Kymeta shares some challenges solved with flat-panel, electronically-steered satellite terminals and we catch up with Roger Horner, Managing Director of e3 Systems, to get an integrator’s perspective.
The demand for reliable, seamless, always-on communications for superyachts is growing at an unprecedented rate, and until recently, the technology to support these demands wasn’t available for maritime applications. The introduction of the first commercially-available electronically-steered, flat-panel terminal, from Kymeta to the maritime industry, has raised questions about the differences between flat-panel antennas and traditional antenna solutions. With just one commercially-available flat-panel solution on the market today, drawing comparisons on a broad scale is not yet possible. Yet from throughput to profile and everything in between, these solutions have few commonalities, and now is the time to get educated. The crucial differences between these technologies are setting the stage for the future of maritime communications, where seamless, always-on connectivity is the norm.
Communications issues, solved
The most common challenges yacht builders, designers, and owners face with satellite communications include complicated and expensive installation and maintenance, mast shadow blockages, and limited service throughput. Flat-panel solutions such as the Kymeta™ KyWay™ terminal aim to address all these problems.
Flat-panel terminals are meant to be easy to move and store (though this may not be true in the case of all flat-panels), and can be hand-carried and installed by a couple of crew members. For example, Kymeta mTenna™ technology, which the KyWay terminal leverages, is lightweight, with the antenna subsystem module (ASM) weighing about 20 kg. By contrast legacy systems weigh an average of 120 kg and are installed using a crane and several technicians, which is very expensive and complicated.
Current flat-panel terminals are very low-maintenance because they do not have any moving parts. For example, KyWay terminals are solid-state technology and software-controlled, eliminating the need for the mechanical gimbals that traditional satellite dishes and some low-profile phased array satellite antenna solutions require.
Current flat-panel antennas are also very easy to provision and commission – KyWay terminals specifically take about 20 minutes or less from powering on to transmitting and receiving data. Once the initial commissioning is completed, the connection time from cold startup is less than a couple of minutes.
For traditional antenna solutions, however, it is impractical to carry a spare antenna, even for the largest yachts. Failure of the main antenna necessitates bringing the yacht to port, booking time for a crane to remove and replace the malfunctioning antenna, and having a specialist conduct maintenance or replacement while docked.
Regardless of the size of the yacht, mast shadow is unavoidable, and can cause blockages, delays, and dead zones for connectivity. For traditional satellite antenna solutions aboard yachts, this can mean hours without a connection. In the case of Kymeta, flat-panel terminals can be installed in any location with a view to the sky.
This provides greater flexibility than traditional domes that must be installed high above the deck atop masts. Unique to KyWay terminals at this time is the ability to place antennas in various locations around the yacht and utilize the company’s mTenna™ Select to switch between panels —if mast shadow is unavoidable.
KyWay flat-panel, electronically-steered satellite terminals can be customised to meet the communication needs of any yacht without the penalty of large and unsightly domes. For example, rather than using larger panels, Kymeta has developed a combiner solution called the mTenna™ Plus that combines the gain from multiple antennas for an even more efficient system.
This in turn enables a higher throughput and lower cost for the service. When future flat-panel solutions become commercially-available, they may also have solutions for throughput issues on the sea, although it is too soon to tell what those options might entail.
Today, satellite solutions rely on geostationary earth orbit (GEO) satellites. In less than two years, several low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations will come online. These new constellations will offer higher performance and significantly lower latency than their GEO predecessors.
Unlike GEOs, LEOs will move across the sky, necessitating new terminals to track the fast-moving satellites. The terminals will also need to have instantaneous switching capabilities to ensure uninterrupted connectivity. As the satellite the terminal is linked with moves out of view, the terminal will need to form a new beam to catch the next satellite as it comes into view. This switch from disappearing satellite to appearing satellite will need to happen within milliseconds to avoid dropped connections and service interruptions.
Flat-panel solutions are expected to meet these requirements. For example, KyWay terminals are designed to electronically track and switch between any available satellite within a few milliseconds. Traditional, mechanically-steered antennas are not capable of keeping up with the constant hand-off as they require mechanical repositioning. As more flat-panel antennas come to market, we will know their capabilities and processes for meeting these same requirements.
Solutions for large and small vessels alike
Communications solutions have been a quandary in maritime for decades, not only because of the aforementioned concerns, but also due to the varying sizes of vessels available. While superyachts are capable of one or more traditional gimbaled, domed dishes to maintain a communications connection, this is not the case for medium-sized and small yachts, or other small vessels. For smaller vessels, the weight and requirements for installation of multiple traditional solutions have made them all but impractical. As a result, most smaller vessels do not have connectivity once they are out of reach of cellular networks on land. KyWay terminals currently offer a unique solution to this long-standing challenge, offering small vessels a light-weight, easy-to-manage, low-profile antenna that can service superyachts, and smaller vessels (even those as small as 20 m) alike.
Preparing maritime for the future of satellite connectivity
As satellite and maritime communications rapidly move to the future and come together in more meaningful ways, building on this foundation is critical to growing the capabilities of communications for superyachts and other vessels. By 2020, hundreds or even thousands of low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites will begin positioning above Earth, creating connectivity networks that make seamless, always-on communications even more widely available. While traditional antenna solutions for maritime are not poised to make use of these new networks, flat-panel terminals will aim to take full advantage of the low-latency connections new LEO satellite constellations can offer.
An integrator’s perspective: e3 Systems
Roger Horner, Group Managing Director, e3 Systems
In 2017, the first and only commercially available electronically-steered, flat-panel terminal—the Kymeta™ KyWay™ terminal – came to market, providing a new option to superyacht designers, builders, and owners, making reliable, high-throughput, lightweight, low-profile satellite terminals a reality for the maritime industry.
e3 has been following the development and working with Kymeta for the last four years. The team at e3 has had the opportunity to lead the first sea trials that Kymeta performed back in 2017. We have also led the first commercial deployments on many yachts now. We have been excited about the Kymeta solution since we first learned about it.
What we are hearing from our customers is telling. For those that have already implemented KyWay flat-panel, electronically-steered satellite terminals on their yachts, they are amazed at how easy the technology is to install and use. In early implementations, we were uncertain how things would work in certain areas and have been pleasantly surprised again and again at how the technology performs even in less-than-optimal sea states and weather conditions. One of our first yacht installations even made an Atlantic-crossing and remained connected the entire way. The most surprising result from the sea trials in 2017 was the performance of single panel installations. Single panel installations provided seamless, always-on internet connectivity from the Caribbean, across the Atlantic and within the Mediterranean. The tracking speed of the flat-panel terminals is so much faster than conventional antennas, so there aren’t any issues with the fastest imaginable pitch, yaw, and roll.
Though things haven’t been without some challenges in the first installations of Kymeta’s solutions, all the challenges we have run into haven’t been related to the core technology and have been relatively easy to solve. We have had the opportunity to work together to resolve the small problems that any new, disruptive technology faces. Ultimately, bringing an entirely new technology to an industry that has been largely the same for 30 years is remarkable. Plus, with new LEO satellites becoming available soon, making sure the investments our customers are making in communications technologies is of critical importance to us.
We are thrilled to be working with Kymeta to bring this revolutionary technology to the maritime industry. I’ve been doing this for over 25 years and this is the most fun and exciting time I have seen in the maritime industry. The future is most definitely finally here.
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