enhancements to mobile environments at attractive price points and fill gaps that the industry has been unable to address for decades.

      Kymeta, for example, has been pioneering materials to create holographic, electronic imaging antennas and developing software tools to manage traditional, thorny issues like creating and controlling beams. Fotheringham adds that mTenna uses new, reconfigurable antenna technology — Metamaterials Surface Antenna Technology (MSA-T) — that enables wide angle, all-electronic beam steering from a proprietary, PCB-like surface and can be manufactured using mature and affordable lithography manufacturing infrastructure.

      “We’ve been able to enjoy a new architecture of antennas,” he says, which stray from traditional parabolic antennas. “Due to the basic nature of our antennas, we get to use every square centimeter of aperture to create and utilize the beam that’s being aimed to the satellite or received from the satellite.”

      When combining that capability with that of the new, higher power satellite constellations in orbit, he says the market can produce much smaller antennas at higher bandwidth for vehicles, vessels and airplanes. In the very near future, he says flat, thin, virtually invisible, satellite antennas will replace the large radomes or mushrooms that sprout on top of large vessels or pleasure craft. Not to mention bringing broadband connectivity to anything that moves like trains and automobiles. He points to the global market for connecting cars, which potentially represents approximately 77 million vehicles per year.

      But Fotheringham says his company wants to do more than sell components and antennas. He is positioning it as a participant in the value chain and partnering with industry players to bring added value and innovative technology to the market.

      Not surprisingly, one of those innovations is smaller antennas. “Most operators want smaller and faster,” says Brent Guffey, director of Winegard’s VSAT sales for the United States market.

      The antenna manufacture recently designed a new product — WV750A — that is a Ka,.75 meter antenna designed to work on the ViaSat Exede Service. “That’s a 15 x 4 meg service,” Guffey says. “That’s where this antenna is really going to surpass the normal Ku service that’s out there because of speed.”

      Other than size, he believes no one has created anything ground shaking. Even High Throughput Satellite (HTS) hasn’t significantly impacted Winegard, he explains, because its new antennas will be compatible with all platforms, including Inmarsat’s Ka-band global satellite system, Global Xpress (GX).

      However, Winegard isn’t ignoring the rapidly growing consumer space, such as smart TV technology that requires Internet access. He says operators are asking for a satellite dish that accommodates both the Internet and TV.

      “The growth on the consumer side is really growing through the roof,” Guffey says, adding that the leftover spectrum from the high definition TV changeover (white spaces) can be used by Internet providers to bring broadband to areas not currently served by the technology.

      That includes the auto industry, despite AT&T’s premature attempt several years ago to enter the market with its Cruisecast TV. Guffey believes the consumer market wasn’t quite ready for the small antenna, less than six inches in diameter, which allowed soccer moms’ kids to watch satellite TV in their SUVs.

      But since then, consumers have become more tech-savvy and tech-hungry. Some companies are focused on satcom by developing an auto-tracking antenna for moving vehicles.

      “This is a new technology we’re embarking on and will make sure it’s an affordable, low-cost, in-motion antenna that will eventually replace on-the-pause antennas,” says Bilal Awada, chief technology officer at C-COM Satellite Systems. “This is where a good portion of our R&D dollars are being spent.”

      He says there are many migratory applications that will definitely change the antenna market if the price is affordable for consumers. He explains that electronic versus mechanical applications are more accurate at tracking while a vehicle is moving. It’s also more beneficial for satellite operators since there’s less interference with adjacent satellites. What’s more, the antenna is more stable, more accurate when being pointed, enabling operators to maximize its benefits.

      C-COM is currently developing two product lines: antenna technology for drive away and fly away, and another for on the move.

      “In-motion will open up other vertical markets for us, specifically for high-speed trains, moving buses or any public transportation that needs broadband connectivity for passengers,” Awada says. “In between some cities, there is not even cellular coverage or it’s very weak. Eventually, we hope our antennas will land on top of cars for passengers.”

      He credits growth in these new markets to spot beam technology that allows for high performance smaller-sized antennas at a very low cost. Awada says the cost per bit has dropped significantly, affords more capabilities for end users, and enables bandwidth hungry applications like video to come on to networks.

      Still, more benefits may soon be realized as more HTS launch and cover different world regions. So don’t be surprised, he says, if satellite operators expand their services in avionics, maritime, and land to reach out to mobile sectors.

      “We are very excited about the future of satellites in general, specifically when we see so many companies inventing different products and competing for different services,” he says. “For us, it’s just more markets to go after and continue our growth.”


      Problems, Perks and Profits

      While there’s increasing industry pressure to reduce the size and price of antennas, they must also perform well, which is not always the case. Ask any sports broadcaster in Europe about broadcast signals that have been interrupted by a stray signal from the ground and disrupted service.

      “The smaller the antenna, the more potential there is for adjacent satellite interference,” explains Tony Wilkey, vice president of sales at AvL Technologies. “If you have an operator which doesn’t know what he’s doing, has equipment that’s not performing very well, all of that increases the chance of something like this to happen.”

      However, AvL is focusing on more than just antenna size and performance for the mobile commercial or military market. Terminals that use AvL’s antennas are now qualified to operate over powerful commercial satellites by ViaSat and Eutelsat, both operating in Ka-band; Hughes in Ku- and Ka-band; and the U.S. Army’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) constellation in Ka- and X-band.

      Wilkey explains that some mobile, high throughput, spot beam, Ka-band satellite terminals that provide on-demand, high speed Internet connectivity also feature one-button acquisition, making the technology easy to operate, he says. Even mobile, high throughput, private networks, Ku-band terminals with highly integrated acquisition and auto-alignment algorithms via advanced antenna controllers can now be set up and activated by non-technical operators. So can man pack, non-motorized terminals that use a simple, smart phone interface.

      Because of their ease of use, he says the reporter, truck driver, and sound technician at broadcast companies can be the same person. Reporters can drive the truck, put the camera on a tripod, connect his/her microphone, push the green button to acquire the satellite and immediately upload HD videos.

      “You don’t have to send someone to school for six months to learn how to operate one,” says Wilkey. “They can be trained in a week.”

      Still, other challenges exist. Since the U.S. government is launching new satellites that operate in higher Extremely High Frequency (EHF) bands, he adds that mobile and backpack-able antennas that operate over these satellites will not only be smaller and lighter but also require more exotic and precise manufacturing than Ka-band systems. The more sophisticated the antenna, the higher the cost.

      AvL’s most exciting development is a new line of powerful antenna controllers. “We’ve been developing this for several years,” Wilkey says. “What makes it probably the most sophisticated controller on the market is its ability to work more autonomously with satellite operators and modems used in networks.”

      Another trend among satellite operators is the team approach. For example, Inmarsat, with its GX constellation, coordinates the efforts of its satellite partners. They may work with suppliers selected by Inmarsat and even attend meetings with other manufacturers. Wilkey says this tactic trumps the traditional silo approach where everyone acts independently.


      One Size Fits All

      More companies are also adopting an agnostic marketing strategy regarding antennas that support both Ku- and Ka-band. Thinkom Solutions is very close to receiving DO-160 certification for a Ku-band, phased array antenna for the commercial air transport market. The company is working with various customers to leverage this certification into other markets, including the business jet market, for both Ku- and Ka-band.

      “We’re working on adapting this technology to various platform sizes,” says Greg Otto, director of sales and marketing at Thinkom. “It’s not all about commercial air transport. There’s a large addressable market with no current high data rate solution, including business jets that are not equipped with tail pods. We’re investing in smaller apertures to accommodate smaller fuselage sizes.”

      To have reliable Internet access while flying at 35,000 feet is no longer a luxury. It’s becoming mandatory for passengers who are starting to choose airliners based on this capability.

      Otto says antenna technology from Thinkom is changing industry perceptions about what new conformal/low-profile antennas can do in terms of reducing drag (fuel burn) and increasing throughput while, at the same time, boosting affordability to end users.

      Last year, Gogo announced its hybrid Ground-To-Orbit (GTO) service and then its 2Ku service for global connectivity in early 2014. “I don’t think anyone thought you could have a low profile, high- and low-latitude capable, phased array on a commercial aircraft,” adds Bill Milroy, Thinkom’s chairman and chief technology officer. When compared to competing solutions, the 2Ku system is half the height, provides more than twice the throughput, and reduces aerodynamic drag by over 60 percent, says Milroy.

      Some of Thinkom’s research and development funds are being invested in Ka-band antenna solutions for commercial platforms. The metrics for these next generation solutions will be even more impressive, measuring one-third the height, yet offer three times the data capability when compared to commercially-available competing antennas, according to Milroy.

      Currently, he says there’s an industry movement toward launching Non-Geosynchronous Orbit (NGSO) satellites in Ka- and/or Ku-band. However, Milroy points out that the extremely broadband and polarization diverse conformal antennas that Thinkom is designing and fielding today for Geosynchronous (GSO) systems may turn out to be fully compatible with the next generation NGSO systems.

      Meanwhile, the trend for GSO systems is to work over wider, tunable, and instantaneous bandwidths to gain full global capability with every type of satellite — both HTS and FSS. In line with this goal, Milroy believes that antennas will need to further push the limits on reduced adjacent satellite interference and overall system linearity as higher-order (more operationally efficient) modulation codes become the norm.

      “The antenna technologies that will benefit most from the rapidly evolving adoption of broadband IFEC services in the future are antenna solutions that are agnostic to the various satellite network architectures, are efficient over both equatorial and near-polar routes, and minimize fuel burn to the airlines,” says Milroy. VS