Data-hungry users are pushing the satellite receiver market to upscale, requiring more obtrusive domes on yachts. But some innovative companies attending METS this year are taking a different approach with revolutionary flat panel antenna systems.
The American start-up Kymeta, which received seed capital from Bill Gates, and British firm Phasor are working to develop solid-state, electronically steered flat panel antennas with no external moving parts. They are among the estimated 20 players in the field, according to recent data gathered by Northern Sky Research. NSR estimates 2026 revenues of approximately $150 million in the maritime sector alone, and $9.1 billion across all sectors, including aeronautical, land mobile, broadband and video satellite.
“These new systems—either electronically or mechanically—steered flat panel antennas (FPAs), are revolutionizing the satellite industry and are poised to play a key role in the expansion of the satcom market for years to come,” states NSR’s February 2017 Flat Panel Satellite Antennas report.
The wide variety of applications is one reason for the early proliferation of companies. “There is no one specific FPA technology that fits every need, as each market has its own specific performance requirements that come with the weight of regulatory and economic constraints,” stated Prateep Basu, NSR analyst and report co-author.
Partnered with Toyota, Kymeta is pursuing the consumer market, while Phasor is aiming at the enterprise market, where high-volume data throughput is needed. But both have one major investor in common—Intelsat, owner of the world’s largest satellite network. “Intelsat needs to invest in companies pursuing flat panel antennas in order to open up new markets and allow existing customers to increase their throughputs,” VP Mark Daniels told media earlier this year.
Many flat panel antennas are based on phased arrays, an established technology that is only now being miniaturized to lower manufacturing costs to a reasonable level. Such systems work by steering the individual beams emitted by an array of tiny fixed antennas. By electronically changing the relative phase for the signal that each element transmits, these small signals are grouped into a larger beam focused in a particular direction.
As this process is fully electronic, the resulting beam can be controlled and oriented instantaneously in any direction. It can therefore track any satellite from a vessel or land vehicle, regardless of location or course, without the need for moving parts.
While Phasor uses this technology, Kymeta claims the high ground by using what it describes as the more advanced liquid crystal diode system. Kymeta maritime VP Håkan Olsson told NauticExpo e-magazine: “Kymeta’s mTenna technology is not legacy phased array technology. It utilizes a metamaterials toolset. It also uses very similar manufacturing procedures as LCD TVs. These distinctions mean that mTenna technology uses very little power and runs cool, unlike traditional phased array solutions. The active element in our antenna is a thin film transistor (TFT) panel with liquid crystal as the active component.”
Tests on White Rose and Maltese Falcon
Flat panel systems can be retrofitted as well as inbuilt, as Toyota is currently doing with test cars using Kymeta. Compared with traditional domed parabolic systems that cause significant windage on vessels, flat panel transceivers are as scalable as space on board allows.
Phasor’s modular solution consists of panels three centimeters thick and resembling a solar array. Phasor claims throughput matching that of a 2.4-meter dish. System tests on a superyacht are scheduled for early 2018.
Kymeta is already beta testing its system on high-profile superyachts White Rose and Maltese Falcon. Sailing yachts must take into account wind resistance and weight, factors less important to motor vessels. Says Nikolaos Leontitsis, captain of Maltese Falcon, “With this solution, we’re solving these problems. The panels were sometimes partially blocked while under sail, but it didn’t really affect overall performance. It slowed down at some points, but it was still a lot faster than our traditional VSAT. Even when sailing at really hard angles—15 degrees of heel— it still worked.”