Ball parlays government antenna work in emerging LEO, 5G markets

Ball parlays government antenna work in emerging LEO, 5G markets
By Warren Ferster 07/15/2019
WASHINGTON – A longtime provider of flat-panel, electronically steered satellite communication (SATCOM) antennas to U.S. government customers, Ball Aerospace is now leveraging that expertise for the commercial market with updated antennas that can be produced in large quantities at low cost.

The move coincides with early phase deployment of large satellite constellations for global broadband connectivity, and rollout of terrestrial 5G telecom networks. Both provide markets for what Ball is calling its Gen-2 phased array antenna system, designed to operate in both the Ku- and Ka-bands, and is part of Ball’s AIRLINK® family of antennas.

“We’re seeing market forces coming from the traditional SATCOM space and also from the emerging 5G markets that we believe are going to drive down the cost of these arrays and make them ubiquitous for multiple applications,” said Bryce Unruh, senior advanced systems manager in in Ball Aerospace’s Tactical Solutions division.

Colo.-based Ball Aerospace is perhaps best known as a maker of satellites and sensors for weather, scientific and military applications. But the company also has a Tactical Solutions business unit, whose products include electronically steered, or phased-array, antennas for military aircraft and other platforms.

Recent years have seen the emergence of several companies offering flat-panel, phased-array antennas for a satellite markets increasingly focused on mobile applications. Conforming to the exterior surface of aircraft and other vehicles, these kinds of antennas are ideal for tracking low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, which pass from horizon-to-horizon in a matter of minutes.

What differentiates Ball from newcomer competitors is a proven track record in the U.S. government market.

“We have five decades of heritage building and delivering phased arrays for just about any kind of application,” said Peter Moosbrugger, chief technologist for the phased array group in the Tactical Solutions business unit. Commercial demand emerged only within the last five or six years and is ramping up with the deployment of the LEO constellations and 5G networks, he said.

The flat panel phased array antenna is built using printed circuit boards, silicon-based integrated circuits, and industry standard packaging.  These basic building block units can be arranged together in different configurations depending on the application, Unruh said.

The hardware is relatively easy to manufacture, Unruh said. The innovation is in a design that manages and distributes RF signals across the circuit board, steers the beams electronically – as opposed to mechanically – and powers the entire system, Unruh said.

Ball’s technology recently proved itself in a test involving a phase 1 satellite for Canadian operator Telesat’s planned LEO broadband constellation, which eventually is expected to consist of somewhere between 100 and 300 satellites. During the test, Ball’s antenna successfully tracked the satellite for several orbital passes while capturing video data in real time.

It was the first publicly disclosed demonstration of an electronically steerable phased-array antenna with a LEO satellite, Unruh said. “We have a proven technology; now we’re focused on manufacturing to low costs,” he said.

The Gen-2 antenna, which Ball unveiled in May at the SATELLITE 2019 conference, is designed for high-volume, low-cost production leveraging international supply chains, Moosbrugger said. “Our business model is wrapped around what the commercial industrial base can manufacture,” he said.

During a panel discussion at the conference, representatives of companies planning or deploying large LEO satellite constellations addressed the importance of low-cost antennas that also meet the performance requirements

Thomas Wayne, chief financial officer of OneWeb, which has deployed an initial batch of eight satellites for a planned constellation of 650, said a diversified set of terminal options is critical to unlocking the potential of the LEO businesses.  “Having said that, low cost user terminals could certainly create a lot of fascinating new user cases” where the business models might not otherwise close, he said.

During a separate panel discussion focused on emerging antenna technologies, Moosbrugger said Ball has effectively cracked the code to bring markets including 5G, which some experts believe will dwarf the satellite market, within reach.

“A lot of people are working around the world on 5G and finding it to be more challenging than expected because it really is complicated,” Moosbrugger said. Ball Aerospace, he said, has a deeper understanding of the issues, based on its proven experience.

Moosbrugger also noted that Ball’s products can work with multiple millimeter wave frequencies, which is important as connectivity providers seek to cobble together seamless global coverage using different satellite and terrestrial networks. “We’re looking at both 5G and SATCOM markets,” he said.

Warren Ferster covered the global space industry as a journalist for 25 years, including 21 at SpaceNews, where he last served as editor in chief.
Tag(s): 5G, AIRLINK, Antenna, LEO
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