Volume V, No. V May 2020
Table of Contents
Industry Trends and Analysis: (pg. 3)
Patee Sarasin, former CEO of Nok Air:
"Unlocking the Riches of In-flight Wi-Fi" (pg. 4)
David Bruner, former V.P. Panasonic Avionics:
"Buckle Up! :Turbulence Ahead in Airline Connectiviy Markets"
"The Promise of the New Iridium and Aireon Services: Big Advancements in Air Traffic Management on the Horizon" (pg. 26)
Ernst Peter Hovinga, CEO Hiber: "Disrupting the Satellite IoT Connectivity Market: The Promise of Hiber" (p.31)
"Upcoming and Recommended Satellite Mobility Events"
Speedcast Update Inside!
Highlighting Disruptive, New, Mobility-Focused Satellite Ventures and Technologies
"SpaceX's Plan to Tap the FCC's Rural Broadband Piggy Bank"
"IFC in Crisis - The Impact and the Outlook" with Michael Small, former CEO, Gogo
"The Isotropic Antenna: The Perfect Solution for Aero?" with Brian Billman, V.P.
"Micro GEO Debuts in Alaska: Astranis' Small Satellite Future" With CEO, John Gedmark
"As the Virus Ravages Cruise, Aero, & Energy, VSAT Markets Crumble"
Satellite mobility World
In This Issue...
It's May 2020. The Covid-19 crisis has hit Cruise and Inflight connectivity providers hard. This month, you'll find comprehensive analyses of its effects.
In our feature interview, former Gogo CEO Michael Small talks about the impact of the decline in air travel on IFC providers. Also, in our article "As the Virus Ravages Cruise, Aero and Energy, VSAT Markets Crumble," we address the slowdown's effect on other critical mobility markets.
Turning to our new venture segment, we interview John Gedmark, CEO of Astranis, the manufacturer of a small GEO satellite. In his interview, you'll learn about the rationale behind the use of small GEO satellites, and hear about the company's first satellite, designed to serve the Alaska broadband market. Next, we look at Isotropic Systems' unique, lens-based antenna and its potential in the IFC market.
In our Isotropic Systems interview, Brian Billman, V.P. Product Development, explains, for the first time, how Isotropic's unique lens-based phased array design is ideally suited to the aero IFC market. Finally, in our editorial segment, we comment on Starlink's efforts to tap into the FCC's $16 B rural broadband Piggy Bank.
Satellite Mobility World
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Gottlieb's Satellite and Mobility World is published monthly (except August) by Gottlieb International Group., Inc. Suite 100, 1209 South Frederick Street, Arlington, VA USA 22204 © Copyright 2019
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Table of Contents...
"Hot News and Commentary" (pg.3)
"SmallSat News and Ventures" (pg. 4)
Editorially Speaking:"SpaceX's Plan to Tap The FCC's Broadband Piggy Bank" (pg. 6)
"IFC in Crisis - The Impact and the Outlook" with Former Gogo CEO, Michael Small (pg. 10)
"As the Covid Virus Rages, Cruise, Energy and IFC VSAT Markets Crumble" (pg.22)
"The Isotropic Antenna: The Perfect Solution for Aero?" with Brian Bellman, V.P. Product Development (pg. 28)
"Micro Geo Debuts in Alaska: Astranis' Small Satellite Future" with CEO, John Gedmark (pg. 37)
"Recommended Upcoming Industry Events
SATELLITE MOBILITY WORLD
Speedcast Files Chapter 11 Bankruptcy for U.S. Entity, Government Businesses Remain Unaffected
Speedcast received US$90 million in new financing, which combined with existing cash flows, will drive the organization through the restructuring.
The current senior management will continue to oversee company strategy during the process and is committed to guiding the process through to completion as quickly and efficiently as possible over the next six months.
Peter Shaper, Chief Executive Officer, and Joe Spytek, President & Chief Commercial Officer, joined the organization in executive leadership roles earlier this year and quickly initiated a transformation plan to refocus the business. Both Shaper and Spytek have extensive backgrounds in the communications and service provider sectors and are recognized for their expertise in building and nurturing successful organizations.
SYDNEY, April 23, 2020 – Speedcast International Limited (ASX: SDA) today announced that, after evaluating a variety of options to strengthen its balance sheet in ways that support its long-term growth and success, it has initiated a voluntary financial restructuring under chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code. In conjunction with chapter 11 petitions filed on behalf of Speedcast International Limited and certain of its U.S. and international subsidiaries, the Company also announced that it has received a commitment for up to $90 million in new money debtor-in-possession financing from the holders of its outstanding term loan debt, which combined with its existing cash flows, will help to ensure it is able to meet its go-forward commitments to all stakeholders throughout the restructuring.
None of the entities associated with the Company’s Government Business Entities (UltiSat, Inc., Globecomm Systems Inc. and all associated entities) have filed for Chapter 11 relief. The Government Business Entities are fully financially independent and continue to operate and generate sufficient cash flow to support their operations. A full list of filing entities is available at www.kccllc.net/speedcast.
All entities – regardless of their status in the chapter 11 process – are operating and serving customers as usual. The Company fully intends to uphold its commitments to its customers and employees, and to pay suppliers in the normal course of business for all goods and services delivered to any Speedcast entity from today forward.
“The decisive actions we announced today are about strengthening our financial position through the proven legal framework that the chapter 11 process provides – and we are confident we will be well positioned to maximize the full potential of our expanded platform as a result of the actions we’re taking now to align our balance sheet strength with our clear industry leadership,” said Peter Shaper, Speedcast Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director. “We fully expect that our customers and employees, among other stakeholders, will see no change in their interactions with our Company as a result of this filing. In fact, we expect to be a stronger business partner and employer as result of the additional financing our existing lenders have committed, based on their strong belief in our go-forward potential.”
The financial restructuring the Company is now undertaking will allow Speedcast to overcome the near-term headwinds it is facing as a result of pressures on its customers’ businesses. A significant percentage of the Company’s customers are in the maritime and oil and gas industries and have extended payment terms as they work to overcome significant industry pressures. The impact on Speedcast’s business was further exacerbated as the COVID-19 pandemic spread worldwide and halted activities for Speedcast’s cruise line customers. These dynamics made it impossible for Speedcast to complete its planned equity raise – or any recapitalization transaction – outside of the Court-supervised chapter 11 process.
Maritime Mobility Update: Cruise Connectivity to Continue at Reduces Rates - Cargo Segment Stable
Washington D.C. - April 20:, 2020: While passenger sailings have been discontinued through June, cruise vessels remain crewed, and at least at Carnival, contracts for bandwidth are expected to continue at normal level through May and June. After May and June, expect service levels to be reduced to reflect crew only usage levels. At present, given the trajectory of the Virus and the projected time line for the availability of a vaccine, full recovery of the industry is not expected until late spring or summer of 2021. In contrast, containerships and tankers will continued to be crewed indefinitely as tours are extended.
Keeping the crews on the vessels minimizes the potential for infection. To deal with the extended tours and the associated separation from family, bandwidth capacity on ocean going cargo vessels will be increased. With around 40,000 vessels, this is welcome news for maritime connectivity providers.
Isotropic Puts the Power in the Hands of First Responders with its new Emergency Communications Platform
LAKE GENEVA, WI, May 5, 2020 – Isotropic, the trusted provider of global Internet services offering unrivaled certainty, has announced the availability of its new Emergency Communications Platform (ECP). The platform is rapidly and easily integrated into emergency vehicles to provide an instant means of communication no matter where it is needed, allowing emergency managers to effectively coordinate a response utilizing voice, data, and video services as well as managing available bandwidth.
With its compact design and just-add-power portability, the ECP can be installed on any vehicle in a fraction of the time of more traditional solutions without the need for large clusters of rooftop equipment that create more opportunities for technical difficulties. The ECP is built on a software defined wide area network (SD-WAN) connection that automatically shifts between VSAT and LTE networks in microseconds.
“It’s said that the first five minutes of an incident dictate the next 5 hours of its operations,” said Ryan Zbierski, Director, Mission Assurance, Isotropic. “It is essential that connectivity is made instantly available wherever it’s needed. Our software-defined solution enables first responders to begin sharing information from the outset. We take the worry out of the communications so that they can focus on the job at hand.”
The technology behind the ECP features Kymeta’s u8 GEO flat panel antenna with an integrated iQ LTE series modem from ST Engineering iDirect at its core, promising unfailing connectivity. This is coupled with Isotropic’s Datadragon™ bandwidth management platform that puts the power to monitor, control, and optimize data usage in the hands of relief teams. The platform is supported by Isotropic’s customizable flat-rate flexible service plans designed to scale and work not only with the ECP, but also with pre-existing technology configurations.
