Bill Gates-backed Kymeta eyes new partners in inflight connectivity

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Having recently secured a manufacturing partnership with Sharp Corp, Kymeta is on track to meet its flat-panel antenna hardware and software deliverables to Honeywell to support the transmission of aero service over Inmarsat Global Xpress satellites. And with the recent successful launch of Inmarsat’s F3 satellite to round out the GX constellation, there is certainly further reason for all parties in the program to celebrate. But Kymeta isn’t putting all its eggs in the GX basket for aero. The Bill Gates-backed company tells RGN it is in negotiations with Panasonic Avionics, Gogo and Global Eagle Entertainment to bring antennas to the Ku market.

“We’re working exclusively with Inmarsat and Honeywell on the Ka side, but there are a lot of integrators approaching us to get a Ku antenna they intend to use in aviation so it’s the usual suspects – Panasonic, [Global Eagle’s] Row 44 and Gogo; everybody who wants to provide service to planes is looking for antenna technology, so we’re building Ku antennas, and coming to market [with them] at the same time as Ka,” says Kymeta EVP and chief commercial officer Bill Marks.

“We have regular conversations with all of them and they’re smart because they want to provide a better service to their customers. So they spend a lot of time on resources for tomorrow’s technology, which is Kymeta. So Panasonic and the others are very aggressive in talking to us because they need to be constantly evolving to continue to provide a great product.”

Would Kymeta ink an exclusive agreement with any of these Ku inflight connectivity providers? “It’s all part of negotiations and volume commitment”, says Marks, “but in a perfect world, we’d like to sell them to everybody. Sometimes you have to give people advantages for first mover so I can’t answer the question but I’d love to see our antenna on every plane.”

Of course, all three providers have already announced nextgen antennas to support their Ku connectivity services, with Panasonic tapping Boeing Defense for a new phased array antenna; Gogo rolling out its rather unique 2Ku solution with two flat-panel antennas from ThinKom; and Global Eagle defining an upgrade path with partner Qest for a Ku antenna with steerable pointing system.

“The difference to this antenna in relation to others is I believe strongly that the number and types of planes it will be able to go on will increase so our antenna will weigh about 20 pounds and has a profile of 2 inches and we have a roadmap to make antennas that are even smaller than that. So I think we’ll [also] see it on business jets and even general aviation at some point with very small antennas,” says Marks.

Will it face the same limitations as phased array (Panasonic, for instance, has been very candid about the challenge its Boeing-made antenna will face flying too far North)? “Our antennas will scan most of the sky and if you’re talking about a region that’s super north, you basically saddle back a couple of 20-pound antennas on the side of the plane and then you can scan down the horizon, so there are plenty of systems that will make scanning a non-issue, whether on the equator or all the way near the poles. We can figure out a way to see a satellite.” Pressed by RGN to explain what he means by “side of the plane”, Marks clarified: “When I say ‘on the side of the aircraft’, I was just being figurative; it’s within the same footprint on top. We can tilt the antennas. I need to angle them a bit.”

It’s unclear if this sort of formation will be accepted on a linefit basis; the subcommittee that is developing the Arinc 792 standard for second generation Ku and Ka satcom systems isn’t working to support a ‘house of cards’.

The agreement with Sharp requires the firm to use its liquid crystal display production technology to manufacture Kymeta’s suite of antennas, which use a “first-of-its-kind, glass-on-glass design concept” that leverages the same components and manufacturing processes as Sharp’s existing flat-panel display production lines. What it means, on the Ka aero side for instance, is “we’ll be delivering a better product to Honeywell to integrate into the plane than we originally anticipated. We [previously] had transmit and receive as separate apertures, but now we can combine them on the same aperture and increase switching speeds and other things. So the antenna originally intended for Honeywell – that will now be manufactured on a display line [instead of PCB-like circuit board],” says Marks.

“The technical way we describe our work here is that it is an Antenna Subsystem Module and that is what comes off the line and will be shipped to Honeywell. Then Honeywell, depending on what aircraft and customer, will decide what modem or converter to use; they’ll bolt on the specifics to make the customer product work, but we’ll send a complete module, including the aperture and the software that drives the aperture; that’s included in our package. But we won’t be building the brackets [for instance]: that would be part of the integration exercise. Honeywell then gets STC.

“The flow is similar in the other verticals as well, [including] maritime. We want to stick to our core, and manufacture a terrific satellite antenna but we don’t want to become experts in installations, so Honeywell would be recipient and perform the install and integration. So our approach is like the Intel Inside approach; we hope to make everyone’s life better with the antenna, but don’t plan to displace the current ecosystem. Exactly what Qualcomm did for handsets is what we hope to do here.”

Kymeta will deliver the module to Honeywell around the same time it delivers to integrators in the maritime vertical. “That will be January 2017.” But beta testing of different versions will occur next year.

It is also working to deliver its antennas across other verticals – rail, cars, IoT, government and military customers. “One day, on Sharp’s display line, they can make a TV set and the next day an antenna. So I believe we’ll [ultimately] be selling these antennas at consumer level pricing so you can go to a BestBuy and buy a satellite antenna … We have to drive down the cost into the hundreds of dollars for the masses to afford,” says Marks.

Will these antennas do what they say on the tin? “Yes, absolutely,” he declares. “There is an announcement you’ll see in January in the automotive industry – we’re driving around the western part of the US with flat antennas embedded in the roof of cars transmitting and receiving signals to geostationary satellites, so it works is the short answer; it works great. We’re really happy with the performance we’re seeing on prototypes.

“So we work with, as you know, we work with Inmarsat, Intelsat, we work with O3b. We believe we’ll be working with companies like OneWeb, so in order to service many of these verticals you have to be able to address both Ku and Ka and in many cases, you have to work with several system operators and we have great partnerships with all of the top ten satellite operators.”

Indeed, with the launch of LEO satellites (like OneWeb), “scanning becomes less and less of an issue because satellites will be much closer to you,” he continues. “When you start trying to communicate with LEO, parabolic antennas, for instance, have a big problem because LEOs are traveling so fast across the sky and are no longer stationary. Parabolic has to drop a signal and then steer all the way back 180 degrees to pick up another signal. Our antenna, because it’s software defined, can switch; it’s just a new pattern. So we can make connections before we break connections, which will enable a much better service if talking about nextgen satellite constellations. I think LEO will be part of reality here soon.”

Pressed to explain how Kymeta could play in OneWeb from an aero perspective in light of Rockwell Collins’ exclusive arrangement to build the terminal units for aero, Marks suggests that Rockwell could always “buy antennas from us to use on the OneWeb network and they can integrate them and install them on planes”, but he stressed, “I’m not directly in the aero group and understanding all the conversations. I personally haven’t had conversations with Rockwell.”

RGN understands that Kymeta rival Phasor is also curious about potential prospects for working with Rockwell Collins.

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