Pat Hindle, MWJ Editor
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Pat Hindle is responsible for editorial content, article review and special industry reporting for Microwave Journal magazine and its web site in addition to social media and special digital projects. Prior to joining the Journal, Mr. Hindle held various technical and marketing positions throughout New England, including Marketing Communications Manager at M/A-COM (Tyco Electronics), Product/QA Manager at Alpha Industries (Skyworks), Program Manager at Raytheon and Project Manager/Quality Engineer at MIT. Mr. Hindle graduated from Northeastern University - Graduate School of Business Administration and holds a BS degree from Cornell University in Materials Science Engineering.

Satellite 2021 Flat Panel Array Technology Review

September 21, 2021

One of the biggest innovations being deployed for satellite communications systems is flat panel beamsteering arrays that will replace mechanically steered dish type systems. These beam steering arrays are low profile and lighter that previous systems. The main problem has been getting the cost down. We saw many companies at Satellite 2021 that are battling for this market using several different approaches.

Kymeta is probably the farthest along using a unique metamaterials approach to steer the beam using a liquid crystal display type of technology to control the signal apertures to holographically form and steer the beam. The panels can be made using low-cost LCD panel production processes, is relatively low in power consumption and has wide scan angles. Another key element is the system has LTE connectivity and can switch seamlessly between LTE and Satellite connections. Kymeta just announced technology that enables their arrays to support 2 beams at the same time. The company is working on next generation technology that will use LED like manufacturing and varactor diodes instead of the current LCD aperture method.

Ball Aerospace has been making phased arrays for decades but only in the last few years started addressing the commercial SATCOM market. Ball offers its line of AIRLINK® antennas, covering L-, X-, Ku- and Ka-band spectrums, for a range of commercial SATCOM use cases, including in-flight connectivity, COTM and enterprise communication. The Ku and Ka solutions feature an innovative subarray architecture that is designed for optimal flexibility and cost efficiency, subarrays can be tiled together to form an antenna that is customized to meet the user’s needs. They have a new tile structure that enables customers to scale the array and control separate sectors. The planar phased array design delivers low profile, high bandwidth capability to mobile platforms communicating with HTS in GEO. The terminal’s advanced electronic beam steering is enabling the next generation of LEO/MEO constellations.

ThinKom has been providing connectivity to aircraft using their patented “VICTS” phased-array technology combines the technical benefits of mechanically steered and electronically scanned arrays (MSAs/ESAs) to deliver high performance in the harshest environments. The technology allows for gap-free, pole-to-pole coverage, satellite constellation interoperability, high beam agility for network flexibility, installation versatility with low-profile design and reduced OpEx from efficient operation. The technology is comprised of 3 layers of lightweight discs rotating around a single axis to steer the beam and control polarization. There is separate transmit and receive sets of disks. Rotating the feed and aperture disks together steer in azimuth and rotating the aperture disk steers in elevation. Rotating the polarizer can change from left to right-handed polarization. Satellite switching times are less than 800 msec and provides a wide scan angle.

New Kids on the Block

NXTcomm is commercializing fragmented aperture technology that came out of GA Tech and could have a significant impact on connectivity to commercial aerospace and other mobility markets. Their technology, already military flight proven, could be an affordable electronically steered antenna ground solution to accommodate any form factor for true broadband on the move. NXTCOMM's ESA works over GEO, LEO, MEO or HEO satellites in a form factor that slots into products today while connecting with LEO satellites that will be full constellations in the next few years. The design uses standard PCB manufacturing technology with commercial off-the-shelf components and a unique sub array topology scalable to any form factor. NXTCOMM and its defense technology partner L3 Harris Technologies briefed everyone on the companies’ collaboration announced earlier this summer. NXTCOMM is on schedule to begin production of its Ku-band ESA for L3Harris early next year so will be interesting to follow.

Cesium offers a suite of scalable products from discrete modules to complete software-defined payloads that work out of the box. The integrated product line ranges from single-beam downlink solutions to multi-beam, full-duplex communication payloads. The have a modular system that provides separate module units for up/down converter, computer, SDR and power conditioning unit. At Satellite, they were featuring their Nightingale I that is a fully integrated Ka-band phased array communication system that provides a complete hardware and software solution for high-speed RF links with a dynamically steerable beam. The system includes an active phased array antenna as well as a software-defined radio, single-board computer, power converter, and RF front-end – all integrated into a seamless high-speed downlink solution. The complete-system approach and small form factor allow for plug and play integration with LEO spacecraft and airborne platforms, while the tile architecture allows for system scaling and adaptation to mission requirements. Per-element array control enables on-orbit optimization of power and beam shape.

Optisys is a 3D printing company known for antennas but has now launched production of full phased arrays. Optisys’ Novel Active Phased Array product line leverages our metal 3D printing antenna design expertise to create high‐performance broadband antennas with integrated diplexers, thermal and structural features. Their hybrid approach, where one axis electronically steered and the second axis is steered using a mechanical turntable for low power, lower cost installations. Multibeam solutions are possible with this approach too. All their phased arrays can be wide band and dual band, covering the full Ku to Ka, or X and Ku as examples, as well as also providing full duplex Tx/Rx in the same aperture. The one drawback is these arrays are not as low a profile as other flat panel approaches.

That is a quick look at beam steering arrays I saw at Satellite 2021. If you saw others I might have missed or have additional thoughts, please comment below. Satellite 2022 will come fast next year as it is in March back to its normal time frame.

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