“We are proud to play a part in this innovative solution for emergency services,” said David Harrower, Senior Vice President of Global Sales, Kymeta. “To see the Kymeta antenna playing such a key role in the ECP and enabling mobility of communications to the heart of where people need help means a great deal to us.”
The ECP is available now from Isotropic. To find out more, click here.
Anokiwave Integrated Circuits (ICs) and Ball Aerospace are Enabling Affordable Flat Panel Phased Array Antennas that Meet Regulatory Requirements
San Diego, CA, 28 April 2020: Anokiwave, Inc. and Ball Aerospace have announced a collaboration to develop and enable the next generation of SATCOM terminal solutions. As part of this collaboration Anokiwave’s advanced, low-cost silicon 2nd generation SATCOM K/Ka-band ICs power the Ball Aerospace fully electronically steerable K/Ka-band antennas that feature no moving parts, providing long-term reliability with low-cost manufacturing.
Ball Aerospace brings an innovative approach to flat panel electronically steered antennas with flexible, cost efficient subarrays that can be tiled together to form an antenna that is customized to meet the end user’s needs. This approach allows the flexibility to optimize a terminal to the mission needs of the customer without the cost of antenna re-design. Anokiwave provides Silicon SATCOM beamforming ICs that improve performance, reduce cost, simplify thermal management, and provide a host of unique digital functionality to simplify overall system design. Compared to multiple other companies that are just beginning to promise their early stage ICs, Anokiwave ICs are fully released and are shipping in volume.
“With our latest generation of SATCOM ICs, Anokiwave has improved the performance and reduced the cost to a point where Ball Aerospace can now deliver flat panel electronically steered antennas that meet cost and performance targets,” said Abhishek Kapoor, Anokiwave vice president of Sales. “This is a unique first in the industry as many companies have been working on solutions with promises made and broken, expectations set and not fulfilled. In the past, managing the delicate balance of cost and performance of the ICs has been a key challenge to the mass adoption of active antennas for satellite communications.”
“Ball Aerospace has a long history of lowering the cost of phased array systems, and the new Anokiwave IC’s allow us to further reduce costs while maintaining our desired system performance,” said Jake Sauer, vice president and general manager, Tactical Solutions, Ball Aerospace. “Ball has integrated the Anokiwave IC’s into our new subarray architecture, a building block approach specifically designed to support both commercial and military end-users. This enables manufacturing economies of scale and promotes design reuse for multiple SATCOM applications – a first for the industry.”
Ball Aerospace has completed over-the-air testing of its Anokiwave IC enabled subarrays and has measured results showing transmit and receive performance over scan, switchable polarization and tapering. These test results matched, and in most cases beat, modeled estimates.
Satcom Global Launches Aura Crew Calling Initiative to Support Customers During the COVID-19 Pandemic
North Shields, UK, 27th April 2020: Satcom Global has announced a crew calling initiative which is providing free telephone vouchers to each of its Satcom Global Aura VSAT customers, as part of efforts to support seafarer welfare during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The satellite communications provider and operator of the Aura network is supplying customers with a free-of-charge 30-minute voucher for each crew member stationed on-board a vessel using the Aura service, to help keep lines of communication open between vessel and shore.
Ian Robinson, CEO of Satcom Global commented:
“On speaking to a number of ship owners and managers since the Coronavirus outbreak began, we appreciate there are significant challenges being faced by the maritime industry, not least the direct impact on the mental well-being of seafarers as they face longer spells at sea and the inability to travel home. We hope this gesture will help more crew to connect with family and friends and bring some relief during this difficult time.”
Aura crew voice services are supported by IPSignature 4, Satcom Global’s proprietary communications management solution, which enables the generation of easy to use virtual voice pins for crew to use at their leisure. With the implementation of the free voucher initiative underway, Satcom Global hopes to reach upwards of 20,000 seafarers with the scheme.
Intelsat, SES and Eutelsat Hit by Declines in Maritime and Aviation Connectivity
Washington D.C. - April 20: The decline in aviation and cruise segments is having a major impact on the three major satellite operators. Intelsat derives around 13 per-cent of its revenues from mobility, Eutelsat, around 6% and SES with around 30 cruise vessels and aero business is likely to see revenue erosion as well.
At Intelsat, the reduction in mobility revenue is expected to be the most damaging. Two-thirds of Intelsat's mobility revenue comes from maritime and the remainder from aero connectivity. Considering that Intelsat was already in a precarious position prior to the advent of the Corona Virus, it's not surprising that it was recently rumored that the company is seeking a bankruptcy bridge loan to carry it until it's able to collect compensation from the FCC C-Band auction in December. Speedcast, Intelsat's largest mobility customer valued its Carnival cruise contract at well over $100 million.
ThinKom Completes Successful Antenna Interoperability Demonstrations on Ku-Band LEO Satellite Constellation
HAWTHORNE, Calif. – April 30, 2020 – ThinKom Solutions, Inc., recently completed a series of interoperability tests that demonstrated the compatibility of its core antenna technology with a low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite network.
The tests took place during the first quarter of 2020, using commercially available airborne-certified hardware, including a ThinKom Ku3030 phased-array antenna subsystem and a Gogo radome, adaptor plate and power amplifier that together comprise the “2Ku” aero satcom terminal.
The 2Ku terminal demonstrated rapid acquisition and tracking of LEO satellites and provided continuous connectivity over all operationally relevant elevation angles. The switch time between individual satellite beams was less than 100 milliseconds (ms), and handoffs between satellites were completed in less than one second. Switches between LEO and geostationary (GEO) satellites were also achieved with similar results.
The measured terminal performance demonstrated the potential that the combination of ThinKom antennas and LEO solutions will provide, with throughput rates in excess of 350 Mbps on the downlink and 125 Mbps on the uplink, at latencies of less than 50 ms.
“LEO satellite networks have the potential to be transformative to the in-flight connectivity experience, but also place new stringent demands on the antenna systems used to track and connect with the rapidly moving satellites,” said Bill Milroy, CTO of ThinKom Solutions. “This important demonstration is another milestone verifying that our antenna technology operates effectively in the LEO environment, which is a key requirement for airlines in terms of enhanced network resiliency and flexibility.”
ThinKom has successfully tested its Ku- and Ka-band COTS phased-array aero antennas across commercial and military frequency bands and a wide range of GEO and non-geostationary (NGSO) satellites over the past 12 months. In all cases, the phased-array antennas have consistently demonstrated high throughput operation and rapid reliable handoffs, including both intra- and inter-satellite switching.
Intelsat 901 Satellite Returns to Service Using Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle
MCLEAN and DULLES, Va. – April 17, 2020 – Intelsat (NYSE: I) today announced that Intelsat 901 has returned to service following the successful docking with the first Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) from Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE: NOC) and the company’s wholly-owned subsidiary, SpaceLogistics LLC, on February 25 – the first time that two commercial spacecraft docked in geostationary orbit.
Since the February rendezvous, MEV-1 has assumed navigation of the combined spacecraft stack reducing its inclination by 1.6° and relocating IS-901 to its new orbital location. Intelsat then transitioned roughly 30 of its commercial and government customers to the satellite on April 2. The transition of service took approximately six hours. IS-901 is now operating at the 332.5°E orbital slot and providing full service to Intelsat customers.
Intelsat views life-extension services, like MEV technology, as a cost-effective and efficient way to minimize service disruptions, enhance the overall flexibility of its satellite fleet and better support the evolving needs of its customers.
“With a focus on providing the best customer experience in our industry, Intelsat is proud to have pioneered this innovative first with Northrop Grumman. We see increased demand for our connectivity services around the world, and preserving our customers’ experience using innovative technology such as MEV-1 is helping us meet that need,” said Intelsat Chief Services Officer Mike DeMarco. “I want to thank Northrop Grumman, SpaceLogistics and our valued Intelsat customers, who put their trust in us to successfully execute this historic mission. As commercial space-servicing technology progresses, Intelsat looks forward to pioneering new applications in support of our customers’ continued success.”
“Our partnership with Intelsat was critical to delivering this innovative satellite technology into operation,” said Tom Wilson, vice president, Northrop Grumman Space Systems and president, SpaceLogistics, LLC. “This historic event, highlighted by the first in-orbit rendezvous and docking of two commercial satellites and the subsequent repositioning of the two-spacecraft stack, demonstrates the business value that MEV offers to customers. Now that MEV-1 has successfully delivered on its mission to place the Intelsat 901 satellite back into operational service, we will continue to pioneer the future of on-orbit servicing through our multi-year technology roadmap leading to additional services such as inspection, assembly and repair.”
