A rendering of the ThinKom ThinAir Ka1717 terminal on a regional jet

A new drag race: ThinKom invites Stellar Blu to antenna challenge


Move aside, RuPaul. ThinKom Solutions is ready to engage in a new kind of drag race in a bid to enhance transparency in commercial aviation.

Challenging both the drag and fuel burn claims made by Stellar Blu Solutions about its Sidewinder electronically steered antenna (ESA), ThinKom has publicly invited the antenna-maker to join it in “selecting an aerodynamicist to conduct a side-by-side comparison” of Sidewinder and ThinKom’s Ka1717 VICTS antenna for regional jets.

Inspiring the ‘drag challenge’ is a comment published in the November/December 2023 issue of Inflight Magazine, which quoted Stellar Blu VP of business development Stephen Rice as saying that the firm’s no-radome ESA provides “a significant advantage in drag and fuel burn over other antennas, including other ESAs”. In the same article, ThinKom CTO Bill Milroy claimed that Ka1717 provides “significantly lower aerodynamic drag compared to any ESA in the market today”.

“They can’t both be correct,” says ThinKom.

Drag challenge details

ThinKom is confident that a side-by-side comparison of Sidewinder and Ka1717 will show that the conformal mold line of the Ka1717 provides far lower drag than flat-surface ESAs, resulting in both substantial fuel savings and environmental benefits.

It says its confidence is bolstered by two prior studies that saw the firm contract “recognized industry aerodynamicists” who used computational fluid dynamics (CFD) in their analysis. Ka1717 features an antenna radome, whilst aero ESAs coming to market including Sidewinder do not require a radome.

ThinKom suggests that analysis will show, consistent with the results of two completed independent studies, that the ThinKom Ka1717 provides fuel savings exceeding $10 million (NPV over 10 years) compared to the Stellar Blu Sidewinder ESA. Image: ThinKom Solutions

If Stellar Blu accepts the challenge, says ThinKom, the two firms would each supply a 3D model for the selected expert to analyze and provide a comparison of key metrics such as flow separation, pressure, and lift, and how these translate to drag and subsequently, fuel burn. And the results would be shared publicly.

“Our goal here in the challenge is to set the drag/fuel-burn record straight . . . and yes, we do like to win! However, let’s not lose sight of what’s at stake here, in terms of protecting fleet operating fuel budgets and in protecting our environment,” says the antenna-maker. “With this in mind, should Stellar Blu accept this challenge, ThinKom will donate $10,000 to The Nature Conservancy, regardless of the outcome of the study. In this way, everybody wins!”

It is perhaps a somewhat unorthodox approach, but given that some airlines have regrets about their Gen 1 inflight connectivity selections, one can see value in providing as much transparency to the market as possible to help inform their next-gen decisions.

Stellar Blu responds

Runway Girl Network reached out to Stellar Blu, asking a series of questions including whether or not it plans to participate in the drag challenge, if it stands by its published quote about Sidewinder, and what fuel savings airlines can anticipate (over other ESAs and/or indeed other antenna systems such as the Ka1717)? RGN also asked Stellar Blu if it has conducted any drag-specific testing on the Sidewinder ESA to support its assertion, and if it can share the results.

Stellar Blu’s Rice responded, saying: “The Sidewinder terminal designed for regional jets is Intelsat’s product. If they elect to respond to ThinKom, we will coordinate with them. Regarding Sidewinder in general and your specific questions, we do think there is value in a side-by-side comparison of terminals taking in all their attributes. We’ve helped and encouraged our customers do this as part of their selection process.”

In essence, Stellar Blu has punted the challenge to Intelsat, which is securing supplemental type certification for its ESA on RJ types. Intelsat’s ESA uses Stellar Blu’s design and integration package.

Intelsat, which has plenty of history with the larger Ku3030 VICTS system (branded as 2Ku in its own portfolio), has not provided comment about ThinKom’s drag challenge. ThinKom has, however, informed RGN that it would like to keep the challenge to Stellar Blu “based on their published comments”.

Intelsat ESA atop Intelsat CRJ700 testbed

Intelsat is securing the ESA STC for regional jet types. Image: Stellar Blu

“To date, Stellar Blu has declined our invitation for a side-by-side comparison,” says ThinKom. “They’ve also failed to refute our data-backed results, either anecdotally or with actual analysis to back up their claims of having the lowest drag.”


The antenna-maker continues: “Our invitation remains open should they reconsider. We encourage airlines to do their own analysis, as those completed by two well-known industry aerodynamicists show the drag/fuel-burn savings with the ThinAir Ka1717 is very significant.”

US operators are under the gun to replace Gogo’s legacy air-to-ground connectivity hardware on their RJs, in line with US government interests. That has put a lot of tails up for grabs in North America.

Thus far, Delta Air Lines has selected Hughes’ Ka-band GEO satellite-supported IFC service for its RJs and Boeing 717s, with the Ka1717 terminal in play. Intelsat, meanwhile, has secured RJ equipage deals for its multi-orbit Ku-band ESA with Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and Air Canada.

Related Articles:

Featured image, a rendering of Ka1717 atop a RJ, credited to ThinKom