As CPI radome breaks cover on EL Al aircraft, firm eyes IFEC growth

ViaSat’s inflight connectivity installation on an El Al Boeing 737NG aircraft recently broke cover, and the firm this spring received STC on the Airbus A320 for Virgin America, giving it leverage in pitching airlines on forging direct partnerships. In both instances, Communications & Power Industries’ hybrid KuKa-band radome was part of the package, though it is not involved in the actual installation.

You may have heard of CPI…or not. The company’s CPI Radant Technologies Division, located near Boston, has a long history of providing very high performance radomes for communications, radar and electronic warfare (EW) applications. CPI’s separate Satcom Division and a Communications & Medical Products Division – both located in Ontario, Canada – provide a wide array of RF/Microwave Power Amplifiers for communications applications, specializing in both commercial and military/government satcom applications.

But like many firms with a history serving non-civil aviation applications these days, CPI recognizes the importance of the inflight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) market and has been investing company R&D funds to become a key provider of critical components and subsystems to this rapidly growing opportunity, including aeronautical amplifiers:

In the case of radomes, it has always been a focus because we’ve been in the airborne radome business from Day 1. In the case of amplifiers, it is in the last couple of years where we customized our products for airborne applications. Indeed, CPI is one of the leading providers of high-powered amplifiers, so we are the creator, the inventor and the builder of the amplifiers and associated technology. We’ve sold these products globally forever, and we have in excess of 50K amplifiers still operating around the world. We have been in the business for longer than most companies have been around, and CPI has provided every significant and insignificant player in the world with our technology. Most of our products are on the ground and transmitting up to a satellite, but the difference is now we’ll be doing an increasing proportion of transmitting from an airplane up to a satellite. The only change for us is to repackage the amplifiers in a manner that ensures they are more suited for airborne. Currently, the demand tends to be more for solid state driven amplifiers, whereas historically it was for tube-based amplifiers.

Runway Girl Network’s interview with CPI CEO Joe Caldarelli, CPI Radant Technologies Division technical director Jean-Claude Sureau, and CPI Communications & Medical Products Division director of business development for maritime and aeronautical products Wilco Bagchus, is below.

Question: The El Al Ka-band connectivity installation on 737NG aircraft, with your hybrid KuKa-band radome, recently broke cover. You’re also providing radomes for Virgin America’s A320 family aircraft with ViaSat Exede. Do you see any opportunities for winning business with JetBlue (which used Thales/LiveTV STC and associated kit, including General Dynamics radome)?

Joe Caldarelli: It’s not clear. It’s not something that our customer, ViaSat, shares with us. I think there are several hundred aircraft that have been equipped with second-generation satcom, which includes Ka service now (United’s Boeing narrowbodies and JetBlue’s’s E190s). It’s not clear with that particular customer whether there will be other opportunities for us.

From this point on, for any customer that acquires ViaSat Exede direct with ViaSat, it would be our aspiration to be the radome partner on their future high-performance applications.

Jean-Claude Sureau: The hybrid radome is not the only type that we offer. The KuKa radome that we offer to ViaSat was custom designed for the KuKa hybrid antenna. Some operators that want Ku-only might want something more optimized for Ku only. Alternatively, they may want a radome optimized for Ka only. There’s a little bit of a penalty that is paid for having a universal radome.

Question: When will you unveil your nextgen Ku and Ka-only radomes?

Joe Caldarelli: We can confirm that we’re working with a large number of people and have radomes for every application using CPI proprietary technology. We’re not prepared to talk details yet. We have approached or are approaching pretty much everyone in the field concerning two-band radomes and individual band radomes; many of them won’t permit us to name them. So we have the capability to do it, and we’re working with a number of people, including on our airborne amplifier products.

Question: Where are the CPI radomes produced, and what quantity is being produced at this time (per month)? What is CPI’s capacity to scale up production? 

Joe Caldarelli: The radomes are designed and produced by CPI Radant Technologies Division in MA.  The current delivery rate for this particular (KuKa) radome is nominally several units per month, representing a small fraction of Radant’s overall production capacity. In other words, we are capable of providing as many radomes as our customers may need.

KuKa Radome at Satellite 2014 Trade Show

CPI’s KuKa radome on display at the Satellite 2014 trade show. Image: CPI

Question: I understand that CPI was able to increase the transmissivity of the radome, making it possible to achieve low loss over the full ITU ‘Ku/Ka’ bands. Can you explain how this was achieved?

Jean-Claude Sureau: Low loss over the full ITU Ku and Ka bands is achieved by exploiting a unique multi-layer technology, while still using readily available commercial materials. This technique is protected by exclusive CPI patents. Significantly, it has also been demonstrated to be compliant with the ever-decreasing tolerance for any bird strike damage.

Question: The hybrid radome is billed as being able to support ViaSat-1, ViaSat-2 and the ViaSat-3 constellation. Can you explain any considerations in developing the radome to support all three?

Jean-Claude Sureau: This radome, which has been specially designed to be compatible with the full hemispheric coverage of the Ka antenna from a transmissivity and polarization purity viewpoint, is uniquely suited to support the ViaSat- 1, 2 and 3 constellations.

ViaSat-1 rendering with flare. Image: ViaSat

Question: How many government aircraft are fitted with this particular hybrid radome?

Joe Caldarelli: CPI does not know exactly how many government aircraft are fitted with this hybrid radome.