Under the terms of the contract, Northrop Grumman and SpaceLogistics will provide five years of life extension services to IS-901 before returning the spacecraft to a final decommissioned orbit. MEV-1 will then be available to provide additional mission extension services for new clients including orbit raising, inclination corrections and inspections. Intelsat has already also contracted with Northrop Grumman for a second MEV (MEV-2) to service Intelsat 1002 satellite later this year.
ThinKom Aero Satellite Antennas Fully Comply with International Non-Interference Rules
HAWTHORNE, Calif. – April 8, 2020 – ThinKom Solutions, Inc., today announced that its phased-array satellite antennas are in full compliance with the latest rules from international regulatory bodies governing evolving interference threats.
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the 2019 World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC19) have adopted standards to prevent interference between satellites in geostationary (GSO) and non-geostationary (NGSO) orbits and between aeronautical and 5G terrestrial services using shared frequencies.
ITU Article 22 specifies that terminals operating on NGSO satellites must limit their emissions in the direction of GSO satellites. This can and will occur when NGSO satellites move in and out of alignment with GSO satellites.
“Our VICTS phased-array technology ensures full compliance with ITU Article 22 by eliminating elevated sidelobes when operating on NGSOs, thereby protecting against interference in the GSO plane,” said Bill Milroy, CTO of ThinKom Solutions. “We have successfully completed numerous trials to demonstrate interoperability between NGSO and GSO satellites with no interference.”
Delegates at WRC19 reaffirmed the use of Ka-band frequencies for aeronautical and maritime satellite communications, but some of these frequencies are shared with terrestrial 5G mobile networks for use in point-to-point back-haul and distribution services. For that reason, WRC19 imposed strict limitations on spurious emissions from satellite terminals on aircraft to prevent interference with 5G ground networks operating on the protected Ka-bands.
“ThinKom’s proprietary VICTS phased-array architecture is designed so that the antenna’s radiating aperture is shielded by its housing,” said Milroy. “This means there is no direct path between the antenna and the ground, even at very low elevation angles, thus eliminating the need to attenuate or mute the transmit signal in order to meet the stringent WRC19 requirements.”
Omnispace Selects Thales Alenia Space to Develop Satellite Infrastructure for its Global Hybrid Network Vision
TYSONS, VA. – April 9, 2020 – Omnispace, the company that is reinventing mobile communications by building a global hybrid network, today announced it has selected Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between Thales (67%) and Leonardo (33%), to develop the initial component of its satellite-based Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure. This will advance Omnispace’s vision to deliver a global hybrid communications network based on 3GPP standards.
Thales Alenia Space will design and build an initial set of two satellites for operation in non-geostationary orbit (NGSO). These initial satellites will support 3GPP-defined (the 3rd Generation Partnership Project telecommunications specifications that unite standard development organizations) Narrow-Band IoT radio interface and will serve to advance the development and implementation of Omnispace’s global hybrid network. This announcement marks a key milestone as Omnispace initiates the development of its new generation NGSO satellite constellation which will operate in the S-band.
“Thales Alenia Space has a successful track record of developing NGSO satellite constellations and is well-qualified to support our vision of delivering the world’s first global 5G non terrestrial network (NTN),” said Ram Viswanathan, President and CEO of Omnispace LLC. “This investment in our next-generation satellite infrastructure allows us to progress the development of our technology and demonstrate our unique capabilities as we continue to work towards launching our broader vision of a global hybrid network.”
“Thales Alenia Space is pleased to be working with Omnispace, which is taking a holistic approach to the design, development and deployment of their next-generation, IoT-based satellite network infrastructure,” said Hervé Derrey, CEO of Thales Alenia Space. “Omnispace’s selection of Thales Alenia Space reinforces our leadership position as a major industrial partner and our expertise in space-based IoT communications. We look forward to collaborating with Omnispace in delivering this innovative project.”
The development of this initial set of satellites will begin immediately and they are scheduled for launch in 2021. Omnispace and Thales Alenia Space, along-side other industry stakeholders, will contribute to the development of the 3GPP NTN friendly standard for global implementation.
Iridium Partner IEC Telecom Enables The IK Foundation to Deploy Autonomous Monitoring Station in the Remote Arctic
Tysons, VA., April 7, 2020 - Iridium Communications Inc. is proud to share that partner IEC Telecom has enabled The IK Foundation to deploy connectivity for an autonomous environmental monitoring station at an unmanned Field Station on Prins Karls Forland, an island off the West coast of Svalbard.
One of a few places on Earth to retain an unaltered wild landscape, the island is an untapped scientific resource, largely because of its inaccessibility and government regulations that only allow scientists to explore the island for 10 days out of the year. In order to achieve reliable connectivity for long periods of time without human intervention, The IK Foundation partnered with IEC Telecom to use a Thales MissionLINK™ terminal powered by the Iridium Certus® service.
The terminal was the ideal solution for the environment because it is easy to install and doesn’t require constant maintenance. The Field Station now consistently uses the terminal to transmit and disseminate raw scientific data several times a day to researchers across the globe.
The Thales MissionLINK™ powered by Iridium Certus® can operate in cold and damp conditions and withstand severe snow and ice. PHOTO: Lars Hansen | Bridge Builder Expeditions Spitsbergen, Voyage IV.A, 2019.
“This collaborative effort exhibits the endless possibilities that the world’s only truly global broadband service can enable,” says Iridium Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Bryan Hartin. “We are proud of our partner IEC Telecom for supporting The IK Foundation and utilizing Iridium Certus technology to help gather important environmental data.”
Since installation in May 2019, the Field Station has already produced staggering amounts of raw biological data, helping to bolster scientific research. Iridium Certus will continue to be a critical part of the Field Station and The IK Foundation’s approach to gathering and sharing observation data and increasing scientific engagement worldwide.
Hot News and Commentary
Satellite Operators are Flying NASA Spacecraft from their Homes to Help Prevent the Spread of COVID-19
NORTH LOGAN, Utah, April 15, 2020 – The Space Dynamics Laboratory announced today that satellite operators are flying NASA spacecraft from their homes to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The emphasis on social distancing and stay-at-home work has become ubiquitous throughout the world and has affected sectors of many industries, including the space industry. In response to disruptions of normal work methods due to the global pandemic, SDL satellite operators have successfully shifted operations of two NASA small satellites away from traditional Mission Operations Centers to alternative flight centers—their living rooms.
“By leveraging government-approved secure network services and working within security and information assurance protocols, SDL has the ability to operate spacecraft effectively and securely from anywhere an internet connection exists,” said Tim Neilsen, program manager in SDL’s Commercial and Civil Space Division. “NASA’s Hyper-Angular Rainbow Polarimeter CubeSat and the Compact Infrared Radiometer in Space instrument small satellite, known as HARP and CIRiS respectively, are two science satellites that are now being commanded by SDL satellite operators outside of SDL facilities.”
Measuring approximately 10 centimeters wide, 10 centimeters high, and 30 centimeters long, the HARP satellite was built by SDL to carry the payload built by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The objective of HARP is to validate the in-flight capabilities of a highly accurate and precise wide field of view hyper-angular polarimeter for characterizing aerosol and cloud properties. Additionally, HARP will demonstrate that CubeSat-size technology can provide science-quality multi-angle imaging data, paving the way for lower-cost aerosol-cloud instrument development.
Built by Ball Aerospace, CIRiS is collecting, processing, and calibrating infrared images of Earth. The satellite, about the size of a backpack with a mass of approximately 25 pounds, is testing a small, space-based infrared instrument that collects images to be used for a variety of scientific studies, including studies of cloud properties and mapping of soil moisture for measuring local drought conditions.
“We have worked closely with NASA and the principal investigators for HARP and CIRiS to ensure their mission objectives are being met while our employees are practicing recommended COVID-19 mitigation methods,” said Asal Naseri, SDL’s small satellite technologies branch head. “The health and safety of our employees is a top priority for SDL, and we are actively pursuing opportunities for them to work from home during this extraordinary time while maintaining commitments to our partners.”
Rocket Lab to Launch Dedicated Mission for Japanese Space Industry Start-up Company Synspective
Long Beach, California. 14 April 2020 – Rocket Lab, a space technology company and global leader in dedicated small satellite launch, has signed a deal with Japanese satellite company Synspective to launch a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite in late 2020.
Synspective’s StriX-α satellite will be launched on an Electron launch vehicle as a dedicated mission from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.
The satellite will be the first in Synspective’s planned StriX constellation of around 25 SAR satellites designed to provide geospatial solutions. SAR satellites actively observe and acquire Earth surface information by transmitting and receiving reflected microwaves. Compared with optical satellites, which rely on sunlight reflection, SAR can capture images of the ground surface in all weather conditions and at any time of the day or night.
With the StriX constellation, Synspective aims to equip companies, governments, and research organizations with high-quality and user-friendly information data that can be used for urban development planning, construction and infrastructure monitoring, and disaster response.
