Developments in flat panel antennas, satellite life extension vehicles and LEO constellations will boost maritime connectivity this decade
Trials of flat panel antennas have proved they can provide mobile connectivity on vessels, communicating in Ku-band with satellites to deliver internet services to vessels. However, some feel they need to be encased in a radome to protect their electronics from marine environments.
Research and testing continues on the latest hardware with Kymeta and Isotropic Networks collaborating on the next-generation flat-panel antenna.
They completed over-the-air testing on Kymeta’s u7 antenna in January 2020 on Isotropic’s E115 network in Seattle, US, using AM2 and G28 satellites.
A Kymeta u7 antenna was paired with an iDirect X7 satellite router and iQ 200LTE modem for Ku-band communications.
Isotropic co-founder Hank Zbierski says Kymeta u7 uses holographic beamforming and metamaterial technology. “I was sceptical about the technology, but these tests have proven beyond any doubt that metamaterial science is not something in the future – it is deliverable now,” says Mr Zbierski.
Isotropic and SES are developing and testing digital software-defined terminals for vessels using the O3b mPower medium Earth orbit (MEO) constellation. These edge terminal antennas are expected to be available for maritime and offshore markets in 2021.
Trials began in March on maximising the effectiveness of the circuits behind the optical beam-forming lens modules at the core of Isotropic’s adaptable multi-beam antenna. This lens will enable seamless switching between SES’s multi-orbit fleets, using Ku- and Ka-band communications.
SES executive vice president Stewart Sanders says its partnership with Isotropic is “driving the development of multi-beam customer edge terminal antennas using digital beamforming”. “We are focused on bringing game-changing, high-performance broadband to both highly sophisticated and mass markets at sea,” says Mr Sanders.
Satellite operators will be able to maintain services through existing space infrastructure if they can be refuelled to continue providing reliable communications to ships.
Intelsat became the first to successfully complete a refuelling mission in Q1 2020. Its Intelsat 901 (IS-901) satellite in geostationary orbit was refuelled by a vessel owned by Northrop Grumman Corp subsidiary SpaceLogistics.
Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1) docked with IS-901 in February 2020 about 290 km above geosynchronous orbit. They will remain connected to extend IS-901’s life for five more years before IS-901 is transferred into a decommissioning orbit in 2025.
MEV-1 was launched in October 2019, while IS-901 was moved out of geostationary orbit. They were docked together on 25 February and the combined spacecraft stack was relocated back into geostationary orbit at the end of March.
According to SpaceLogistics president Tom Wilson, after MEV-1’s mission with IS-901 is completed, it will provide mission extension services to a new client spacecraft.
“We have taken the first step in pioneering in-space logistics services for both commercial and government customers,” Mr Wilson says.
Intelsat executive vice president and chief services officer Mike DeMarco says this “ground-breaking space milestone” is “game-changing space technology” that has “pushed boundaries of what is possible” in satellite communications.
MEV-1 has a low-risk mechanical docking system that attaches to existing features on the client satellite. Once docked, MEV-1 takes over the attitude and orbit maintenance of the combined vehicle stack to meet the pointing and station keeping requirements of the owner.
Northrop Grumman built MEV-1 for multiple berthing and undocking and can deliver over 15 years of life extension services.
It has built a second unit and SpaceLogistics expects to launch MEV-2, which is contracted to provide service to a different Intelsat satellite, later this year.
SpaceLogistics’ long-term plans are to have a fleet of satellite servicing vehicles to extend satellite life or provide other services, such as inclination changes and spacecraft inspections. If these are fitted with advanced robotics they could perform in-orbit repair and assembly.
There could be a plethora of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites boosting maritime connectivity within a year or so as more are launched, and others planned.
First there was Iridium with its constellation, now into the second generation, of L-band LEOs. Then SpaceX’s Starlink project started with at least 180 LEO satellites in orbit. These were launched in three batches of 60 satellites for Ku-band communications. This Elon Musk-backed enterprise has Federal Communications Commission approval to deploy 11,943 LEO satellites for Starlink. It intends to have commercial operations ready by Q4 2020.
OneWeb is following with launches of batches of small satellites, with 74 in orbit at the end of March 2020. It intends to have commercial maritime VSAT services in 2021, but these plans could be thwarted by funding issues with key financier Softbank pulling out of talks to raise another US$2Bn.
There are other companies planning constellations. Telesat is laying foundations for its future growth with a LEO constellation in its plans. It has organised finance and Canadian Government backing to develop the LEO constellation, which is expected to generate C$1.2Bn (US$840M) over 10 years.
“We have made meaningful progress in refining the design of our planned revolutionary LEO satellite constellation,” says Telesat president and chief executive Dan Goldberg. Once this is constructed, connectivity will be available throughout Canada, including its Arctic regions and coastal waters.
“Looking ahead, we remain heavily focused on executing on our key growth initiatives, including our planned LEO constellation,” says Mr Goldberg. This could consist of 117 satellites in 11 orbital planes.
In 2019, Amazon unveiled Project Kuiper, with plans for more than 3,200 satellites for broadband services and to interconnect its data centres. But some LEO constellation plans will not fly. LeoSat was attempting to raise more than US$2Bn to get its plans off the ground, but its venture is unlikely to get into orbit.
Future technologies to revolutionise maritime VSAT
Progress in satellite and mobile communications technology has opened new markets and services in maritime VSAT during the 2010s, and these will be further advanced this decade. Here are trends that contributors to this Complete Guide to VSAT highlighted would be further developed in the next 10 years:
LEO constellations – new generations of low Earth orbit satellites will deliver low-latency VSAT to vessels worldwide, including in seas around the poles.
Flat panels – will be further developed and tested to become commercially available to various vessel types, but, encased in radomes for environmental protection.
XTS – extremely high throughput satellites with hundreds of small spot beams will be commissioned to boost maritime bandwidth.
Satellite life extension – satellite operators will launch more units that renew the fuel and life of existing satellites, maintaining maritime connectivity
Beam-forming – will enable satellite controllers to manipulate the form and position of spot beams to dedicate to a ship or fleet.
New launchers – aerodynamic aircraft that can briefly enter space from the Earth’s orbit will launch LEO satellites in the future.
Super-fast modems – a new generation of modems will enable XTS connectivity.
Dedicated IoT – vessels are getting separate channels over VSAT for IoT and onboard machinery performance and condition data streaming.
Artificial intelligence – AI will enable computers with machine learning capabilities to predict VSAT issues and onboard machinery breakdowns before they occur.
Remotely controlled vessels – advances in VSAT will enable shore-based masters to control vessels in real-time.
Integrated antennas – rollout has started on antennas with integrated modems, transmitters and receivers in one internal unit, removing need for LNB and BUC.