Flat-panel Antennas: Design and Innovation redefining satellite communications
Satellite antennas play a pivotal role in at-sea communications. The device implementation, functionality and even positioning all heavily influence the ability of yacht owners and charter management companies to provide their crew and guests with the remote connectivity they need. Investing in the latest software and equipment should be seen as an essential component of their communications planning. Adopting cutting-edge technologies enhances guests and crew enjoyment because it allows them to take their onboard communication experiences to the next level.
Over the past few years, satellite communications has been going through a major transformation. New technological advancements and product innovations have promised to not only enhance the reliability and efficiency of connectivity, but make it more cost-effective as well.
Problems with at-sea connectivity
Today, maritime companies face a wide range of issues pertaining to their antennas. Often, boat designers and VSAT engineers are at odds with the placement, size and positioning of the satcom domes, sometime referred to as the “Mickey Mouse ears.”
“Antenna innovations promise more reliable connectivity for at-sea communications.”
Aside from the unsightliness of these structures, they also have a lot of moving parts and present a number of technical and practical problems. It is important to make sure this bulky equipment isn’t in a blockage zone or installed in a way that obstructs the satellite view, thereby impacting onboard connectivity and ultimately the experience of guests and crew. Furthermore, due to their size and weight, yachts also have very few options for mounting them.
All of these factors have fueled the initiative for finding a better alternative. And it seems that, soon, yacht owners and charter management companies will have it.
A few years ago, Kymeta Corporation announced it would start to using metamaterials and flat-panel technologies in antennas and communication terminals and, through its partnership with e3 Systems, develop prototypes for the yachting industry. More recently, MegaYacht News reported, the organization said these flat panel antennas, or FPAs, will be on sale as soon as next year.
Advantages of flat panel antennas
Flat panel antennas offer a wide range of benefits for the maritime industry including:
- Small and lightweight: Because there are no moving parts, the flat panels are smaller and thinner. MegaYacht revealed that Kymeta FPAs, on average, have a diameter of about 80 centimeters, compared to the several feet of most domes.
- Visually appealing: Flat panel antennas offer a less obtrusive and unsightly appearance than conventional counterparts. Rather than mounting it to the mast, yacht and cruise owners will have more placement variety to choose from with these panels, especially with electronic beam steering.
- Increased accuracy and bandwidth efficiency: The ability these antennas have to steer electronically, rather than mechanically, increases the likelihood of maintaining constant satellite connection.
For reliable connectivity, it is important that terminals are able to seamlessly switch between beams and, especially on transportation vessels, maintain a small and light profile and weight. The large, heavy and multifaceted structure of traditional parabolic antennas makes it more likely for at-sea communications and broadband issues to occur.
This is why flat panel antennas are widely perceived as the innovative technology that can lead to higher bandwidth efficiencies and reduced weight penalties, as well as help fuel mobility growth for both high throughput satellite and non-geosynchronous systems.
Northern Sky Research, which recently published its Flat Panel Satellite Antenna Analysis report, pointed out that many of the issues that have plagued the industry in the past can be attributed to the high-cost or low-quality service of ground terminals. Now, the development of these flat panel technologies is facilitating more integration and collaboration between satellite equipment manufacturers, service providers and operators – moving the market toward a better performing and priced solution.
Maritime industry to fuel growth
In its report, NSR divided the FPA market into two categories: mobility (aeronautical satcom, maritime and land-mobile) and fixed service (stationary broadband communications and Direct-to-Home television). It expects the shipped units of flat panel antennas to generate at least $710 million in annual sales over the next ten years, with over 31,000 units shipped units forecast just for satellite mobility).
“The maritime market is expected to fuel the growth of flat panel antenna production.”
Because these antennas are easy to install and lightweight, NSR said it anticipates the growth of FPA manufacturing to be driven by the maritime and land-mobile market. However, it seems that, moving forward, one of the biggest issues surrounding flat panel antennas will be choosing a product, since there is currently no one-size-fits-all solution. Each market has different needs and requirements, hence the influx of partnerships between manufacturers, service providers and operators.
According to Satellite Today, Kymeta formed a partnership with a major communications provider, among others, to transform the satellite communications in the maritime industry. Phasor did the same, establishing agreements with with service providers in the maritime and government markets.
MTN, a Global Eagle Entertainment, Inc (GEE) (NASDAQ:ENT) brand, unveiled its new flat-panel satellite solution for superyachts at the Monaco Yacht Show. MTN brought the flat-panel antenna technology to the superyacht market as part of a complete broadband solution using MTN’s global Ku-band VSAT network.
“Utilizing MTN’s robust global Ku-band VSAT network, the MTN flat-panel antenna brings to market a ‘best-in-breed’ solution with the lowest cost of ownership and highest throughput available in the superyacht market today,” said Abel Avellan. These ultra low-profile and highly efficient antennas can be embedded beneath the skin of the vessel with a custom radome to match the aesthetic design of the vessel, eliminating the need for large, heavy, stabilized dish antennas. MTN will work with owners and designers to customize the flat-panel solution to match the vision and aesthetics of the owners without compromising performance.
Today, reliable connectivity isn’t just a convenience – it’s a necessity. And the importance of evolving a business model that runs in tandem with the speed and sophistication of technological innovations can not be understated. By staying on top of the emerging industry trends and product developments, yacht owners and charter management companies will be able to leverage the advanced remote communications solutions needed to meet the expectations of their guests.