Does the satellite industry have antenna deficit disorder?

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To connect the masses, megaconstellations will need mega antennas mega cheap. Antenna makers need mega orders to make that happen.
Projects like LEOSat's planned constellation of 84 broadband satellites in low Earth orbit are driving investments in flat panel antenna technology. Credit: Thales Alenia Space
Projects like LEOSat’s planned constellation of 84 broadband satellites in low Earth orbit are driving investments in flat panel antenna technology. Credit: Thales Alenia Space

When an entrepreneur building a constellation of low Earth orbit communications satellites learned about the impressive performance of a Ball Aerospace spacecraft, he replied, “We can’t afford that kind of exquisite performance.”

Pete Moosbrugger, Ball Aerospace chief technologist, shared the anecdote at the Satellite 2018 conference to illustrate the challenge facing the industry. Companies focused for decades on offering extremely reliable systems for government customers must modify them for commercial markets. “You see what you can change and what you can’t change to deliver a high-performance system at a price point that will close a business case,” Moosbrugger said.

Entrepreneurs investing billions of dollars in non-geostationary communications satellite constellations are creating networks so complex their success could hinge on the ability of manufacturers to reduce the cost of state-of-the-art antennas that maximize throughput as they track multiple spacecraft zipping across the sky.

“There are business plans, big ones, hanging out there that depend if not entirely then at least to a very large extent on the availability of high-performance, low-cost, high-volume, low-profile antennas,” David Hartshorn, former secretary general of the Global VSAT Forum, said in May at the Applied Innovation conference in Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Today, more than a dozen companies are responding by developing and manufacturing flat panel antennas or antennas that conform to the shape of host platforms. Northern Sky Research expects companies to ship 1.8 million flat panel antennas between now and 2027 with revenues topping $8 billion for the decade.

David Helfgott, Phasor Solutions chief executive, thinks the market will be even larger. “Some customers will be early adopters. Some will wait until there’s a lower-cost product. But the underlying growth drivers for commercial broadband connectivity cannot be denied,” he said by email.

Constellation developers often talk of connecting cars, rural homes and remote machinery. Antenna developers are focused initially, however, on the higher priced end of the market. It appears that cruise ship, yacht, bullet train and aircraft passengers will be the first to benefit from the “Internet for all” rallying cry of broadband entrepreneurs. Eventually, flat panel antennas could serve as a bridge to connected cars, global consumer broadband and widespread Internet of Things applications, but first costs must come down.

ThinKom and COMSAT kept this SUV connected during a U.S. roadtrip earlier this year. Antenna prices remain too high for most car buyers. Credit: ThinKom
ThinKom and COMSAT kept this SUV connected during a U.S. roadtrip earlier this year. Antenna prices remain too high for most car buyers. Credit: ThinKom

“Connected cars and IoT will need super low-cost antennas,” said Nick Potts, general manager for Printech Circuit Laboratories, a British company that supplies antenna components. “At the moment, the price is wrong.”

Chicken or Egg?

For years, antenna manufacturers have produced high-performance alternatives to gimbaled parabolic antennas pointed at geostationary communications satellites. Price tags range from a few thousand dollars to $250,000 depending on the application. Antennas mounted on the side of buildings, for example, cost far less than antennas built and qualified for commercial airliners.

A new generation of high-performance antennas is coming. Kymeta Corp. of Redmond, Washington, began shipping electronically steered flat panel antennas to customers last year. Those antennas are installed on yachts, commercial shipping vessels, tractors and first responder vehicles.

ThinKom Solutions of Hawthorne, California, sells phased-array antennas for aircraft and motor vehicles that work with existing geostationary satellites and will be compatible with future low and medium Earth orbit constellations, Eric Liu, ThinKom business development manager, said by email.

Phasor will be testing its low-profile electronically steered antennas on buses, cruise ships and yachts, while preparing for upcoming field tests of its aeronautical variant broadband antennas, Helfgott said.

Many more products are coming. Isotropic Systems, Alcan Systems, C-Com Satellite Systems, SatixFy, AvL Technologies, Ball Aerospace, Rockwell Collins and Viasat plan to release flat panel antennas in 2019 and later.

