Upgraded antenna and terminal hardware will enable the maximum performance from next-generation high throughput satellites
Ku-band and Ka-band ultra-fast services are coming from version-two constellations of high-throughput satellites (HTS), ready for maritime and offshore applications.
This revelation comes as Inmarsat plans to launch more Global Xpress (GX) satellites, ViaSat 2 is already operational across North America, Intelsat is planning Epic 2.0, and SES its mPower constellation.
Terminal manufacturers are responding by developing more advanced antennas without increasing the size or weight of the radome.
Satellite operators are introducing widebands within Ka, at 2.4-2.5 GHz, which means VSAT technology on ships needs to be future-proofed. Inmarsat is planning to commission four more GX satellites into geostationary orbit that will offer wideband Ka-band (known as GX-R2).
The first generation of GX satellites, which were commissioned in the middle of this decade, will still provide Ka-band connectivity beyond the end of next decade, allowing owners with existing Fleet Xpress installations to continue to receive connectivity. However, the higher bandwidth from GX-R2 will require an antenna upgrade if the end-user wants faster connectivity.
It is anticipated that SES mPower will also provide wideband Ka-band from medium Earth orbit. These are scheduled to be commissioned in the next three years.
VSAT manufacturers Cobham Satcom and Intellian have been developing antennas to match the new satellite technology. Cobham Satcom director of maritime broadband Jens Ewerling says new antennas will have new internal technology for receiving and transmitting the Ka-band signal to and from the antennas.
“Inmarsat wants wideband GX terminals in markets as soon as possible to challenge other competition in Ku- and other Ka-band,” says Mr Ewerling. “It is a race to the next generation for fast connectivity,” he explains to Maritime Digitalisation & Communications.
“The current generation of Ka- and linear Ku-band VSAT services will look quite old in three years’ time.” By then, bandwidth available to ships on the downlink and uplink will have multiplied providing capabilities for video-over IP, streaming services, crew welfare, real-time monitoring and passenger communications. However, this will depend on future technology developments.
“There will be more integrated transceivers for some networks capable of handling improved network management resulting in faster speeds and enhanced services,” says Mr Ewerling. These will be deployed in VSAT structures already familiar with shipping companies. “We can use existing radome, internal mechanisms, interfaces and the dish of the antenna,” he explains.
Inside the antenna there could be a single transceiver chipset with receiving and transmission units and the modems, replacing the need for a block-up converter (BUC or amplifier) and low-noise block downconverter (LNB or receiver) inside the antenna.
“There could be super-integrated circuits with radio frequency and modems in one to produce less expensive hardware in the antennas,” says Mr Ewerling. Satellite operators are increasing the power in the new-generation constellations. For existing networks, radio frequency hardware vendors have developed more efficient amplifiers and smaller, more powerful receivers.
“More power is going into the satellites, so less power is needed in the antennas and may make antennas more competitive,” says Mr Ewerling.
Cobham Satcom worked with Viasat on its second HTS, which provides Ka-band connectivity all around North America up to Alaska, the Caribbean and across the North Atlantic. For this project, Cobham adapted Sailor VSAT technology by integrating Viasat electronics.
“This is the first glimpse of the future for VSAT with up to 50 Mbps downlink and 10 Mbps uplink,” says Mr Ewerling. “We created our own electronics interface to this combined transceiver-modem situated inside of the antenna.” There will then be just one cable to the below-deck equipment.
Ships can use ViaSat 2 for fast internet connectivity from North America to Greenland and across to Europe. “In our tests with a 1-m antenna the crew on board a 55-m Benetti SuperYacht were getting 100 Mbps within the ViaSat-2 coverage in the Atlantic,” says Mr Ewerling.
Cobham Satcom is working with most other satellite operators including Inmarsat, SES and Intelsat to create VSAT technology that matches the capabilities of their new satellite constellations. It is also working with OneWeb for its low-Earth orbit (LEO) VSAT platform.
New generation VSAT
Intellian, working with OneWeb, has already developed antennas for next-generation VSAT and has tested the latest terminal technology with VSAT providers.
Intellian vice president for communications systems and general manager of EMEA Jon Harrison says all Intellian’s new generation (NX) antennas are ready for the new constellations.
“They are ready for 2.4-2.5 GHz and are future-proofed,” he says. This includes the Intellian GX100NX terminal with a high precision reflector, a single cable for power and signal to an all-in-one below deck unit with a built-in GX modem and GX mediator.
GX100NX enables ships to use Inmarsat Fleet Xpress for Ka-band connectivity and will be ready when Inmarsat’s GX-R2 constellation is commissioned. It has a high-power BUC upgradeable to 10 W for access to higher bandwidth packages.
The NX range also includes a new 1-m antenna for Ku-band VSAT, v100NX, plus a 1.5-m version (v150NX) and a sub 1-m Ku-band antenna (v85NX).
