Panasonic challenges flat-panel antenna builders Ball Aerospace, Kymeta, Phasor on cost & interoperability
Lisa Kuo, Panasonic Avionics Corp. director of technical sales. Credit: Panasonic
WASHINGTON — Electronically steered antenna designers Ball Aerospace, Kymeta and Phasor and aero-connectivity provider Panasonic Avionics said affordable mass-market products were still some ways off for user terminals and that reliability is already an issue for mechanically steered antennas.
Lisa Kuo, director of technical sales at Panasonic, said airlines want antennas and modems that are future-proof, meaning at least 10 years of service before they are obsolete. That means hedging between Ku- and Ka-band equipment.
In a statement repeated multiple times here during the Satellite 2019 conference, Kuo said hardware builders need to move to interoperability even if that means sacrificing some early market advantage.
“I get it: You want to dominate the market with a proprietary system,” Kuo said. “But that is not in the interest of the customers. How can we make sure these systems can all work together?”
One path to standardization would be to design a dual Ka-/Ku-band system to permit users to remain connected as they move in and out of a given satellite’s coverage, or to switch immediately in the event of a satellite failure.
The phased array antenna builders said they are working on both.
“When we started, around 2012, Ka-band was very recent in orbit,” said David Garrood, senior vice president of business development at Phasor. “That’s why we went to Ku.
“But Ka is increasingly seen as important, and as offering lower-cost satellite capacity. So it is definitely a market we are looking at and we propose start that development in the next few months.”
Peter Moosbrugger. Credit: Ball Aerospace
Ball Aerospace has been building electronically steered antennas for military applications for years and is now positioning itself for commercial applications including low-Earth-orbit satellite constellations and 5G terrestrial networks.
Ball recently tested such an antenna to communicate with satellite fleet operator Telesat’s experimental LEO Phase 1 satellite. Ball said in January that its antenna tracked the satellite over several passes.
Peter Moosbrugger, Ball’s chief technologist for phased array and RF technology, said has already demonstrated ground user hardware for Ku- and Ka-band systems. He said the goal is to leverage the large volumes needed for 5G network antennas to bring down the unit cost of satellite user terminals.
“We are building a supply-chain ecosystem that can address a pretty wide range of supply,” Moosbrugger said. “That includes 5G and different satcom market verticals. We focus our [second-generation] architecture on something that could scale from an ecosystem that needs to be ITAR-compliant — export-control compliant — to address a worldwide market at really high volumes.”
Kymeta Corp. made a splash in the electronically steered antenna market in 2017 by saying it had deployed hardware to customers, military and commercial. Kymeta has been working with satellite fleet operator Intelsat on antennas to operate with OneWeb’s constellation of low-orbiting satellites, in Ku-band.
Lilac Muller. Credit: Kymeta Corp.
“Kymeta started with Ka-band development and pivoted to Ku for our business partnership with Intelsat,” said Lilac Muller, Kymeta’s vice president of product management.
“But when you look at what [satellite] capacity is going up in the next few years, it’s a lot of Ka capacity. We’re pursuing a Ka product in parallel to Ku. Interoperability is a big question. We’re going to tackle interoperability between GEO and LEO first, before we go to interoperability between Ku and Ka. So for us right now it’s two product lines.”
Panasonic and mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat in September 2018 announced a strategic collaboration that would enable each of them to offer the other’s in-flight connectivity solutions. Panasonic’s IFC package is in Ku-band, Inmarsat’s Global Xpress fleet is in Ka-band.
There was much industry speculation at the time over whether this was Panasonic’s way of conceding that Ka-band was the future, or was Inmarsat’s concession that it needed Panasonic’s customer base to succeed.
Kuo said it was Panasonic’s way of hedging its bets.
“We are not looking at this as Ku vs Ka,” Kuo said. “There are a lot of technologies out there and we need to diversify our portfolio. We picked Inmarsat as our first step because they are very established in the industry. This is a strategic first step that we chose. It’s really not about the frequency band.”
Unit cost vs life-cycle cost of ownership
Moosbrugger said the cost discussion between electronically and mechanically steered antennas often forgets the total cost of ownership of mechanical systems.
“I’ve seen numbers o mechanical systems that are in the 80,000- to 100,000-hour range” of commercial lifespan, Moosbrugger said. “You go on line and find the calculator for reliability and how many planes are going down [for servicing] a year, and with 10,000 planes, it’s a pretty significant number.”
Muller said Kymeta has seen similar problems with the land-transportation market where Kymeta is focused. Kymeta is not targeting the aero market yet.
“Just for reference: There are about 100,000 new or refurbished inner-city buses purchased each year,” Muller said. “That gives you a sense of the volume. You want to talk higher? RVs [recreational vehicles] — 1 million a year. Two million trucks going city to city in a year.”
While these current rooftop systems are less expensive than the electronically steered antennas, they hold out the promise of longer service life.
“The number one complaint [of railroad customers] is the amount of time they have to pull it out of service,” Mullen said. “They have guys on top of the locomotives messing around with various mechanical systems that are wearing down.
“They can’t wait for all our technologies to be out in the market to stop messing with mechanically steered systems.”