The StriX-α satellite will be the sole payload on the Electron launch vehicle for this mission, giving Synspective the ability to select the exact orbit, launch site, and launch timing that best suits the company’s needs.
“We’re delighted to welcome Synspective to Electron, and we’re honored to be play such a pivotal role in the development of the StriX constellation,” said Rocket Lab Founder and Chief Executive, Peter Beck. “We understand just how important it is to have control over your orbit and your launch schedule when building out a constellation, so we’re proud to be delivering that capability to Synspective on Electron.”
“We are very pleased to work with Rocket Lab, a pioneer in rocket ventures. We are also grateful for their flexibility in accepting our requests on the satellite’s orbit and launch period," said Synspective Founder and CEO Dr. Motoyuki Arai. "This year, we will launch our first satellite as well as our SAR data solutions. With this launch, we are taking a very important step towards establishing Synspective's one stop service.”
BlackSky Launches Spectra On-Demand Secure Bundle for Intelligence Analysts
HERNDON, VA - April 22, 2020 – BlackSky, a leading provider of geospatial intelligence, global monitoring services and satellite imaging, announced today its new Spectra On-Demand Secure Bundle to support remote work options for intelligence analysts. The new Spectra solution allows analysts to securely share unclassified information. The Spectra On-Demand Secure Bundle includes the ability to review multi-source data feeds, obtain timely access to satellite imagery and gain resources for event analysis.
“Given the coronavirus pandemic, intelligence analysts, financial analysts and researchers are seeking solutions that allow teams to continue critical security and intelligence projects while working remotely,” said Brian O’Toole, CEO of BlackSky. “Our Spectra platform offers a blend of secure tools that help analysts continue monitoring the globe, even when constrained to working from an offsite location.”
The Spectra On-Demand Secure Bundle offers unique global monitoring and satellite imaging including:
Global activity monitoring: Access, coordination and management of a wide range of open and commercial monitoring sources
Comprehensive commercial satellite imagery: Fast tasking and delivery with rapid access to image archives
Automated tipping and cueing: Rapid selection and tasking of the right sensor at the right time
Secure online environment for analyst collaboration, publication and dissemination: Internet accessible and unclassified resources
Strategic focus for the new Spectra On-Demand Secure Bundle includes site, activity and crisis monitoring while leveraging ad-hoc imagery ordering. Intelligence analysts can access data from BlackSky’s satellites and multi-source event feeds in addition to information from third-party satellite sensors. BlackSky offers low latency, rapid task collection, frequent revisits and temporal diversity across time of day with imaging satellites in Sun-synchronous and mid-inclined orbits.
“Our offering provides one pane of glass for deep visibility and access to the data and analytics our customers need, delivered within a matter of hours,” continued O’Toole. “With our extensive experience combining AI- and ML-driven analytic models and geospatial images, BlackSky’s global monitoring capabilities are already playing a crucial role supporting the redistributed workforces of U.S. analysts.”
The First Hong Kong Starlink Project: Golden Bauhinia Satellite to Build a Smart City of the Future
The First Hong Kong Starlink Project: Golden Bauhinia Satellite to Build a Smart City of the Future
2020-04-20,”The Smart City in the 5G era is on the way, as the satellite industry pioneer, Hong Kong Aerospace Technology Group, Ltd. (HKATG), has launched its first starlink project, the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area Golden Bauhinia Satellite Constellation. The project is also the first satellite starlink project in Hong Kong, which is dedicated to building smart cities in the future. The Golden Bauhinia satellite constellation is low-orbit, high-frequency constellation, and its huge constellation can obtain the whole ecological life cycle data of the entire city agglomeration. Moreover, the Golden Bauhinia satellite constellation has a space resolution of 3 meters to Earth Observation, with a spectral range between 400nm and 1000nm. Its orbit can cover the entire Greater Bay Area once every two days, which is an area of up to 56,000 sqkm.
For focused areas of observation, their satellite constellations can revisit every 30 minutes to obtain up-to-date information. Coupled with the high-resolution CMOS sensor camera ground pixel resolution 2m@500km, the single image ground width is better than 54km.
In addition, satellite launches are no longer limited to countries and industries, and more commercial satellite applications become feasible. According to statistics, the global space economy in 2018 has reached 360 billion US dollars, and the satellite industry accounts for 77%. While launching costs decreasing and the threshold for satellite manufacturing lowering, the commercial space launch industry will become mainstream.
Speaking about the future development of the aerospace industry, Sun FengQuan, HKATG's Chairman of the Board, said that the satellite constellation and the market economy would be increasingly closely correlated to enable the commercial space industry to quickly enter the racetrack. Upon this, he believes that HKATG, the first enterprise to develop a satellite starlink project in Hong Kong, will be on par with the world's top standards, benefiting the Greater Bay Area and Asian companies, enhancing their competitiveness and helping to build the smart city of the future.
Smallsat News and Ventures
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In March, officials from SpaceX met with the FCC, arguing that it should qualify for a share of the $16 Billion in Federal subsidies allocated by the agency for rural broadband.
Essentially, SpaceX wants the right to participate in the October auction in which low bidders would receive a slice of the Federal rural broadband funding. It contends that by launching satellites and demonstrating broadband connectivity, it should be welcomed as a participant in America's rural broadband future. That is not a valid argument.
Serving the mass consumer market is a much tougher challenge than launching some satellites and connecting a couple of terminals. It’s an unproven business model fraught with risk.
While SpaceX has demonstrated that it can deliver broadband via satellite, that’s not a business. It’s only a technological achievement. Launching satellites and running a complex consumer-focused company and doing it profitably is the real challenge.
If Elon can’t find enough subscribers and if Starlink’s operating costs are too high, he will fail, forcing him to come back to the government to ask for more subsidies . Remember Solyndra, the ill-fated solar panel venture backed by the Obama administration. It cost taxpayers half a billion dollars!
With Starlink, it could be worse. As rural users demand the continuation of service, what began as a one-time investment could quickly become a Federally funded money pit, just like Amtrak, a perpetual money-losing business supported by congressmen from rural states.
Before allowing Musk to participate in the auction, the FCC should consider the enormity of the business challenge and uncertainties faced by Starlink.
Building a consumer Internet business is enormously expensive. Consider the cost of the business infrastructure. Musk will have to advertise and market the service, install the antennas, provide technical service, operate a call center, bill and collect subscriber fees and fund a complex administrative structure, just like Comcast and Verizon. Sending up the satellites is just the beginning.
To be successful, Starlink is going to need millions of subscribers, which means it will have to compete with Hughes and ViaSat, formidable companies that are not going to roll over and hand him the business. Even if the service performs better, Musk is going to have to fight for every subscriber, and that could spark a price war. Let’s not forget Viasat 3 is going up soon with over a terabit of capacity, further driving down bandwdith cost. Even more troubling for the prospects of Starlink is having to compete against Amazon’s project Kuiper.
As we noted in a previous article, Amazon is the most likely survivor in the LEO niche. Supported by unlimited capital, and a business model complimentary to its AWS Cloud business and e-Commerce activities, the giant company might even be able to offer Internet access via satellite for free, or at a price so low as to drive everyone else out of the business.
Given the levels of uncertainty involved in forecasting subscriber numbers and operating costs, I don’t see how Starlink can make a realistic bid in the rural broadband auction. The FCC should stay away from Starlink. The issue is not about delivery of rural broadband. It’s about whether billions of dollars in taxpayer investment can result in the establishment of an ongoing, profitable and sustainable business.
- Alan Gottlieb
Is Starlink the Next Federally Funded Money Pit?
SpaceX's Plan to Tap the FCC's Rural Broadband Piggy Bank
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With the Corona Virus and the associated massive decline in commercial and business flying, inflight connectivity providers are facing huge and unexpected challenges.
Dependent exclusively on IFC revenue, Global Eagle and Gogo are the hardest hit. Even Panasonic Avionics and Satcom Direct, the leader in the lucrative business jet market, have undergone reductions in force.
As the situation worsens, we sought out one of the industry's best-known executives, Michael Small, the Chairman and CEO of K4 Mobility and the former CEO of Gogo, for a perspective.
SMW: Since you left Gogo, can you tell us a bit about your new K4 Mobility venture and how it’s going?
Michael Small: In 2018, after leaving Gogo, Anand Chari, the former Gogo CTO, and I launched K4 Mobility.
We created a new, powerful, and easy to use mobility-focused platform, initially for the maritime industry. It’s a service that combines the attributes of SD-WAN and LAN architecture to provide a powerful network management capability.
