Why flatter is better – a Q&A with Bill Marks of Kymeta

A few weeks ago, the satellite industry’s most exciting and innovative companies and thought leaders descended on the nation’s capital for the annual SATELLITE Conference and Expo. As in years past, the conference was an incredible opportunity for industry experts and those that rely on and purchase satellite equipment and services to come together, network and discuss the new technologies that are impacting and shaping the satellite industry today. It was also a opportunity to see and demonstrate the extremely innovative new technologies and trends that will revolutionize how we view space and SATCOM in the future.

One of those innovative satellite companies that we’ve been watching with much enthusiasm over the past few years is Kymeta – a communications company that is completing the connectivity fabric and poised to disrupt their industry. Kymeta’s products and services have immense potential to bring satellite communications to a new segment of ground, aero and maritime platforms and vehicles. And the potential use cases for governments and militaries are almost limitless.

That’s why we jumped at the opportunity to sit down with Bill Marks, Kymeta’s Chief Strategy Officer and Executive Vice President, at this year’s SATELLITE 2019. During our discussion we talked about how Kymeta got its start, what differentiates their solutions from others on the market, and how the marriage of Kymeta antennas and MEO satellite constellations could revolutionize an industry.

Here is what Bill had to say:

Government Satellite Report (GSR): Can you give our readers an introduction to Kymeta? How did the company get its start and what is the company producing right now?

Bill Marks: Kymeta was born in 2012, but it really was a spin out from a company called Intellectual Ventures in Seattle, which is an incubator, think tank and patent accumulator. [Intellectual Ventures] was interested and intrigued with the science of metamaterial, which – in its first iterations – was about cloaking and manipulating optical light to make things disappear.

This sparked the interest of a couple of Seattle’s big investors who were behind Intellectual Ventures, including Bill Gates. These investors were enthralled with meta material science, and they bought the patents and technology from Duke University and other research institutions. For a year or so they went around the world and acquired a very large portfolio of patents centered around metamaterials. All told, they acquired more than 150 patents from different universities around the world.

In 2011, [the investors] began to explore commercial options and use cases for this technology. They began to ask, “If you could manipulate optical waves, could you also manipulate radio waves?” That question led to the idea of creating a satellite antenna.

The actual, independent company was formed in August of 2012. Since then, it’s been working on innovating metamaterial-based antenna technologies that will enable an electronically-steerable beam from an antenna with no moving parts.

GSR: What does an antenna like that look like? How does it work?

Bill Marks: It’s an antenna that is roughly 70 centimeters wide and a few centimeters thick.  The active layer of the antenna are two sheets of glass similar to what’s found in liquid crystal displays. The same glass technologies that make iPhones and TV sets possible make our antennas possible.

Within these sheets of glass are pixels – we call them elements – that are spaced out based on the frequency we want to operate in. We pass a wave through a waveguide underneath these [sheets of glass] and we individually activate the [elements] we want to activate to allow the frequency and energy to pass through. We use software to do that, effectively making it a software-defined antenna, and allowing users to steer a beam very quickly.

GSR: How does that speed benefit the user? Why is a software-defined antenna an attractive option for them?

Bill Marks: Let’s say [the user] is driving a car, flying a plane or operating a boat. The beam [generated by a Kymeta antenna] is able to switch from horizon to horizon in 4 milliseconds. The technologies that we’re using are the same technologies that you find in today’s advanced televisions – they have a refresh rate of 240 hertz. So, the speed at which your television can reconfigure to form a picture, we can steer a beam.

This is essential for connecting to satellites while on the move, since the beam can reconfigure or be steered quickly to ensure the signal is never lost or dropped. Also, the antenna is a full duplex antenna capable of transmitting multiple beams. It can form transmit beams and receive beams simultaneously.

Kymeta antenna in the field
“Land mobility has historically not used satellite because of the parabolic dish. You can’t put them on a train because, when you go through a tunnel, they get knocked off. You can’t put a big dome on a car or another military vehicle because it’s simply not practical.” – Bill Marks

GSR: What does it enable users to do that they couldn’t before?