Question: Do you see opportunities for selling the hybrid KuKa radome with other commercial connectivity solutions outside of ViaSat Exede (i.e. with other service providers); or is your relationship with ViaSat in the commercial space of an exclusive nature?

Jean-Claude Sureau: This particular radome embodiment reflects a shape and interface defined by ViaSat and a materials and production process provided by CPI Radant Technologies Division. The latter remains the exclusive Intellectual Property of CPI and is not subject to an exclusivity with ViaSat.

Question: What type of market share would CPI like to secure in the commercial IFC radome market? Bizav?

Jean-Claude Sureau: In general, CPI Radant Technologies Division has, and plans to have an even more, significant presence not only in the hybrid KuKa market, but also in Ku and Ka only. This applies to dorsal as well as tail-mount installations for commercial and governmental IFC sectors.

Question: Saint-Gobain seems to be the dominant force. But General Dynamics is also big (and was selected by Boeing for the tri-band radome). Do you envisage being able to crack into any OEMs to provide an in-house radome such as General Dynamics? Do you think your radome performs better than the in-house one that Boeing forces companies to take?

Joe Caldarelli: It’s very difficult to comment on market share; I don’t know exactly how much the other guys have. We do feel our technology is leading edge. ViaSat has some of the most stringent requirements, and we have applications that are on par or better than the competition. In terms of gaining linefit offerability with manufacturers, obviously we’re working on it. It’s a complex process that is often not a simple business case. We’ve very interested in it, but our penetration in that area has been modest.

Question: What are you focusing your R&D funds on now; are there any new technologies in aero we should be aware of?

Joe Caldarelli: We are currently focusing R&D funds on product, rather than technology development. In general, the radome market tends to follow and respond to the antenna and RF developments; that is where any new technology development will originate. Additionally, technology will evolve to accommodate new licensed bands above Ka or fitting between the current Ku and Ka bands.

Question: Can you specify which bands are being studied?

Jean-Claude Sureau: If you restrict yourself to commercial, there isn’t too much being talked about right now, except that in people’s quest for ever increasing bandwidth, the next frontier would be to go to even higher bands, such as V- and W-bands that operate in 60, 70 and 80 GHz. We did some technology development to service that particular application, but that will take a while to develop. On the other hand, it’s not clear that there will be commercial applications in those bands. We have been very active – even preceding our involvement in Ka band – in Q-band, operated only by the military. My understanding is there are some packages in Europe with Q-band possibilities, but the future is a little foggy. We are at least as well, if not better, prepared as anyone to service the needs of those particular frequencies, and we’re doing that currently for military.

Joe Caldarelli: The answer would be the same for the amplifiers: frequencies down to 1 GHz and as high as 100 GHz. The issue is not the technology; it’s licensing and people being pushed to, or opening up, those bands…

Question: What is CPI’s footprint in maritime, and plans for growth in this sector?

Joe Caldarelli: CPI Radant Technologies Division is the world-leading supplier of shipboard and submarine radomes for military satcom applications (K, Ka, Q) with nearly 2,000 radomes deployed.  We currently have no footprint in the corresponding commercial radome market. However, CPI, through its other divisions, does provide Solid State Power Amplifiers (SSPAs) and Block-up-Converters (BUCs), to a number of maritime applications.

Historically, on the radome side, the work we’ve done on maritime has been more focused on the defense side. We’re currently working on something that I refer to as a “fourth generation” ship satellite system. The latest gen is Navy Multiband Terminal (NMT) program, which is basically on every US Navy ship, and we have delivered… we have provided all of the satcom radomes for that program and have been doing that for 30 years now. These are systems that operate up to at least Q-band.

Question: Is CPI involved in any other work in commercial aviation that we should be aware of? 

Joe Caldarelli: CPI is a provider of Solid State Power Amplifiers at Ku and Ka bands (Ku RFUs and Ka RFUs) to several integrators for both linefit and retrofit applications. Currently we are in the preproduction phase and we will be submitting our units for flight qualification late fall this year. Our aeronautical amplifiers will be built in our Georgetown, Ontario, Canada facility, which is a well-established organization with a long heritage, having provided communications products for several decades.

Question: More broadly, what is your outlook for the commercial IFC market?

Joe Caldarelli: We see great growth in the IFC market, as substantially all commercial planes will want/need to have this capability eventually. With an ever-growing appetite for bandwidth, we expect that many early installations will need upgrading in due course to remain competitive.

Question: Do you expect to see further consolidation in this part of the industry?

Joe Caldarelli: We sell our product to an integrator. For radomes or amplifiers, our customers are the integrators that would ultimately sell it to either the ship owner or intermediary (in maritime). So to your question about consolidation – most of that will go on one level or two levels above us, and whatever they consolidate to, they will need to buy amplifiers and radomes. We do have a substantial presence on government and commercial ship applications and have had one for a long, long time.

Question: Is CPI desirous of greater visibility in the IFEC industry?

Joe Caldarelli: The challenge is we are quite often restricted in what we’re able to say. While we are very desirous to discuss the things we provide and are making a concerted effort in letting everyone know we provide radomes in commercial, we are prevented from making the association from our product to the user and their customer, with a relatively small number of exceptions.

From our perspective, confirming that we’re extremely interested in investing in this market is very important.

Photo at top of Virgin America’s IFEC, which is to be supported on certain aircraft by ViaSat and its partners. Credit: Virgin America

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