WASHINGTON — When U.S. special operations forces seize an enemy vessel, they bring aboard their own satellite communications gear, preferably equipment that they can quickly unpack and set up.
One of the systems they have tested is from flat-panel satellite antenna manufacturer Kymeta. About the size of two Pelican suitcases, the broadband kit bundles satellite service access with the company’s low-profile antenna. It is sold as an alternative to traditional satellite communications and parabolic antennas.
Kymeta is a six-year-old company backed by billionaire Bill Gates and satellite operator Intelsat. After a number of fits and starts, it has begun to produce satellite antennas the size of pizza boxes, and is working to persuade businesses to ditch their legacy communications products.
The company has been under scrutiny for whether it can deliver on much hyped promises of low-cost mobile connectivity. Kymeta is focused on the “connected car” and driverless car markets, but the government and military also are coveted customers.
In an interview with SpaceNews at the Satellite 2018 tradeshow, Kymeta CEO Nathan Kundtz said electronically steered flat satellite antennas are now in production, and more than 100 have been shipped to 23 countries.
“We’ve been working with government customers,” he said. The military is interested in using electronically steered antennas to replace mechanical systems, especially as the prices come down, he said.
The antennas — which have no moving parts — have held up well on ships and in harsh terrain, he said. A mobile VSAT (very small aperture terminal) is in development for military and first responders. “On the move, military customers often need portable communications they can carry with them, set down, and turn on,” Kundtz said. The 28-inch antennas and broadband service were installed on military mine-resistant armored vehicles. The users liked that the new service did not interfere with other communications.
Another benefit of flat panels is that they make ground vehicles less detectable, he said. “They don’t want folks to know which platform has a communications link on it.”
Kymeta sells products to the U.S. Special Operations Command through a contracting arrangement managed by Lockheed Martin Corporation.
Only Ku-band broadband service is offered, but the company is looking to add Ka band. “We haven’t announced plans yet. But that is coming,” said Kundtz. For now, “there is a desire to not confuse the market or cannibalize existing opportunities.”
An anticipated growth in commercial and government demand for small satellite antennas means more competitors are breaking into the market. The one most likely to challenge Kymeta is Phasor, a provider of broadband internet services for high-speed passenger trains with very low profile antennas. It is now moving into land-mobile, aeronautical and maritime satellite communications.
Kundtz said he did not consider Phasor a serious contender. “We don’t even compete with Phasor because Phasor doesn’t have a product to offer,” he said. “They’ve never sold or done a public demonstration of their system.”
Phasor President and CEO David Helfgott told SpaceNews that the company’s first Ku-band electronically steered antennas are in beta testing and will be commercially available later this year. “Ka band will be kicked off later.”
The military will be a prime target customer, he said. “We are in conversations with lots of defense contractors. Our strategy is ‘modified commercial off the shelf.’”
Having worked with Army communications systems for many years, Helfgott said the military is hungry for innovation. “Land mobility is huge,” he said. “Users want to get rid of their huge antennas.” Any tracked or wheeled military vehicle that requires a low profile will be a candidate for a two-inch thick electronically steered antenna, he said. “That is wide open for us.”
Military platforms with mechanical antennas are “inherently less capable than electronically steered” models, said Helfgott. Shock and vibration degrade performance. “With no moving parts, you have a much more durable technology.”
He said Phasor is likely to do better than Kymeta in the military business. “Their antennas are more suited to lower cost, lower performance markets,” said Helfgott. “For mission critical communications, we really like our positioning in that space.”
“There is a lot of gaming going on, a lot of confusion” regarding the prices of electronically steered flat panel antennas. Commercial models range from $15,000 to $45,000, although executives say prices will fall over time as production ramps up. Many defense contractors have attempted to take military-based phased arrays down market, but have failed because of their high prices.
Phasor plans to launch its commercial antenna later this year but defense deals could take much longer. This requires partnerships with Pentagon contractors, he said. “It takes a really long time.”
The military and the defense industry know that commercial industry is where the innovation is happening in communications and information technology. “We’re able to move faster than defense programs,” Helfgott said. “The next five years are going to be very interesting.”