Executive Interview: Nathan Kundtz, Founder, CEO and President of Kymeta
Using metamaterials to make high throughput mobile communications easy and available
Tell us about your path and what led you to Kymeta.
While at Duke University, I cut my teeth working in the field of low temperature condensed matter research for semi- and super-conductors. When the funding dried up for the program, I moved into metamaterials research, working with David R. Smith. During this time, we made a series of award-winning breakthroughs focused on the applications for metamaterials.
Soon our work gained the interest of Intellectual Ventures, a company that had invested in patents related to metamaterials. They asked me to identify market opportunities for the technology. While at Intellectual Ventures, I worked with some terrific people to develop opportunities for the commercialization of metamaterials.
The most exciting of these was for a metamaterials-based flat panel satellite antenna. Intellectual Ventures supported the technical and market development of the technology by introducing possible partners and customers and provided seed funding to advance the technology. Together we developed a strong business model. In 2012, Kymeta was spun out of Intellectual Ventures.
What problem is Kymeta addressing?
Kymeta is addressing the major chokepoint in mobile satellite networks: the antenna.
Satellites provide the coverage and capacity necessary to connect everyone, everywhere, while keeping up with increasing demand for high bandwidth mobile connectivity. However, parabolic antennas have limited the places the satellite networks can be used, due to the size, weight, mechanical parts, high power consumption and complexity.
Kymeta addresses these limitations and makes it possible to connect any platform, mobile or fixed, anywhere there’s a view of the sky.
Give us the elevator speech that describes the mission of Kymeta.
Kymeta makes high throughput mobile communications easy and available.
We deliver internet connectivity to industries that have historically been inaccessible or difficult for the satellite industry to address. Industries like rail, bus and automotive haven’t been able to adopt satellite networks. Also, the maritime and aviation markets have struggled to implement satellite technology broadly across smaller vessels and aircraft.
Kymeta has taken a completely different approach that is backed by years of research and development and over 200 patents to make broadband mobile communications easy and available.
Discuss the first use cases or places where we will see Kymeta technology utilized. What will it enable for those industries?
Our first customers are in maritime, land mobile and the IoT market.
Our maritime customers are most excited about having internet access without the size, weight, complexity and reliability issues associated with the mechanical parts of traditional satellite antennas. In the maritime market, the value proposition is about total cost of ownership and aesthetics. Carry-on equipment with no moving parts has obvious logistical advantages. Furthermore, large dishes placed high on a boat are heavy on their own and require an even larger amount of ballast to balance them out. Plus, many consider them an eyesore. On smaller vessels, there simply isn’t room for existing solutions.
We are also addressing the land mobile market with our first customers. Trains and regional coaches and buses have struggled with limited or no connectivity outside of the major metropolitan areas for years, particularly in countries with less terrestrial cellular infrastructure than the United States. Interestingly, even when there is already a fiber line laid next to the track, the costs of implementing cellular-style access points along many miles of unconnected rail are prohibitively high relative to a satellite solution.
Another industry we are working with right now is IoT, with relation to renewable energy. The renewable energy market often operates off the grid, yet requires high bandwidth communications that won’t necessitate a highly-trained technician to install. Energy companies need the ability to monitor operations and obtain real-time data and analytics to improve efficiency, control environmental impacts and enhance safety.
Tell us about the technology that enables your antenna technology and discuss its advantages over other antenna architectures.
Kymeta mTenna™ technology is manufactured using a completely different process and components than both traditional antennas and phased array antennas. Specifically, Kymeta’s antenna is built using a metamaterials toolset.
The “metamaterial” in mTenna technology is a metasurface, and that metasurface is a glass structure. Our glass-on-glass structure is manufactured on the same production lines as LCD flat screen televisions. We use the thin film transistor (TFT) liquid crystal as a tunable dielectric. Instead of reflecting microwaves like a traditional dish antenna or creating thousands of separate signals like a phased array, Kymeta uses a thin structure with tunable metamaterial elements to create a holographic beam that can transmit and receive satellite signals.
Then we use software to steer the antenna, eliminating the need for mechanical gimbals to steer the antenna toward a satellite. The antenna doesn’t require active phase shifters or amplifiers.