Bill Marks: Because it’s software-defined, there are many things that users can do with this antenna that they can’t do with others. When [users] give [the satellite] power, it will auto-commission and auto-provision to whichever satellite they tell it to. This means that [users] don’t have to send an engineer to install it. Speaking of power, it draws very little. The antenna itself runs on 15 watts of power.

GSR: How does that power consumption compare to the industry average? Why is that good for more mobile use cases?

Bill Marks: A phased array antenna might draw 700 watts of power. It will also generate quite a bit of heat. A Kymeta antenna – by comparison – draws a small fraction of the power and doesn’t generate heat. That’s all due to how the antenna works. It takes very little voltage to make liquid crystals realign.

Also, in comparison to other phased array antennas, there are no moving parts. This is important for mobile platforms and use cases since the antenna is more resilient and robust without having a number of moving parts that can break.

In these use cases, you also want [the antenna] to consume low power because you might not be able to generate a lot of power. You also don’t want it to generate heat since – in military use cases – that could give away troop positions and movement.

We’ve had [a Kymeta] antenna on a 30-foot vessel going fifty knots, and it’s maintained lock the entire time.

GSR: We’re starting to see satellite constellations in MEO and LEO that have extremely low latency, but that have requisite changeovers or handovers as the satellites move around the Earth. How could Kymeta make these satellite constellations more accessible and usable for the military?

Bill Marks: When it comes to satellite communications, you always want to make a new signal before you break an existing signal. To ensure that happens when working with MEO and LEO constellations, you need two parabolic dishes – one parabolic tracking a satellite and another grabbing a new one before you drop the connection on the first one.

With flat panel antennas, you can simply form two beams. They’re both tracking a satellite, but, as it nears the horizon, one of the two will go to grab the new satellite. In contrast to parabolic antennas – of which you would need two – you can truly get by with one flat panel antenna. It will perform the function of two mechanically-steered parabolic antennas.

Unfortunately, all flat antennas – when compared to parabolic antennas – are never as efficient. That’s because you can point a parabolic antenna broadside—right at the source—which would see the whole antenna. This means that you need a slightly larger flat panel to get the same performance as a parabolic antenna. But you’d still only need one. This makes it possible for the military to start bringing the low-latency, high-throughput capability of MEO and LEO satellites to smaller platforms – such as land vehicles.

GSR: Why is this such a good solution for meeting the SATCOM requirements of land vehicles? Is it just the fact that you can effectively perform the same function of two parabolic antennas with one flat panel antenna? And why is land mobility so important for today’s military?

Bill Marks: Land mobility has historically not used satellite because of the parabolic dish. You can’t put them on a train because, when you go through a tunnel, they get knocked off. You can’t put a big dome on a car or another military vehicle because it’s simply not practical.

Flat panel antennas are an elegant solution that can bring satellite to land vehicles. In the case of the connected car, a flat panel antenna can be installed between the roof and the headliner, making it practically invisible to the passenger and effectively turning the roof of the vehicle into the antenna.

In addition to the fact that it’s smaller, the antenna is practically invisible to adversaries. Communications are among the first thing adversaries look to deny. Not being able to identify the antenna keeps the adversary from trying to attack it. Not utilizing much power makes it more portable and easier to power in transit. And the fact that it doesn’t generate much heat makes it less visible to thermal imaging.

“We’ve had [a Kymeta] antenna on a 30-foot vessel going fifty knots, and it’s maintained lock the entire time.” – Bill Marks
GSR: Are Kymeta’s flat panel antennas available to use with any satellite service provider right now?

Bill Marks: The only antenna that we currently have on the market is a Ku-band antenna. But we do have a Ka-band antenna on our product roadmap and in development. The DoD and multiple other government agencies also want to use our technology with W-band, V-band and other bands. We’re going to let demand drive what bands we build.

We’re working to release a Ka-band antenna in time for the launch of the SES O3b mPOWER constellation. The constellation that SES is putting up is amazing. The O3b mPower satellites are amazing satellites with incredible capacity, and we know that that constellation makes our technology work better. So that’s what we’ve been working towards.

We believe strongly there’s not a lot of opportunities and use cases in the government that can really use that kind of capacity. This is the kind of technology that will change the game and increase the kinds of vehicles and use cases that we can connect with satellite.

Share the Post: