German startup takes Kymeta-like LCD approach to flat panel antenna manufacturing

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WASHINGTON — To build flat panel antennas at prices low enough for the satellite industry to use them en masse, Kymeta teamed up with television manufacturer Sharp to build antennas with the same infrastructure used to mass produce liquid-crystal displays. Another company with some similarities to Kymeta plans to use the same approach for an antenna coming out in 2019.

Backed by fleet operator SES, the German science and technology conglomerate Merck Group and the Beijing Singularity Power Investment Fund, Alcan Systems of Darmstadt, Germany, is nearing completion of a phased array antenna for satellite broadband links. Those three investors collectively put 7.5 million euros ($9 million) into Alcan Systems last year to spur the development of a flat panel antenna that can connect to satellites in low, medium and geostationary orbits.

Esat Sibay, co-founder and chief financial officer of Alcan Systems, said the company isn’t making a new technology, just “finding a different way to produce it.”

“In terms of the core technology, we’ve solved all the problems we need to solve, so the real focus is on developing the product and the production capability so that we can get the cost down to the level we know it needs to be,” Sibay told SpaceNews. “Product finalization and production will be our main focus over the next 12 months.”

Alcan Systems, whose name stands for “Adaptive Liquid Crystal ANtenna,” is designing modular antennas to bring internet to mobile platforms (cars, planes, boats, and other vehicles), business networks and consumer broadband service — target markets for high-throughput satellites in any orbit.

Sibay said the company is aiming for prices “for the enterprise version under 10,000 euros and for the consumer version under 1,000 euros.”

Each electronically steered antenna should reach throughputs of 250 Mbps, and have switching speeds between satellites of 5 milliseconds, he said. Alcan Systems is 15 people today with near-term plans to grow fast, according to Sibay. “We aim to be double that over the next 12 months,” he said.

Alcan Systems’ antenna is based on research from Technical University of Darmstadt Professor Rolf Jakoby on using liquid crystals for radiofrequency communications. That research started in 2002, Sibay said, and grew into a larger project when Germany’s ministry of economics, BMWi, provided 650,000 euros in 2014. Two years later Alcan Systems spun off from the university with another 200,000 euros from BMWi, he said. Jakoby is an Alcan Systems co-founder and senior adviser.

Alcan Systems antenna Caravan_Fair_2017_20
Alcan Systems’ flat panel antenna is designed to support the connected car and other vehicles, many of which present new broadband revenue opportunities for satellite operators. Credit: Alcan Systems.

Sibay said Jakoby’s work led to the creation of both Kymeta and Alcan Systems — a claim Kymeta disputes.

“Kymeta’s work draws on earlier work Dr. Jakoby did,” Sibay said. “[Alcan Systems] draws on some of the later work.”

Kymeta spokeswoman Lisa Dreher told SpaceNews by email that while Kymeta does use liquid crystals in its antennas like Alcan Systems, “that is where any similarities end.”

“The originating research behind Kymeta came out of work done by Kymeta’s CEO and President, Nathan Kundtz, while he was completing his Ph.D. in Physics at Duke University,” Dreher said.

Prior to Kymeta spinning out of business incubator Intellectual Ventures in 2012, “the team looked at the [liquid crystal] material that came out of Jakoby’s work, but his focus on phase shifters produced a material completely unsuitable for our application,” she said.

Both companies claim patents that make their antenna products unique. The fundamental difference between the two antennas is that Kymeta’s is based on a metamaterial it describes as “a glass structure similar to a liquid crystal display.” Alcan Systems’ product is a phased array antenna that uses liquid crystals in lieu of traditional semiconductor technology. Kymeta’s antenna is also designed to work with Ku-band satellites, while Alcan Systems is simultaneously creating antennas for Ku- and Ka-band systems.

Despite being different technologies, succeeding in mass production may well be the common denominator in determining whether either succeeds.

“For most of the flat panel antenna industry, the problem that they are facing is scale,” said Dallas Kasaboski, a Strasbourg, France-based analyst at Northern Sky Research focused on satellite antennas. “Even the most mature products in the market are still having difficulty scaling up.”

Mass production of flat panel displays rapidly transformed LCD televisions from luxury items into commodities. But Kasaboski said dramatically driving down the cost of flat panel antennas won’t be as easy.

“It’s hard to mass produce something that is this complicated and often has to be customized to pass certain regulations or performance criteria,” Kasaboski said. “The other challenge is that some materials can be lossy and inefficient. There is some criticism as to whether this would be a viable approach — using a mass-produced system that is perhaps less efficient than a robustly designed, smaller scale product. That’s a debate I have no answer for.”

For Alcan Systems, Sibay said work is ongoing to have its prototype antennas built on a mass production line. Arranging for that infrastructure, which would allow commercial units to follow shortly after prototyping, delayed the first antennas from this year to 2019, he said.

Onur Karabey, Alcan Systems’ chief executive and technology officer, said the company has been working with display makers in Asia and has shown it can produce antennas on their LCD production lines. Karabey said Alcan Systems’ antennas “are much simpler than LCD displays.”

“With displays you have different components — backlight, polarizer, color filters and so on — we don’t need those. Because the antennas are operating in different frequency bands than LCD displays — one is visible light, the other is microwave radiation — there are some differences, but the facilities and the production lines can handle this,” he said.