It is this smaller Ku-band antenna Dutch maritime connectivity provider Castor Marine trialled on its Ku-band network during Q3 2019. Castor Marine director Mark Olthuis says v85NX worked successfully with the iDirect modem technology, displaying similar radio frequency performance to larger VSATs.
“We were pleased to see it matching the larger antenna for link quality,” he says. “Our field engineers were also keen to point out the build quality of the NX platform and the simpler installation,” Mr Olthuis adds.
The NX platform antennas have Intellian’s AptusNX software for automated commissioning, installation and remote monitoring and diagnostics.
Mr Harrison says remote monitoring enables engineers to recognise issues “before VSAT fails” and then Intellian “can organise service engineers in the next port for servicing”. Ensuring uptime of VSAT has become essential for owners, operators and managers because of the rising volumes of data transmissions from ships and communications to captains.
“Communications can be mission critical and hardware cannot fail in mid-ocean,” says Mr Harrison. “We think like the end-user,” he continues. “We have developed uninterrupted service plans and are constantly looking to reduce failures by providing quicker servicing.”
He agrees the future for maritime VSAT is for multiband services.
“It is an exciting time with new innovators providing technology to track LEO, MEO and GEO satellites with one antenna,” he says. “This is good for our industry and great for maritime users to have traffic from different constellations.”
Intellian has developed tri-band antennas to enable cruise ships to utilise high frequency Ka-band with Ku-band and highly reliable C-band for passenger and crew connectivity. “We worked with Carnival for up to 3.8 Gbps delivery,” says Mr Harrison.
“Now we are trying to scale down [tri-band VSAT] to a 1-m antenna for end customers so they can hop around different constellations.”
New TV and VSAT antennas unveiled and tested
South Korean antenna manufacturer KNS has introduced TV receive only (TVRO) global VSAT and sea trialled a new C-series VSAT for maritime users. It unveiled the K-Series TVRO antennas in July for worldwide TV at sea. These have 1-m diameter dishes and global low-noise block downconverters (LNBs).
These can receive TV signals in Ku-band circular and linear polarities without the user needing to change the LNB manually. The setting can be changed via the antenna control unit interface.
KNS says its new K-Series has “improved performance with a refined reflector and a renewed body structure for more extended product endurance than the conventional K-Series.”
There is also an improved user interface. “The web-based interface can be connected by wireless devices, such as laptops, tablet PCs and smartphones to monitor the antenna status and simply toggle the functions,” says KNS.
For vessel VSAT, KNS is developing the C-Series antennas to provide Ka-band connectivity. During Q2 and Q3 this year, it unveiled a 55-cm antenna (C5-Ka) antenna. KNS also tested a C4 VSAT with a 40-cm dish for Ka-band on a fishing vessel in Daecheon, South Korea in April.
For larger ships it has the Z-Series VSAT. In Q3 2019, KNS gained type-approval from the Russian Maritime Register of Shipping for two of its MK2 products. It was handed certificates of approval for the Z10MK2 Ku-band 1-m antenna and the 1.2-m version, Z12MK2.
Meanwhile, Orbit Communications Systems says its dual-band maritime VSAT was ordered for installation on the Polish Navy’s latest vessels. Dual-band OceanTRx 4 systems were purchased by systems integrator Thesta and for PGZ Group, the leading contractor of naval navigation, communications and combat systems, for Cormorant-class minehunters.
These rugged antennas can switch between X-band used specifically by military and Ku-band.
Chinese group SatPro introduced its latest maritime VSAT with high throughput satellite capabilities in September. This includes the M80 Ku-band VSAT designed with an all-in-one integrated internal block-up converter (BUC) and modem inside the radome. This 42-kg antenna connects with linear polarity Ku-band with azimuth of 360° continuous rotation and elevation of -5° to 110°. SatPro also offers the 1-m M100 Ku-band antenna weighing 80 kg.
Power technology enables flat panel antennas
Phasor Solutions has moved a stage closer in its development of maritime electronically steered antenna (ESA) systems through a partnership with a power technology provider. Phasor will develop maritime antennas using Vicor’s power solution to boost connectivity speeds and bandwidth.
This will enable vessel operators to provide mobile broadband connectivity for operational and welfare applications. Phasor has developed flat and solid-state ESAs less than 4 cm thick that it claims matches the radio frequency performance of traditional parabolic dish antennas from 40 cm to 1 m.
This is achieved using low-profile components operating at high-power density. Vicor’s Factorised Power Architecture (FPA) provides an extremely high current at very low voltage.
Vicor’s FPA package consists of a pre-regulator module and a voltage transformation module and current multiplier. Together, these deliver the full, regulated, isolated DC-DC converter function.
This should enable Phasor to further develop and test flat ESAs for maritime applications.