In the spring of 2019, we raised capital, and in the fall of 2019, we initiated service in the yacht market. Now, the K4 Mobility platform is installed and operating on more than two dozen yachts in the Caribbean, and we believe it has broader potential in other “off-grid” mobility markets.
SMW: With commercial air travel nearly halted, IFC providers are facing extreme challenges, and looking at the major providers, Gogo, Panasonic, Global Eagle, ViaSat, and Inmarsat, which are in the best position to ride out the collapse in commercial airline traffic and why?
Michael Small: Let me begin by making one positive comment. Once the pandemic has passed, the importance of connecting everything and everybody is going to be an even bigger part of the new normal. We’re on that trendline already, but I believe it’s going to accelerate. Ultimately, airline connectivity is going to get a boost, and connectivity will be more critical than ever.
Today, however, those companies with the least dependence on airline volume-related connectivity revenue and the most robust balance sheets will be most resistant to the downturn.
In that regard, Panasonic, Viasat, and Inmarsat are less dependent on inflight connectivity. As a percentage of total corporate revenue, Gogo and Global Eagle are more dependent on airline passenger traffic.
Of the two, Gogo has more cash on hand, a very strong BA business, and could defer some of its investments in 5G to preserve cash. In addition to significant cost -cutting, both companies probably will seek to renegotiate contracts and pursue government relief.
SMW: Will business jet IFC buffer the decline in commercial airline traffic? Satcom Direct has recently reported a significant reduction in demand and, in response, has initiated layoffs. Since business jet IFC is much more profitable than commercial IFC, will it compensate for the loss of revenue in the commercial IFC segment?
Michael Small: In business aviation, aircraft owners pay for connectivity on a per-aircraft per-month basis vs. the commercial aviation model in which revenue is more directly proportional to consumer usage. So, in the business jet segment, the revenue from each aircraft does not change unless the jet owner takes some action to discontinue or reduce the level of service. Besides, business jet IFC is more profitable than the commercial segment.
For ATG service, pricing ranges from around $1,000 per month to $5,000 per month, with the average being around $3,200. If we are talking about satellite service, $10,000 per month is a typical bill and could rise to tens of thousands of dollars per month with heavy usage.
As business jet travelers can avoid the risk of infection by avoiding crowded airport terminals and aircraft cabins, I expect that there will be a far less decline in business jet travel, although it's not completely immune.
SMW: If Delta offers free WiFi, how will they pay for the increased capacity required for a free service? In the free WiFi model, usage on aircraft rises dramatically. How can they afford to pay for the enhanced capacity?
Michael Small: Delta’s objective is to differentiate its level of service from its competitors and thereby enhance its market share. So, the question is what level of free service will make its passengers happy without causing financial strain. While a free service model is attractive, there have to be limits on what exactly is for free.
I believe that airlines will adopt tiered levels of service in much the same way as the cruise industry, making e-mail and Web surfing free but charging extra for sending large files, video conferencing, and streaming. In a free service offering, Delta’s use of the 2 Ku service gives it significant competitive advantages.
Based on the ThinKom antenna, Gogo’s 2Ku service has much better spectral efficiency, giving it a considerable edge over competitors that rely on gimbaled satellite antennas. Because the gimbaled antenna is less efficient, it would be much more expensive for Delta’s competitors to offer the same level of service. For example, using the Gogo Ku service, Japan Airlines gained market share from its competitors by providing a superior IFC service.
While how to pay for IFC has yet to be resolved, it is a critical element of passenger airline preference, especially for the business traveler.
SMW: Under the free WiFi model, airlines will purchase the equipment and connectivity. Does that mean that the airlines will buy direct from the satellite operators and bi-pass the integrators? If not, what will keep the IFC providers in the value chain?
Michael Small: It would be extremely challenging for either satellite operators or the airlines themselves to manage the many elements involved in the delivery of a high-quality IFC. Equipment certification and installation, maintenance requirements, and end-to-end network management are just a few examples of the services now performed by today’s IFC integrators. Going direct would take a considerable amount of effort. If you are only a satellite provider or airline wanting to get into the IFC business, you have a long road ahead.
There is a lot more to IFC than merely buying an antenna and satellite capacity. While the airlines could buy capacity direct from the satellite operators, they would still have to rely on integrators for many of the critical elements involved in the delivery and operation of IFC.
SMW: Is Inflight entertainment still an essential value-added service?
Michael Small: Providing seat-back IFE, except perhaps on long international flights, is not as significant a value-added as it once was. Many passengers are bringing their own devices that are newer and more capable than the legacy IFE, and either streaming or viewing stored content.
SMW: How will the introduction of LEOs and MEOs change the IFC market? While the LEOs and MEOs can deliver faster web page downloads, improved VPN and cloud connectivity, and enhanced gaming performance, airlines have made significant investments in the introduction of GEO based systems. Will the improved capabilities of the NGSO’s be sufficient to justify the cost of aircraft refit?
Except perhaps for mPower, it will be five years or more before NGSOs will be commercially available for aviation. When LEOs finally become operational, using them will require electronically steered antennas. Even when ESAs are available, it will take a long time for aircraft to upgrade. Changes do not come easily in the airline industry. Equipment that goes on initially tends to stay on for long periods.
However, considering the advantages of the LEOs, I do expect that ultimately they will play a significant role in IFC.
SMW: It seems everyone is developing flat-panel ESAs for aircraft. While typical flat panel antennas have the advantage of generating multiple beams for use with MEOs and LEOs, they consume vast amounts of power, generate a lot of heat, and are very inefficient at low look angles. Can conventional ESA’s overcome these shortcomings?
Conventional ESAs also have their limitations, including limited look angle, excessive power requirements, and heat dissipation. Despite years of effort and millions of dollars in investment, developers have yet to overcome these challenges. While flat-panel ESAs based on conventional designs continue to struggle, airlines have come to rely on a unique variation of the phased array antenna, the ThinKom VICTS.
Today, the Thinkom antenna is the most LEO and MEO ready of all the existing antennas for aircraft. Utilizing a pair of rotating slotted disks driven by magnetic induction, it features superior spectral efficiency, low look angle capabilities, and minimal power consumption. It also works exceptionally well in areas where most airplanes fly, and it’s low-profile, making it the best antenna in the market today.
However, in the long run, I think you will want an electronically steerable antenna capable of linking multiple satellites simultaneously. The arrival of LEO and MEO constellations resolve some of the major challenges inherent in flat-panel development, as there will be less look angle related loss and smaller antenna sizes.
SMW: ATG dominates the IFC market in the U.S.. Both Gogo and Smartsky are launching high-speed ATG networks. Gogo is using a combination of its licensed and unlicensed spectrum, while Smartsky uses only the unlicensed spectrum. How do these systems compare? In addition, there appear to be economic advantages of combining ATG and satellite systems on a single aircraft. Is that viable? What are the benefits of installing both ATG and satellite systems?
Michael Small: I think Gogo has a strategic asset in its ATG network, and it’s upgrading it, which is the right move. Let’s put this in context vs. LEO and MEO solutions. Their advantage is lower latency.
However, ATG offers even lower latency than NGSOs, and by using unlicensed bandwidth, will be able to offer equivalent or higher speeds. It also is much less expensive to install and operate than a satellite system.
Besides, to take advantage of the lower latencies offered by LEOs and MEOs, flat-panel ESAs must become commercially available.
While both Gogo and Smartsky are working on systems, Gogo does have some advantages.
The Gogo service combines licensed and unlicensed bandwidth while the Smartsky service relies only on unlicensed bandwidth. In the Gogo model, aircraft can use the licensed bandwidth in areas where unlicensed bandwidth could experience interference.
Unlike Smartsky, Gogo has a substantial installed customer base and an extensive ground network of towers and antennas already in place. To reach a critical mass of subscribers, Smartsky is starting from a zero base. So, while Smartsky has the potential to become a viable competitor and will benefit from a growing market, it will face considerable challenges as it moves through the early stages of its deployment.
SMW: Inmarsat has launched an ATG IFC solution in Europe. Given the shorter distances traveled in Europe, and the use of high-speed rail and competitive aero satellite solutions, how do you view their prospects for success?
The U.S. is a unique market for Air to Ground. At its launch several years ago, there were fewer, less capable satellite broadband alternatives, particularly in business aviation. Gogo ATG had minimal competition and a large, clearly defined geographical market.
In Europe, there are many jurisdictions, and achieving a marketable coverage area is harder. Plus, there are fewer aircraft most suitable for ATG. Most business jets and regional jets are based in the U.S., not Europe, and they are significant users of ATG.
Accounting for all of the differences in the markets, conditions in Europe are simply not as favorable to ATG as in the U.S. So, in my view, it’s going to be tough to generate enough business to make Inmarsat’s EAN economically viable.
Air Travel and IFC in Crisis - The Impact and the Outlook
An Interview with Michael Small, Chairman and CEO of K4 Mobility and Former CEO, Gogo
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"It would be extremely challenging for either satellite operators or the airlines themselves to manage the many elements involved in the delivery of a high-quality IFC."
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"Providing seat-back IFE, except perhaps on long international flights, is not as significant a value-added as it once was. Many passengers are bringing their own devices that are newer and more capable than the legacy IFE, and either streaming or viewing stored content."
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About Michael Small:
Michael is Chairman and Co-Founder of K4 Mobility.
Prior to K4 Mobility, he served as Gogo’s President and Chief Executive Officer and as a member of the Board since 2010 and has more than 30 years of experience in the communications industry.
Prior to joining Gogo, Mr. Small served as the Chief Executive Officer and Director of Centennial Communications Corporation from 1999 until 2009. From 1995 until 1998, Mr. Small served as Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of 360 Degrees Communications, a regional wireless service provider.
He also previously served as President of Lynch Corporation, a diversified acquisition-oriented company with operations in telecommunications, manufacturing and transportation services.
Mr. Small recently was named an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and CEO of the Year from the Illinois Technology Association.
He served as the Chairman of the Brady Campaign/Center until January 2016, and currently serves on the board of First Midwest Bancorp.
He holds a B.A. from Colgate University and received his M.B.A. from the University of Chicago – Booth School of Business.
As Covid-19 Ravages Cruise, Aero, & Energy VSAT Markets Crumble
Major sectors of the mobility VSAT market are reeling from an unprecedented shock in demand. Cruise ships are out of service, aircraft parked, and oil wells are shut-in, reducing, or even eliminating the need for VSAT connectivity.
Here's a look at three of the major mobility segments, their prospects for recovery and the integrators and satellite operators that serve them.
The cruise industry is a massive consumer of satellite capacity. As a result of the CDC “No Sail Order," all sailings have been halted until mid-July, reducing the need for VSAT connectivity. By June, cruise companies are expected to reduce bandwidth by as much as 50%.
Given the uncertainty associated with the Covid-19 outbreak, the cruise industry faces enormous challenges, not the least of which is caring for the large number of foreign nationals stuck on its vessels. On April 22nd, the Coast Guard reported that there are still 65,000 crew sequestered aboard.
To ease the crisis and allow the crews to communicate, cruise operators will continue to provide VSAT services to their ships, albeit at reduced levels. In the cargo segment, the connectivity picture is more hopeful.
On cargo vessels, operators have extended crew contracts, and to avoid infection, seafarers are not going ashore. To combat the associated drop in crew morale, ship operators are increasing satellite capacity. With an estimated 40,000 vessels equipped with broadband VSAT, the increased usage should compensate somewhat for the loss in cruise VSAT revenues.
Of course, there is no denying the effect of the cruise slowdown on the integrator and satellite operator segments. It’s huge. According to our sources, Carnival's massive Speedcast VSAT contract services 90 vessels, around 30% of the industry, and is valued at around $120 million.
For satellite operator Intelsat, the largest provider to cruise, 13% of their revenue or $260 million comes from mobility and $170 million from maritime - the majority of which is from cruise. Given Intelsat’s precarious financial position, the decline in mobility revenue could quickly force Intelsat into a formal restructuring, a process that we believe is imminent.
SES, the other primary cruise provider, serves Carnival's Princess fleet of around 30 vessels. There, an estimated $30 million in revenue is at risk. While SES earnings will likely be affected, the company is in a much stronger financial position than Intelsat to weather the storm.
The impact of the Covid-19 outbreak and associated nationwide lockdown has brought segments of the oil and gas industry to the brink of insolvency.
With 70% of VSAT integrator revenue coming from deep offshore drilling, the VSAT business is usually buffered against short term declines in oil price by a long term price expectation. However, today it's different.
For the first time in history, overproduction has collided with a near-total collapse in demand. Even the recent cuts by Saudi Arabia and Russia are deemed by experts as too little to compensate for the decline in travel-related fuel consumption. The result is a peculiar situation in which there is so much oil that there is no place to put it.
As storage fills, operators have little choice but to curtail drilling and shut down production, putting the revenues of VSAT integrators such as Speedcast, RigNet, and ITC Global in jeopardy.
Ultimately, the only way to alleviate the energy crisis is for the public to start traveling again. However, the Virus is changing consumer habits. Even when the Covid-19 is no longer a threat, companies are becoming more comfortable with telecommuting.
Working from home has become increasingly acceptable as workers have been introduced to and become accustomed to using advanced video conferencing applications like Zoom. Besides, new software for monitoring worker performance at home is also making more businesses comfortable with the work-at-home alternative. The associated reduction in commuting along with the ability to conduct staff meetings online, will inevitably result in lower demand for gasoline.
However, even though the use of oil in the transportation segment will decline, the world will still need significant quantities of oil. Only 1/3 of oil consumption is transportation- related. The remaining 2/3 goes into chemicals, plastics, and pharmaceuticals.
Commercial airlines are flying but at a fraction of normal capacity. Traffic across the globe has declined as much as 90% in some areas. Panasonic Avionics, Gogo, Global Eagle and Viasat have been hard hit.
Panasonic has laid off nearly 400. Gogo has furloughed 600 and recently reported a ninety-five per-cent drop in revenue vs. the same month last year. As a result, they have applied for a government loan and drawn down $22 Million of their credit line.
Viasat generates around 10% of its revenue from inflight connectivity and just announced layoffs of 320.
Global Eagle was struggling before the Corona Virus and is said to be critically short of cash. As in maritime, integrators are seeking relief from satellite operators.
In the Maritime, and Energy segments, the recovery will depend on our ability to conquer the Corona Virus. Passengers will not board cruise ships or aircraft in mass until they no longer face the threat of severe or deadly illness. Either the Virus will have to disappear on its own, or an effective curative or vaccine will have to be available. Short of a miracle, return to normalcy could take twelve to eighteen months or more. We’re hoping for a miracle.
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With the coming of LEOs and MEOs and the burgeoning demand for broadband on commercial aircraft, satellite antenna developers are racing to develop a suitable phased array antenna.
Despite multiple efforts and millions of dollars invested in development, success has remained elusive, and significant obstacles remain in place.
Typically, flat panel phased arrays use large numbers of beam forming ICs, a requirement dictating an extensive array of electronics that consumes vast amounts of power, generates excessive heat, and is expensive to manufacture.
Isotropic Systems, a London-based start-up, has designed, prototyped and tested a uniquely innovative antenna that breaks through these barriers. Using lenses that concentrate the RF signal, the antenna design significantly reduces the number of electronic components, resulting in a terminal that uses considerably less power, achieves true time delay, duplex operation, and can be produced at a relatively low cost.
To find out more about this unique product and its potential in aero markets, we met with Brian Billman, Isotropic System's V.P. of Product Management for Aero.
SMW: I understand that the Isotropic antenna has been in development for around three years. Is your first antenna Ku or Ka-Band, and how far have you come in the development? What is the initial target market, and when will the antennas be commercially available?
Brian Billman: Our optical beam forming antenna is a new technology. So, in the beginning, we didn’t have all the answers and have been learning along the way. Throughout the development process, we have been pushing the envelope in terms of the features we can offer.
At the same time, we have spoken with customers, been made aware of their challenges, and have sought out solutions. That’s why, over the last couple of years, we have refined our focus.
As to where we are in the development process, we have already fabricated and tested prototypes - a Ku-Band prototype in 2018, and a Ka-Band antenna is 2019. Those tests were successful for both Ku and Ka-Band antennas, proving the accuracy of our in-house simulation tools and the suitability of our materials for the manufacturing process.
At the end of 2019, using our Ka-band prototype and an Avanti satellite, we completed a full-duplex, over-the-air test. That was a major milestone because it proved the viability of our technology and enabled us to shift from technology development to product development. The science was behind us, and the next level of challenge was to integrate the technology into a saleable product.
Our first product is the Ka-Band terminal. It will be a premium iteration of our design targeted to military applications and high-end enterprise and leisure craft such as yachts and super yachts, markets that value extremely high-performance combined with a low profile form factor.
The product will be available for test and certification by our partners in mid to late 2021, and a full production version will be ready for the market in 2022. While this is our first terminal, it will be followed by other iterations designed for specific markets.
Because we can easily optimize the antenna for different markets, we see a lot of interest and opportunity. For example, we can configure the antenna with either a symmetrical or asymmetrical bandwidth capability by varying the number of transmit and receive modules.
By slightly modifying the optical beam module, we can very easily create derivative products for markets such as buses and small fishing vessels. For land and maritime, we will sell a fully integrated terminal while for aero, we are pursuing a licensing approach.