With the help of these startups and veteran antenna builders, constellation developers hope to usher in a new era of satellite communications. Due to their shape, the new antennas fit well on cars, ships, trains and planes where aerodynamic drag and low profiles are key considerations.

Experts warn, though that the antenna technology is extremely complicated. To work with low Earth orbit constellations, the antennas need to track two or more satellites simultaneously — something parabolic dishes can’t do. They also need to be small and durable, prevent signal interference, instantly find satellites and secure links, degrade gracefully and have great signal efficiency.

“It turns out that according to the laws of physics, you cannot do all those things at the same time,” said Ralph Brooker, president of SatProf, a company that trains professionals to install satellite equipment. “You have to choose a subset.”

“What OneWeb wants in terms of target price is in the very low hundreds of dollars. We see a way to get there.” John Finney, Isotrop Credit: Kate Patterson for SpaceNews
“What OneWeb wants in terms of target price is in the very low hundreds of dollars. We see a way to get there.”
John Finney, Isotropic Systems
Credit: Kate Patterson for SpaceNews

Tim Shroyer, General Dynamics chief technology officer, adds a key issue will be preventing interference from adjacent satellites. Already a challenge for geostationary systems, future constellations with thousands of satellites pointing thousands of beams threaten to make interference a more serious problem.

Nathan Kundtz, Kymeta Corp. founder, and chief executive and president, agrees the new antennas are difficult to produce. “It is hard and we’ve done it,” Kundtz said. “We have every intention of continuing to improve. There is real value that will accrue to ourselves and to those who build upon our foundation in having that real-world experience.”

For now, flat panel antennas are aimed at “deeper pocketed, niche enterprise or government customers, who need it and can afford it,” said Dallas Kasaboski, Northern Sky Research senior analyst.

Eventually, flat panel antennas could reach a far wider audience just like flat panel TVs did. Large plasma televisions cost $20,000 when they first appeared 20 years ago, primarily in hotels and corporate offices. “It took a few leaps and bounds of technology and price before we were all buying them in department stores,” Kasaboski said.

Dramatic price reductions could lead to greater demand for flat panel antennas but there is the chicken-or-egg problem.

“In order to drop prices, you need market,” Kasaboski said. “In order to access that larger market, you need lower prices.”

Where are the orders?

Flat panel antenna manufacturers hope to move toward high-volume production by aligning themselves with constellation developers and investors who recognize lower prices could lead to widespread adoption.

London-based Isotropic Systems is developing a terminal compatible with OneWeb’s planned broadband constellation.

“What OneWeb wants in terms of target price is in the very low hundreds of dollars,” John Finney, Isotropic Systems founder and chief executive, said in March at the Satellite 2018 conference in Washington. “We see a way to get there.”

The profit margin for consumer terminals will be a fraction of the margin for aeronautical terminals, Finney said, but the high volumes will affect the entire supply chain and help Isotropic slash costs throughout its portfolio.

Suppliers are waiting eagerly for those bulk orders.

“In most of the ground station product business, a big order is 1,000 of something, a really big order is 10,000 and a bluebird is in the six digits approaching seven digits,” said Steve Richeson, sales and marketing vice president for Mission Microwave Technologies, a Sante Fe Springs, California company that supplies antenna components. “There is a lot of talk of partnerships, but where are the orders?”

Antenna manufacturers working with non-geostationary constellation developers say it’s too soon to order parts or begin producing antennas for the new networks. Instead they are refining the technology and focusing on ease of manufacturing.

“We’ve already delivered phased array systems with all the key components into our core government markets,” Moosbrugger said. “Now, we are focused on driving into high gear with designs that could be manufactured in high volumes. Our technology maps directly into non-geostationary satellite constellations.”

Although OneWeb plans to launch its first 10 satellites later this year and SpaceX is flying prototypes for its broadband constellation, those constellations are not operating yet.

“To launch the constellations, they need to have confidence there is user terminal technology available,” Kundtz said. “The best way we can provide that is by being in the market with user terminal technology that can address those constellations. They can see those products and understand how they will connect to the next generation of satellites.”

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 27, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.