Kymeta mTenna
Kymeta is releasing its metamaterials-based flat-panel antennas as both the standalone mTenna and the packaged KyWay terminal. Credit: Kymeta

WASHINGTON — Kymeta will finally start shipping its first flat-panel antennas this spring, some five years after Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates first opened his wallet to help the startup bring thin, lightweight, low-power antennas to a satellite market hungry for mobility solutions.

The Redmond, Washington-based startup has raised $144 million since spinning off from Intellectual Ventures in 2012. Among customers awaiting Kymeta’s May release of its flat, beam-steering antenna system are Panasonic, Toyota, and armored car company Aurum Security.

Kymeta delayed its product release by about two years after discovering in 2015 that the rectangular antenna design it was working on at the time couldn’t send and receive signals with a single aperture, but would need two, driving up size and cost. The rectangular design also couldn’t leverage existing liquid crystal display manufacturing infrastructure, which would have made them more expensive to build, Bill Marks, chief commercial officer of Kymeta, told SpaceNews.

Kymeta teamed with electronics manufacturer Sharp Corp. in 2015 to mass produce its metamaterials-based antennas on the same product lines used to make LCD television sets. The circular design Kymeta chose instead rectified those issues, Marks said, and can reach downlink speeds greater than 100Mbps.

Kymeta’s antennas use electronic beam-steering instead of moving parts, and are considerably smaller than most mechanically steered antennas. Marks said the company chose to have two main products — the core “mTenna” subsystem module, and fully packaged “KyWay” terminals — to cater to markets that are familiar with satellite telecom and to design more products for markets where satellite is not present.

Global satellite fleet operator Intelsat of Luxembourg and the United States, and Sky Perfect JSAT in Japan revealed March 7 that they’re investing in Kymeta, with Intelsat CEO Stephen Spengler joining Kymeta’s board of directors and JSAT preparing a demonstration of Kymeta’s antennas using its satellites.

Along with creating new opportunities in mobile connectivity, industry observers have also pointed out that low-cost, electronically steered antennas are likely a necessity for high-throughput non-geosynchronous constellations — especially in low-Earth orbit — where the satellites need to be tracked quickly as they cross the sky. O3b Networks, operator of a 12-satellite constellation in medium-Earth orbit, invested in Kymeta back in 2013.

Marks said markets such as maritime and aviation have companies like Intellian and Cobham that have a larger market presence as terminal distributors. For those markets, Kymeta will lean on existing players to graft the mTenna into their products.

“What we intend to do there is to sell antennas to them so that they can put their own flavor of a terminal wrapper around the antenna, and then they can sell it as part of their product suite,” he said.

For other nascent markets like the connected car and other ground transportation, Marks said Kymeta will use KyWay to create terminals.

“A good example is we have contracts with bus companies and train companies,” he explained. “Nobody really builds a flat-panel satellite terminal today, so we are building our own to address those markets, because there is no clear channel to enter those markets.”

Panasonic since mid-2016 has been working with Kymeta on a version of its antenna optimised for maritime. Similarly, Inmarsat and Honeywell teamed with Kymeta in 2015 to produce aviation-focused antennas. The biggest opportunity, however, is the connected car, Marks said.

“All of maritime represents 25,000 VSAT terminals. Toyota alone is 10.5 million a year. Other deals end up larger than maritime very rapidly,” he said.

Kymeta, Intelsat and Toyota are all partners on the connected car, and criss-crossed the continental U.S. in 2016 testing a Toyota 4Runner connected to Intelsat’s fleet via a Kymeta mTenna. In February, Kymeta said it was able to connect a car and stream video using a 20-centimeter mTenna connected to Intelsat’s satellite constellation.

Marks said Toyota is a shareholder and customer of Kymeta, but declined to say how much of the company they own, or how many antennas they would buy. Intelsat, which has teamed with Kymeta for much of its product development, has created a bundling service called Kalo that lets mTenna and KyWay customers buy satellite services in a fashion more akin to the cellular industry.

“Instead of buying bits per second or megahertz, you will buy bytes per month,” Marks said.

Kymeta and Intelsat have that product slated for release in the third quarter of 2017.

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...