Isotropic Systems closing in on multi-orbit antenna offering

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TAMPA, Fla. — British startup Isotropic Systems has unlocked more government funding for antennas it believes are timed for the satellite industry’s multi-orbit evolution.

Isotropic said May 25 it secured the final third of a previously unannounced 18.5 million euro ($22.5 million) contract from the UK Space Agency to help bring its flat-panel terminals to market early next year.

The contract was initially awarded June 2020 through the European Space Agency’s Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems program, Isotropic CEO John Finney told SpaceNews in an interview, prompting it to move more development work from the U.S. to the U.K.

The British government is accelerating investments in the industry to double its share of the global space market to 10% by 2030. 

It recently bought part of low Earth orbit (LEO) broadband operator OneWeb, which one day could benefit from multi-beam technology Isotropic is developing to track more than one satellite at a time with a single antenna.

French operator Eutelsat, known for its fleet of satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO), bought 24% of OneWeb April 27 to add a LEO layer to its broadband offering. 

Satellites in LEO and medium Earth orbit (MEO) are closer to antennas on Earth than those in GEO, reducing latency for video calls and other services.

But while GEO antennas fix to a point in the sky, non-GEO terminals have to cater for satellites that are constantly moving in relation to the ground.

OneWeb expects to have enough satellites operating in Ku-band spectrum in LEO to launch partial services later this year.

Isotropic’s flat-panel terminals, however, will first focus on serving satellites operating in Ka-band spectrum. Finney pointed to how SES and Telesat — which have satellites in GEO — aim to come online with “massive amounts of Ka-band next-generation capacity” in MEO and LEO, respectively, over the next two years.

He said Isotropic’s antennas will enable multi-orbit operators to increase performance and reduce costs by combining their assets into a single integrated terminal, without needing to duplicate circuity.

“Right now the two dominant technology platforms — gimbaled dishes and phased arrays — can only connect to one satellite at a time and are prohibitively expensive,” Finney said.

Multi-orbit, multi-operator potential

Reusable launch vehicles and satellites built in days instead of years have fueled an investment gold rush in the space industry.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has helped transform a launch industry once dominated by governments, now operates the world’s largest commercial satellite internet constellation with Starlink.

However, despite the increasingly available space environment, Finney says the industry still operates on separate islands from each other.

“If you’re Elon Musk, you think as long as I build something that’s bigger and better than the rest I win,” he said. 

“Well, he’s flat wrong there … because actually if you’re contained to one system that is your Achilles’ heel.

“If you have the ability as we would down here on Earth, on terra firma, to roam, to access the best attributes of many systems — as do the fiber optic players, as do the mobile networks that we roam across — you could harness the best attributes of each system.”

He added: “If you’re on aero, you could have broadcast TV from your best in class GEO [direct-to-home] provider, and on the same antenna you can go up to [SES’ next-generation MEO network O3b] mPOWER or Inmarsat, or any other operator and get your best in class data.”

Maturing antenna market

Having long lagged behind investments in satellites, rockets and other parts of the space industry, activity in the ground segment is ramping up as megaconstellations near commercial launch.

U.S.-based Kymeta, which says its new Ku-focused u8 terminal is the only commercially available flat-panel antenna compatible with LEO and GEO, formed a strategic partnership with South Korean conglomerate Hanwha Systems (HSC) in December for a satellite constellation.

HSC, which bought British antenna maker Phasor Solutions out of bankruptcy in June 2020, plans to deploy 2,000 LEO satellites by 2030 to connect urban cargo-delivery drones and passenger airplanes.

Kymeta said May 26 that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) had approved HSC’s $30 million investment in the company — an important part of December’s deal.

“We look forward to moving ahead and working with HSC,” Kymeta executive chair Doug Hutcheson said in a statement. 

“We believe this investment will be instrumental in enabling the continued innovation, advancement and commercialization of Kymeta’s connectivity solutions. We’re excited about the future of Kymeta and the LEO satellite market.”

Isotropic raised $42 million in a funding round led by SES in February, bringing total investment to about $70 million to date.

Finney put total cash needs for its project at around $100 million, and said it is planning a funding round this year “to scale-up aggressively.”