We will be licensing our beam forming modules to aero integrators, including the lens, the feed, and all the circuitry on the PCB needed to do the beamforming. The integrators will use the technology to design and fabricate the rest of the system and handle the certification process for each type of aircraft.
SMW: I understand you have been speaking with some potential aero integrators. Without naming anyone in particular, can you give us an idea of the level of interest and how far you have come in the discussions? When might you conclude a technology licensing deal?
Brian Billman: Although we are involved in discussions with many integrators and providers, it’s a bit early to go into detail.
Regarding the timing of our aero product release, we only announced the licensing opportunity a month ago at Satellite 2020. Since then, we have had an incredibly favorable response. I think that is because our unique benefits and features are closely aligned with the challenges faced by the aero connectivity market.
Of course, at this point, we are still in the preliminary stages of discussions. However, its important to remember that our aero product development is parallel to the development required for our initial maritime and land product. So, the technology is essentially the same.
SMW: Currently, there are many flat-panel aero antennas in development. While their form factor is attractive, in GEO applications, they are very inefficient at high latitudes and low look angles. How does your antenna compare?
Brian Billman: Compared to a conventional flat panel antenna, we can reach a look angle of 20 degrees of elevation, vs. 30 degrees for the typical flat antenna. Since we use RF “lenses” that bend and focus the RF energy, we can achieve a very low look angle. Besides, the gain at those extreme angles is around 3 dB better than a standard flat panel ESA. Of course, that’s in the case the antenna is mounted flat.
However, if we conform the antenna to a specific shape, whether it’s the fuselage or the radome, that can push the scan range even farther beyond 70 degrees from boresight (below 20 degrees in elevation). In that case, you have modules that are pointing toward the horizon, resulting in increased gain. Because our modules are only six centimeters in diameter, it’s quite easy to mount them in a conformable configuration.
SMW: In both GEO, LEO and MEO applications, flat panel ESAs have excessive power requirements and cooling requirements. How does the Isotropic antenna overcome these challenges?
Brian Billman: First of all, power consumption is a huge challenge for conventional flat panel phased array antennas, especially in aero. That is because airlines are demanding more bandwidth. To achieve high bandwidth capability, you need a large and power-hungry antenna. The isotropic antenna is different. Because we use lenses to concentrate and focus the RF energy, we need around 90 per-cent fewer beamformer ICs.
Instead of having to illuminate thousands of antenna elements all the time, we only have to illuminate one lens and feed to generate a beam. We then combine the beams from multiple "cells" to achieve the desired bandwidth, drastically reducing the power consumption. That means that we can offer digital beamforming and dynamic resource allocation.
At any given time, we only turn the resources required, depending on the link characteristics and the purpose of that specific beam. That’s very different from a traditional flat panel in which you need to keep all of the elements illuminated all the time.
Another advantage of our design is that we can vary the number of feeds under each lens, which allows us to tailor the product to a specific application.
For example, in cellular backhaul, you are dealing with a fixed site. So, by only populating a single line of feeds, and tilting the terminal towards the GEO/MEO arcs, we can offer a reduced cost terminal that can still communicate with multiple GEO or MEO satellites simultaneously.
SMW: Traditional flat panel antennas solve the time delay problem by using phase shifters, digitizing the signal (Satixfy antenna), or, in the case of the Thinkom antenna, employ a slotted, rotating disk. How does the Isotropic antenna resolve this issue?
Brian Billman: We have no moving parts in our Aero modules. To shift the phase of the signal, we amplify the signal and digitize it.
Digital time delay is far superior to hardware phase shifters because hardware phase shifters are set to an average frequency value and the beam actually points in different directions over frequency (beam squint), thereby increasing side lobes and limiting instantaneous bandwidth.
In true time delay, the beam pointing direction is constant over the full range of frequencies, thereby maximizing available bandwidth and improving sidelobe compliance. However, the digital approach typically requires high power consumption. That’s where the reduction in power consumption from the lens design gives us a significant advantage over a flat panel.
Because we only use around 10% of the beamformer ICs, in a flat panel ESA, much less power is required. So, we don’t need the heat sinks characteristic of a typical beamforming array, further reducing costs.
SMW: Interference is another problem with traditional phased array design limiting performance at low look angles and making it nearly impossible to do simultaneous transmit and receive. How does the isotropic antenna deal with these issues?
Brian Billman: In a traditional flat panel design, the patch antennas are placed in a tightly spaced matrix across the circuit board. Because the chips are close together, the lower the look angle, the greater the interference, causing a loss of efficiency and making it very challenging to do simultaneous transmit and receive on the same board.
Our use of individual cells, essentially dedicated send or receive modules, separates the patch antenna elements, thereby eliminating the interference and allowing full-duplex, simultaneous Tx and Rx, the “Holy Grail” in phased array design.
SMW: Weight and drag are also key elements in the design of an aero antenna. How does the Isotropic antenna compare in terms of weight and drag vs. existing gimbaled antennas and the Thinkom VICTS antenna, the most widely deployed phased array antenna in the market today?
Brian Billman: We can accommodate our antenna under radomes similar to those employed with other flat panel antennas. The optical beamforming modules we use are only 5 cm tall, and that includes the lens, the feeds, and the printed circuit boards with the amplification and digital beamforming circuitry and functionality all self-contained. That is a low enough form factor to allow for minimization of drag.
In terms of weight, the fact that we use a much smaller number of chips eliminates the need for heat sinks, which add a great deal of weight. The “lenses” we use are also very lightweight.
SMW: Do you have any estimates on the comparative cost of the Isotropic antenna vs. conventional flat panel aero antennas?
Brian Billman: Since we use only a tiny fraction of the number of beamformers required in a flat panel phased array, we are very cost efficient.
While we are not offering specific pricing at this time due to the variability of features and designs under consideration, I can definitely say that we will be competitively priced with far superior performance. If you think of the cost in relation to the number of full power beams available, the terminal is an outstanding value.
SMW: While nearly all flat panel ESAs are aimed primarily at the commercial jet market, mid and small-sized business jets are unable to access satellite broadband and must depend on ATG and L-Band services. Due to power limitations a satellite antenna would have to consume less than 300 watts and be small and lightweight. Could the Isotropic antenna be developed to compete in this unfilled market niche?
Brian Billman: Every terminal we are offering is based on the same flexible and modular building block design, basically a honeycomb of optical beamforming cells. That means we can optimize the design for each use case, a size requirement or a performance requirement. For a smaller business jet, we get all the benefits we discussed earlier, relating to our ability to configure the antenna under a radome and maximize the fill area and antenna gain. Of course, our lower power requirement is also advantageous, enabling us to meet the 300 Watt and under power requirement for a small business jet. Given our unique advantages vs. a conventional flat-panel, the small business jet market, it’s definitely a market sector for us.
SMW: The ITU and WRC, have recently awakened to the interference threats posed by aircraft operating broadband services via NGSOs to satellites in the GSO arc as well as to 5G terrestrial networks employing the same shared frequencies on the ground. Specifically, the ITU specifies that terminals operating on NGSO satellites must limit their emissions in the direction of GSO satellites. Does the Isotropic antenna meet these requirements?
Brian Billman: Interference avoidance is one of the primary reasons we settled on the multi-lens, multi-cell design. As you know, controlling the shape of the “side lobes” is a critical element in interference avoidance. Our in-house custom-designed tools were very accurate in predicting the side lobe configuration, and we were able to prove the accuracy through extensive testing. In terms of GEO interference, we demonstrated compliance with both FCC and ITU regulations.
The Isotropic Antenna: The Perfect Solution for Aero?
An Interview with Brian Billman, V.P. Product Development, at Isotropic Systems
"Using lenses that concentrate the RF signal, the antenna design significantly reduces the number of electronic components, resulting in a terminal that uses considerably less power, achieves true time delay, duplex operation, and can be produced at a relatively low cost."
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"Because we only use around 10% of the beamformer ICs, in a flat panel ESA, much less power is required. So, we don’t need the heat syncs characteristic of a typical beamforming array, further reducing costs."
About Brian Billman
Brian joined Isotropic Systems in its early days in 2017 and as, V.P. of Product Development, currently leads the Product team .
His expertise in the design and development of mmWave communication, radar, and electronic warfare systems, cultivated during his years at Northrop Grumman, has helped Isotropic push the envelope in solving their customers’ most challenging requirements.
Most recently, at L3Harris Specialty Applications Division, Brian led the hardware design team in successful delivery of a wide variety of unique, rapid turnaround specialty products for government customers.
