Bill Milroy. Credit: ThinKom

PARIS — With 1,300 commercial aircraft flying its phased array antennas, mainly with Gogo, and 100-plus land-mobile installations as well, ThinKom Solutions Inc. is now looking at applying the same basic technology for fixed Earth stations taking down Earth observation constellation data.

The idea: Use flat panel phased arrays in groups, an “array of arrays,” to enable Earth stations to link quickly from one satellite to another in ways that parabolic arrays cannot, while dispensing with the investment in large, heavy installations.

Dispensing with electronic scanning means lower electricity costs, which at some installations could be a factor.

ThinKom’s solution will start in S- and X-band before moving up to higher frequencies as the market demands. The layout is an array of arrays less than 2 meters tall and occupying less than 7 square meters of terrain will do the same job of eight 2.4-meter parabolic antennas, or three 4.5-meter dishes.

Bill Milroy, ThinKom’s chairman and chief technology officer, outlined the reasoning behind the move and ThinKom’s strategy.

You’re using Earth observation as an entry into the fixed ground antenna market, not the LEO broadband, which grabs the headlines. Why?

We’re starting in X- and S-band because we think the nearest-term market for this is the Earth observation marketplace. Planet Labs and similar systems are disadvantaged because they are so small — 1U to 3U size satellites that maybe put out 1W of RF power. The disadvantage on the satellite side means you need to make that up on the teleport side.

Using around a 4- to 4.5-meter dish, which is typical for those systems, at their lowest elevation angle, that’s what we’re starting out.

We do think we will be able to expand. We have already done our antennas at Ku-band and Ka, and Q-band. We’re not worried about going to the other bands. We just think the nearest-term market to start is the X-band Earth observation marketplace. We have begun design and will soon begin prototyping a 1-meter building bloc — a 1-meter X-band phased array.

What’s your go-to-market strategy?

We’re talking to all of the usual suspects in that marketplace, the third-party folks who have come forward to serve that Earth observation

market in terms of third-party teleport suppliers. We’re getting excellent traction.

So RBC, Kongsberg, AWS Ground, Lockheed, just to name a few — you’re in contact with them?

Yes and yes.

How big is the addressable market in terms of units?

We’re also working at ThinKom on the really large-quantity consumer and enterprise LEO terminal part. Those are very large markets in terms of units — 10s of thousands to 100s of thousands. We don’t think this [Earth observation] market is going to be that large, certainly in terms of teleport positions. But each teleport may have 30-100 of our 1-meter building blocs. So a smaller number of teleports for sure, but a larger number of antennas per teleport.

Credit: ThinKom

Your configuration shows 37 elements equal to eight 2.4-meter dishes?

Thirty-seven 37 units just happens to fit into a hexagonal packing of the array. There is nothing magic. We chose that because we thought that was the centroid of the industry.

Some people want a 2.5 meter;  and some competitors in this particular tracking dish market are in the 2.5- 3.5-, 4.5-meter area. There are some people who want to push up into the 5.4- and 7-meter range and we can accommodate all of those. We can use the whole array to get one 7- or 8-meter antenna or eight 2.4-meter antennas, and the cool thing is we can do anything in between.

And this array cluster can handle multiple very small satellites coming over the horizon?

The concept of operations you’d like to have is a large dish available when you absolutely need it for a tiny, 1U cubesat that is really low on power but has a lot of data it wants to bring down in a single pass.

Or you might have a 3U cubesat that has a little more power available to it and doesn’t need maybe quite as large a dish.

If you’re a third party catering to multiple constellations you need the flexibility of being able to bring to bear an antenna on short notice. This gives the flexibility to do one beam, three beams, eight beams. If you need eight beams because that’s how many satellites you have in view, and on occasion those beams will have to be 7 meters, that drives you to mount eight 7-meter dishes, just in case.

Your documentation shows no radomes over your arrays.

This is a really low profile, less than 2 meters high. It doesn’t suffer the same kind of wind issues so in general we don’t have to cover this with a spherical radome.

And we can operate in really bad wind conditions. A lot of teleport antennas with no radome will have to go into birdbath mode to reduce wind loading until the wind drops. That is not going to be good news for those depending on the teleport for that pass of the satellite.

In an urban environment we can put these on a roof. One or two people can carry the arrays themselves in a freight elevator. You don’t need to bring in a crane or a helicopter lift.

And you are probably not going to need to reinforce the roof or the floor below the roof as you do typically when you have even a 4.5-meter teleport dish, which can often require a lot of reinforcement below.

So from a total cost of ownership we think we bring a capex advantage but a recurring cost of ownership advantage as well.

Can you quantify the capex advantages?

We’re still trying to determine that. It’s hard to compare our antenna. Its not like our antenna equals three 4.5-meter dishes. It’s like our antenna equals some combination so that when you price it all out it’s difficult to do a head to head comparison.

The feedback we’re getting is that even at a capex level, we are more affordable. By that I include here not just the dish, but also the cement pad, the preparation of the site. This is not including the fact that we have a much smaller leased footprint and we can go on a roof and reduce lease costs there.

And power requirements?

Compared to an electronically scanned array for sure, we don’t consume any power to hold the beam in a particular location. In remote locations they are running off a diesel generator. Using less power means less maintenance compared to an electronically scanned array.

In receive mode, each of the 1-meter sub arrays takes about 15 watts for the LNB, so 37 of those is 500-600 watts including the electronics. An electronically scanned array might be 10x that amount.

We are having a hard time figuring out what mechanical dishes require in terms of power. They require a pretty large motor for pointing accuracy, anti-backlash motors, even power when they are holding position to maintain a beam on target. We are comfortable we are using less power than the dish, but we’re not claiming a big power advantage — but a big advantage compared to an electrically scanned antenna.

On maintenance, we are learning more and more. It sounds like often these dishes have to be lubricated for maintenance, and taken off line to do that on occasion. Our system does not have any periodic maintenance requirements.

How do you segue into the potentially much larger LEO satellite broadband market?

We’re new to this and we want to walk before we run. But X and S- band are on the lower end of where we build these antennas. Ku band is not a problem, nor is Ka band or Q band. Ka-band for 2.5-3.5-meter equivalent, but as many as 12 beams per teleport. So we are trying to scale that market now to see what the demands are and then comparing it to the tracking dishes.

We will be dong some flight tests by the end of the year on our Ka-band version, which is 30 GHz transmit and 20 GHz receive.

SES O3b, Avanti, Inmarsat, Telesat LEO — you have been demonstrating your Ka-band hardware with all the systems?


Is ThinKom investing time and resources on the assumption that at least one broadband LEO constellation will be built?

Yes. We’re being pulled in that direction. Aero is one example and the airlines are talking to the service providers, which we sell to, and saying: We’re not sure what will happen in LEO but we want to have a LEO-capable solution. That is the impetus to us to make sure our system is future proof, so that the airlines know this’ll be the best solution now and for the future — GEO and LEO when it comes on line.

LEO is still a tough business case.

We see competitors starting to come out with LEO-only solutions. The beauty of LEO is that the G/T requirements of the antennas themselves can be modest and maybe the elevation is higher for the LEOs. But it’s vey dangerous for an airline to gravitate to a LEO-only solution.