Executive Interview: John-Paul Szczepanik, CTO of Isotropic Systems
Describe the business of Isotropic Systems.
Isotropic Systems is a U.K.-based developer of satellite user terminal technologies. We have developed a first-of-its-kind multi-beam antenna terminal that can connect to more than one satellite at once, without a compromise in performance when using additional beams. This capability enables multiple full-performance satellite links to be maintained simultaneously, making it a powerful and cost-effective solution.
To date, no one has been able to do what we do. Most technology is over 30 years old and can only connect to one satellite at once. What we have is a true multi-satellite, multi-orbit connectivity solution.
We are a fast-growing business backed by industry pioneers like Boeing and SES, and we are on track to finalize development and launch our multi-beam antenna by 2022.
What markets and satellite systems are you targeting?
We are targeting a broad range of sectors and industries, as there are many customers who will benefit from a multi-beam terminal. Our technology has applications across multiple sectors including telecoms, defense, shipping and aerospace. We are seeing a huge amount of interest in the defense sector, especially the NATO defense market. They have highly specialized needs and want to bring together defense and commercial space satellites into a single antenna.
We are also working with the U.S. Defense Innovation Unit. This is great for us since the U.S. wants to be leaders in this field, and we have been selected for a development program that targets highly specialized antenna capabilities. We also have contracts with the U.S. Army and leading commercial satellite operators. It is safe to say that we have a lot of customer interest—something that has fueled our successful investment rounds.
What led to the formation of the company, and how is it funded?
The founding team saw a gap in the market, as all commercially available satellite antennas today can only connect to a single satellite at a time. Multi-satellite connectivity is becoming more and more important as new NGSO satellite systems are launched, which require handovers between satellites as they move across the sky, as well as for satellite service providers who have satellite assets across multiple orbits (LEO, MEO, HEO and GEO). The technology behind our optical multi-beam antenna is the first of its kind and will support the raft of new satellites and constellations being launched over the next 24 months. I joined the team around a year ago and am leading the design, development and production of Isotropic Systems’ terminals.
In February, we secured $40 million in funding to continue the development of our game-changing multi-beam antennas. This round was led by SES and also had support from the U.K. Government and leaders in the aerospace and telecoms industry. We are well funded through product launch.
Describe the technology behind your antennas, and how it creates multiple, steerable beams.
Our multi-beam antenna uses beamforming lenses which were developed through extensive development efforts in the combination of computation and material science. The passive lenses allow efficient multiple beamforming, and the signals of the antennas are then combined to allow multiple satellites in multiple orbits to link without comprising performance. Our patented optics were the key innovation that enables the high performance, multi-beam antenna to simultaneously link with multiple satellites in multiple orbits, unlocking the global satellite ecosystem for unprecedented connectivity across a broad range of markets.
Space has become much more accessible now that our terminal unlocks access to all of the new technology and capabilities in space.
How do your antennas integrate with the RF front-end, up-and down-conversion and modem in a satellite ground terminal?
We like to say that we are developing fully-integrated SATCOM terminals rather than just antennas. We integrate the front-end RF amplification, up- and down-conversion, digital beamforming and antenna control unit functionality under the radome. As our product is an electrically-steered antenna, each of these features are distributed throughout the antenna, rather than using monolithic BUC, LNB and antenna controllers, as in a conventional parabolic VSAT terminal. For the modem, we can integrate with conventional VSAT modems via the de-facto L-band IF standard over external coaxial cable ports on the terminal. However, we have also included modular bays in the product to allow for installing card-based modems from multiple vendors into the terminal itself. Use of integrated modem cards allows reduced infrastructure and simpler setup and commissioning onto the satellite networks, as well as the option of using a digitized IF for improved communication efficiency between the modem and our digital beamforming antenna.
What are the advantages—and any disadvantages—of your approach compared to active and passive arrays and VICTS antennas?
By using an array of beamforming lenses to steer the antenna’s beams, our technology requires fewer RF circuits (phase shifters, HPAs, LNAs, DSP chains) than the equivalent active phased array; in addition, since we select only a subset of those circuits to form each beam, there is a dramatic reduction in power consumption. Compared to both passive arrays and the VICTS antennas, the Isotropic terminal offers full electronic beamforming without moving parts. For all three cases, the Isotropic terminal offers broader instantaneous bandwidths and multiple simultaneous Rx and Tx beams.
Where is your differentiation and how do you protect it?
The beamforming lenses are the core innovation that unlocks the performance and features of our products. We have filed numerous patents globally protecting our multi-beam antenna technology, including the design and manufacturing of the beamformers themselves. We have invested significantly in R&D, as well as in developing the manufacturing and material science behind the beamforming lenses to ensure performance and cost-effectiveness.
Can you tell us about some of your program wins where your antennas are being deployed?
We have completed trials with the U.S. military where the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army used our breakthrough antenna to access high speed, real-time data simultaneously over multiple commercial and military satellites. These trials marked a milestone for us, since they showed how our technology can help enhance defense systems for frontline fighters. We have more trials with the U.S. Army on their way as well!
Where are you in scaling manufacturing to support the expected growth in ground terminals during the next few years?
Following our successful fundraising earlier this year, we have been able to open our engineering campus in Reading. Our 20,000 square foot facility will be complete with state-of-the-art clean and test rooms, labs and production facilities where we will continue to refine our terminal solutions, optics and 3D-printing capabilities. We will also further leverage our facility through key technology partnerships in the U.S. and U.K. — where we are already working closely with a broad range of U.K. space organizations and deep tech companies.
Our new campus is also important, since it will be used to attract new talent and create around 150 highly skilled jobs in the U.K. over the next two years. We are excited to see Isotropic Systems continuing to grow.
Tell us about your background and why the satellite market excites you.
I started my career at The Technology Partnership, contributing and then leading various R&D projects in a number of different industries from telecoms to medical automation machines. Before joining Isotropic Systems, I climbed through the ranks at Phasor and was appointed CTO. There I led the development of its SATCOM phased array. I was also the founder and CTO of On-Sun Systems, a solar panel company that commercialized a solar tracking technology.
I have followed Isotropic Systems’ journey and have always been impressed by its innovative and highly valuable technology. I joined the company around a year ago, and I am excited to see the business develop as it moves toward the commercialization of its terminal technology, which will redefine connectivity around the world.