Key features of our approach that some have termed “minor miracles” are
- Transmit and receive via a single aperture
- Wide angle scanning and excellent beam performance
- Electronically controlled pointing and polarization
- Extremely low power consumption
- First electronically scanned antenna designed for mass production.
Traditional satellite dishes are heavy, large, expensive, consume a lot of power and have mechanical gimbals for steering, which have prevented or limited their adoption on most mobile platforms.
The electronically scanned antennas that exist today are notoriously expensive and have very high power requirements. While these phased array antennas can have very high theoretical performance, in practice this advantage is usually lost in the process of making design trade-offs to accommodate the high power requirements and cost. This is particularly true for designs that need to operate in harsh environments. For instance, it is notable that there isn’t a SATCOM phased array antenna on the market today — at any price — that performs at our levels in G/T.
Does the mTenna architecture support links with both GEO satellites and LEO constellations?
Kymeta technology can connect to all the GEO and LEO constellations we have seen proposed.
You have commercialized mTenna technology for Ku-Band. Do you have plans for a Ka-Band version or other bands?
We have developed prototypes for everything from X-Band to V-Band, including Ka-Band. We have done particularly extensive work in the Ka-Band. We plan to release products that will address the largest market opportunities first and will expand our product line over time.
At the SATELLITE conference in March, you announced that the mTenna antenna subsystem module (ASM) and your KyWay™ terminal would begin system trials in May and that you were taking “commercial reservations” to use the system. How are the system trials going?
Yes, we are currently under restricted availability. Today we have several active evaluations and trials, including sea trials on yachts, land mobile trials on buses and SUVs and evaluations with alternative energy companies for fixed land applications.
Each platform has requirements that can vary, and we are learning a lot about the unique installation procedures and software integration each environment requires. We are introducing new industries to satellite technology and communications that have never adopted satellite capacity before. We have been integrating what we are learning to make our product better.
The partnership with our first customers has been invaluable. As we deploy our solutions and stand up KĀLO™ network services, we are also aligning our satellite network to our customers’ needs. Thanks to our dedicated partners, the real world environments are providing a wealth of data and showing us where we can make the products even better.
You mentioned KĀLO, a satellite data service that you also announced at SATELLITE, which uses your ground terminals to access Intelsat’s fleet of geostationary satellites. Describe the idea behind this service and how it is being received by the market.
Our KĀLO services are tapping an unmet need by providing cost-effective satellite internet access. The biggest roadblocks to buying satellite services today, aside from an antenna, are due to the opaque ways in which capacity is sold. KĀLO services deliver high throughput mobile satellite internet access in gigabytes, with packages ranging from 1 GB to 80 GB per month. Kymeta can make KĀLO service flexible and easy to understand because it is sold the way consumers buy and use cellular services, so it is familiar and clear. This kind of service resonates with our customer base, particularly those in the industries that are new to satellite services, like rail, busing, automotive and alternative energy.
Recently, you mounted a KyWay terminal on a Toyota RAV4 and made a road trip across the U.S. Tell us about the potential use cases and benefits of a satellite connected car.
Yes, drives like KyTrek2 in our RAV4 provide us with a wealth of knowledge and data. To deliver truly safe, secure, always-connected autonomous cars, the automotive industry will need to tap into satellite for a reliable global connection. Soon, LEO satellites will enhance satellite coverage to go from pole to pole. As this happens, our technology will become even more relevant and valuable.
A major benefit of the Kymeta solution to the connected car will be providing the auto manufacturers with the ability to multicast very large software and firmware files to all their vehicles on the road. This will make vehicles safer and more reliable and eliminate the cost of trips to the dealer for the manufacturers and the hassle for consumers. As the demand for having more entertainment available while we are on the road grows, and software updates increase in size as autonomous vehicles become the standard, data requirements will grow exponentially. Cars and the passengers in them are projected to consume almost one terabyte of data or more per month 10 years from now. There simply isn’t another solution that can move that volume of data. Kymeta will make this possible.
What are your interests, outside of being a satellite evangelist?
I enjoy spending quality time with my family, first and foremost. Beyond that, in the bits of time I have, I like to play the piano — poorly — run slowly and lose at chess. I don’t have much time for my hobbies, so I’m not particularly good at any of them. I have also recently taken up sailing. With the Puget Sound in my backyard, it offers endless adventures for boating.
For more information about Kymeta, visit www.kymetacorp.com.