Brian received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Bucknell University and his M.S. in RF Electrical Engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
Micro GEO Debuts in Alaska: Astranis' Small Satellite Future
An Interview with Astranis CEO, John Gedmark
In the quest for new and more cost-efficient satellites, small GEOs are emerging as an alternative to typical GEOs. Miniaturized and equipped with digital radios, these new satellites represent an entirely new breed of spacecraft. At a fraction of the build and launch cost of a typical large GEO satellite, they offer attractive economics, especially in the provision of broadband coverage over limited areas such as a small nation or state.
In an initiative to provide low-cost satellite broadband to rural Alaskans, Astranis, a venture capital-backed start-up based in San Francisco, is about to launch the first of these satellites.
To find out more about the potential for small GEO satellites and Astranis' intriguing Alaska project, we sat down with their CEO, John Gedmark. Here is his interesting story.
SMW: Can you give us some background on Astranis? How did the company get started and evolve?
John Gedmark: I grew up in Kentucky, and there I first experienced dial-up Internet and later DSL. While high-speed Internet is available in cities, a million people in Kentucky still don’t have access to the kind of broadband access we take for granted in big cities. In college, we had fiber access, and I was amazed by the high speeds.
There, I studied aerospace engineering and later on, I began to think about using satellite to deliver high-speed Internet access to rural areas. At that time, satellite Internet employed large satellites and was very expensive. Small satellites were becoming more and more popular but were used mostly for imaging applications, and there was very little focus on their potential for the delivery of broadband services.
My longtime friend and business partner, Ryan McLinko, and I realized that given the lower build and launch costs of these smaller spacecraft, they might be used to provide high-speed Internet services to underserved areas at affordable prices. So, we started to design a micro-class, GEO telecommunication spacecraft. That’s how Astranis got started.
SMW: What are the key features of your small GEO satellite? Under what frequency will they operate? I understand they incorporate software-defined radios and dynamic beamforming capabilities. Can you tell us more?
Our satellite operates in either Ka-Band or Ku-Band frequencies. We designed the satellite to weigh 300 to 400-kilograms, which allows for a launch as a ride-share on any of the major launch families. The satellite can be carried aloft on a ride-share mission onboard any rocket employing an ESPA adapter ring, a common dispensing mechanism deployed on many launch vehicles such as the Falcon 9 or Ariane 5.
Even though our satellite is small, it’s a Ka-Band satellite capable of 7.5 Gbps. That’s a lot of capability for Alaska and more than triple the amount of satellite bandwidth available today.
What’s really unique about our satellite is its digital radio. Unlike Astranis satellites, traditional satellites don’t do digital signal processing. Historically, they are “bent-pipe,” are analog and are configured to operate on fixed frequencies at the factory. Because we’re digital, the operating frequencies on our satellites can be configured on the fly and are adaptable to any orbital slot within the Ka or Ku frequency band.
As you may know, developing a satellite with software-defined radio capability for space is a major undertaking. It’s not trivial and has taken us quite a long time. We knew from the beginning that equipping a satellite with a radio with DSP capability was the future.
Another Astranis advantage is that through the use of proven components from existing suppliers such as Kongsberg, L-3, and others, we are able to reduce our development and manufacturing costs and move quickly to get a product to market.
SMW: Does the satellite have beam forming capabilities as well?
John Gedmark: We are planning to incorporate that functionality into future satellite designs. There is no question that the “Holy Grail” is a fully flexible satellite capable of dynamic beamforming as well as frequency flexibility provided by a DSP radio. However, we decided to take a more modest first step with our early satellites but will be deploying beam forming in the future.
SMW: What about financing? Who are the investors, and how much have you raised so far?
John Gedmark: 2018, we announced a Series A funding, and this year announced a Series B round, lead by Andressen Horowitz and Venrock respectively. Including all of those rounds and the project financing we have in place, we have raised just over $100 Million. We now have over one hundred people working on our Alaska project out of our San Francisco facility.
SMW: When will you launch the Alaska satellite?
First of all, it’s not our first satellite. In 2018, we launched a C-Band spacecraft to demonstrate the feasibility of the technology, in particular, our software-defined radio. With that demonstration, we proved that we could put a satellite in space and using our radio, digitize a broadband signal. We’re incorporating this unique DSP technology into our Alaska and future satellites and will launch the Alaska spacecraft around the end of 2020 on a Falcon 9 rocket.
SMW: How will the service be delivered to homes?
John Gedmark: We will be going direct to home. Our partner, Microcom, and their new venture, Pacific Dataport Inc., will be using standard, off the shelf, antennas and ground equipment to deliver the service. Microcom has been a service provider in Alaska for thirty years. They go to homes and install satellite TV and Internet all over the state.
For most customers, our service will be a significantly better than existing satellite services due to improved look angle.
Satellites that serve Alaska today are not directly south of the State along the GEO arc, but instead, are located much further east to serve areas in the lower 48 states. The orbital position of our satellite will be at an orbital slot that is dead centered over Alaska, resulting in significantly improved look angle and performance. A bigger benefit is cost.
SMW: What speeds will you offer, and at what cost? How will your service compare with what is available today?
It’s typical in Alaska today to pay $300 per month for satellite home Internet at DSL speeds, 5 Mbps or less. We will be able to offer as much as 25 Mbps down and at 1/3 of the price, or around $99 per month.
SMW: How do your satellites differ from a traditional GEO? Will small GEOs make large GEOs obsolete?
Our small GEO can be built and launched for a small fraction of the cost of a traditional GEO. There still will be use cases where it makes sense to put up a large GEO, but those will be limited to delivery of high-speed broadband across an entire continent or ocean, maritime and aero, for example. That need will always exist.
However, I think a much more agile and granular approach is a concept whose day has come. In terms of coverage, we could target a country the size of France, Germany, or the UK or somewhat larger as in the case of Alaska. In that regard, we can employ several spot beams clustered together in an HTS style approach and deliver a lot of capacity in each beam.
SMW: Will you ever move beyond manufacturing to become a satellite operator?
We have set up the business to be a turn-key solution. We will build, deploy, and operate the satellite. That’s an approach that will enable us to sell to a service provider or directly to a Telco. So, our customers don’t have to learn how to be a satellite operator. The business model is somewhat similar to what’s done in the satellite imagery segment.
Imaging companies build and launch their satellites, operate the constellation, and sell data as a service. Skybox and Planet are both examples. So, similarly, our role can extend beyond simple satellite manufacturing. However, we have found interest among the satellite operators themselves to partner with them for gap filler applications and, in particular, in instances where the expense of launching a full-sized GEO cannot be economically justified. That’s another very real use case for us.
About John Gedmark
John is CEO of Astranis. Astranis is building small, low-cost telecommunications satellites with the mission to bring the world online.
Prior to Astranis, John co-founded and served as Executive Director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
As Executive Director, John reported to a CEO-level board of directors and led the commercial space industry's efforts to privatize flights of NASA's astronauts to low Earth orbit.
Prior to that, John served as the Director of Rocket Flight Operations for the X Prize Foundation, responsible for operations of a variety of rocket launches, including the first-ever public flight of a Vertical Take-off Vertical Landing (VTVL) rocket vehicle in front of a crowd of 20,000 people.
John holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Purdue University and a Master of Science degree from Stanford University, both in Aerospace Engineering.
There are many mobility related satellite industry events and unless you have an unlimited budget, here are the "must attends" (in blue) and others that may be of interest.
****RESCHEDULED: Asia Pacific Maritime: 30 September- 2 October, Singapore
Biggest maritime show in Asia.
****CABSAT: RESCHEDULED: October 28-Nov l: Dubai, Emerates: The major satellite show in the Middle East. Global VSAT Forum is presenting a special program at the show. For further information contact Martin Jerrold of GVF.
*****SeaTrade Cruise Global, Miami: RESCHEDULED: 12-15 April 2021: The Cruise Industry is a huge user of VSAT services. making this show an important venue. It should not be missed - an important event for satellite service suppliers.
****Posidonia: RESCHEDULED 28-30 October Athens, Greece: Another important show maritime VSAT, especially for those targeting the tanker and container segment.
****CommunicAsia: RESCHEDULED September 30 -October 1, Singapore
The biggest communications trade show in Asia. Not to be missed.
****Global Connected Aircraft: June 2-3 Denver: A popular conference address in commercial aircraft connectivity.
*****Small Satellite Conference: Logan, Utah: August 1-6. Unquestionably the best small satellite conference available. With over 3,000 attendees, this conference is enormously popular.
****SMM: Hamburg, Germany' September 8-11 September 2020: A must attend for those interested in VSAT use in the cargo segments.
******World Satellite Business Week: Paris, France: RESCHEDULED 9-11 November. Unquestionably, the best satellite conference of the year. WSBW bring together all of the top executives in the industry in an intimate, networking atmosphere at the Westin.
Upcoming and Recommended Satellite Mobility Events
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