Feature: Kymeta mTenna promises lightweight connectivity

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Kymeta’s mTenna flat panel antenna.Update: Since our original feature in 2014, Kymeta has given more information on how its flat-panel metamaterial antennas work. Our original feature has therefore been updated.

Kymeta says its mTenna aeronautical terminal is set to address the growing demand for affordable broadband internet access on commercial aircraft.

The small mTenna Ka-band terminal will bring connectivity to platforms that are too small for Honeywell’s JetWave fuselage- and tail-mounted antennas, including bizjets, small regional aircraft, private airplanes, and UAVs.

Vern Fotheringham, Chairman, President and CEO of Kymeta, said: “We are collaborating with the satellite industry to build products and solutions for mobile, transportable and fixed communications.”

But how will the mTenna work?

The antenna does away with the traditional parabolic dish or phased array and replaces it with a flat panel made of meta-materials. These are man-made materials that defy conventional wisdom as to how radio waves behave when moving from one medium to another.

The Kymeta antenna can focus the beam by activating different elements.
The Kymeta antenna can focus the beam by activating different elements. Image Kymeta.

Kymeta says its electromagnetic metamaterial technology uses “a holographic approach to electronically acquire, steer, and lock a beam to any satellite, with no moving parts”. It uses Thin Film Transistor (TFT) LCD technology that can be switched on or off to help with the beam forming.

If you think you have heard of TFTs before, you have! TFTs are the basic components that make up the LCD screen on your computer or tablet.

On the mTenna suite of reconfigurable holographic metamaterial antenna (RHMA) products, tuneable elements are arranged in a precisely-calculated pattern.

It is believed the antenna makes use of the properties of an electromagnetic “surface wave”.

Kymeta's flat panel Ka-band antenna will revolutionise inflight connectivity. Image; Kymeta.
Kymeta’s flat panel Ka-band antenna will revolutionise inflight connectivity. Image: Kymeta.

Radiofrequency (RF) energy is scattered when the elements are activated, holographically generating a beam. The direction of the beam is therefore defined by the specific elements that are electronically activated — a design that allows for both continual and instantaneous changes in direction.

Using this concept, an antenna made from a meta-material can be made to focus the radio waves that hit it, doing away with the need for a dish or hefty metal antenna aperture.

In reality a meta-material antenna consists of hundreds of tiny elements that have to be individually excited and phased together.

The meta-materials-based satellite antenna will use software to control the phasing of its component parts to track the satellite across the sky, bending the transmit and receive beam pattern as required. It would therefore electronically steer the radio beam without the use of hefty moving parts.

Another benefit is that the whole antenna would be working or “active”. Kymeta says that the active “aperture” of a mechanical antenna on the top of an aircraft is usually only about 10-20% of its total footprint.

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This isn’t the first time that a beam-bending phased array has been used for a satellite antenna. The difference is that the flat panel meta-material structure means that the antenna can be made smaller and lighter.

The antenna would only protrude about two inches above the fuselage, making the radome easier to manufacture (and less likely to suffer bird strike damage) and reducing the drag coefficient – helping to reduce the additional fuel burn.

Multiple panels might also be used (fitted off the fuselage centre line) to provide lower reception angles above the horizon or phased together for more gain.

The panel might also outperform conventional antenna designs when flying over the equator – a notoriously difficult area, where signals leave and join the aircraft at very high angles and the beam width of the antenna has to be narrow to prevent interference with adjacent satellite slots.

Another major selling point is that a Ka-band antenna could be installed quicker and with minimum modifications to the aircraft fuselage.

Size and cost

Honeywell Ka-band antenna for Inmarsat's GX Aviation service.
Honeywell’s fuselage-mounted Ka-band antenna for Inmarsat’s GX Aviation service.

Kymeta also aims to address the business jet and smaller private aircraft market which cannot be served by existing mechanical Ka-band terminals for size and cost reasons.

Honeywell is designing a tail-mounted antenna for the bizjet market, but it is likely to be bulky compared with Kymeta’s design.

The advantages of the Kymeta flat panel antenna are therefore:

  • Lightweight (few kg per panel)

  • Low profile (large available aperture)

  • Modular, can be sized as needed

  • Very low drive power

  • Compatibility with composite fuselages

  • No beam skew issues due to its square aperture

  • Lower life-cycle cost

Kymeta and Inmarsat/Honeywell have signed an agreement to develop a satellite antenna for business jets to access the latter’s high-speed Ka-band connectivity through Inmarsat’s Global Xpress (GX) service, due to launch fully in late 2015.

Kymeta, which counts Microsoft founder Bill Gates as a major investor, conducted its first receive/transmit tests via the flat panel antenna in December 2013.

Kymeta has said that we can expect to see the antenna enter full-scale production in 2015/16. But an insider now suggests that we won’t see anything on the market for “two/three years”. That could mean the antenna being commercially available in 2017/2018.

This feature will be updated as and when more information is available from Kymeta.

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