Bringing Together the Needs of Military and Commercial Users Could Finally Unlock the Market for Electronically Steerable Antennas

Bringing Together the Needs of Military and Commercial Users Could Finally Unlock the Market for Electronically Steerable Antennas

April 05, 2022

By Paul Freud and Ryan Jennings

Government and commercial users have the same communication needs: affordable, reliable, and secure broadband connectivity everywhere – from flying across the country at 30,000 ft. to riding a high-speed train through Europe to driving a tactical vehicle in hostile territory. The ideal technology to meet these needs exists in the form of electronically steered antennas (ESA), but development and adoption has been slower than expected, primarily because the cost of ESAs for commercial entities and for broad military use was too steep.

ESA Front Panel

New architectures developed by Ball Aerospace leverage the overlapping interests and investments of government and commercial markets to unlock the full potential of ESA-based satellite communications and significantly accelerate its growth.

Before addressing how Ball’s ESA architecture helps overcome the challenges that have kept the ESA SATCOM market from being fully realized, it is important to understand the evolution of electronically steered antennas, why they are ideal for meeting the needs of both markets and why adoption has been slow to materialize.

Why are ESAs an Ideal Solution?

While the flat-panel electronically steered antenna has been around for decades, several developments emerged over the last few years to substantially increase its capabilities and make them the ideal solution for mobile applications. ESA terminals maintain several key advantages over other antenna solutions when it comes to mobile communications:

  1. Their low-profile, small size and light weight makes them ideal for moving platforms such as trains, planes, trucks and ships.
  2. The arrays can instantaneously move beams to ensure a mobile antenna is always pointing at the satellite, regardless of how quickly a platform changes direction.
  3. ESA terminals connect with today's GEO, MEO and LEO satellites and, without altering the antenna hardware, have the flexibility to meet tomorrow's new requirements.

All of these features become very important on mobile platforms that are bouncing over rocks, swaying on a train track or getting battered by waves on the high seas. ESA’s fast agile beams ensure that communication links between the user and satellite are not broken and always point accurately to maximize broadband performance for the mobile users.

It is because of these benefits that, in July, Northern Sky Research projected equipment revenues from flat panel antennas would reach $17 billion by 2023. Despite these robust forecasts and the clear need for mobile communications technologies, the market for ESAs has been slow to develop. So, what’s happening to cause commercial and military users alike to delay adoption?

Obstacles to ESA Market Growth

For both military and commercial entities needing to outfit thousands of planes, trains, trucks and ships, the cost would be astronomical using custom, low volume ESA solutions. As much as a commercial airline would love to provide high-speed internet connectivity for all its passengers, the return on investment simply wasn’t there. Up until recently, that type of financial outlay didn’t result in an always-reliable solution because product maturity was slow to evolve.

SATCOM Ku- subarray, rear panel

To address the cost obstacle, Ball designed a modular ESA solution called a subarray. A subarray is an antenna building block that can be tiled together and scaled to meet the unique performance and environment requirements of different use cases, including maritime, land mobile and in-flight connectivity.

In addition, Ball entered into a collaboration with diversified manufacturer Flex, which has started production ramp on Ku-Band and Ka-Band modular ESA subarrays at its site in Austin, Texas. By leveraging Flex’s global supply-chain organization and experience manufacturing communications products, Ball will be able to provide these advanced satellite-based mobile communications solutions at an affordable price.

Ball is also working with Stellar Blu Solutions to bring Ku-band terminals directly to the airline market, which is eager to bring in-flight connectivity to its passengers.

The Fusion of Military and Commercial Markets

The opportunity for the industry is to leverage the strengths of military programs and the strengths of the commercial markets to accelerate the proliferation of ESAs for the end user. The military market brings program development dollars and small-volume manufacturing runs, which benefits the commercial market by reducing the technical risks and high costs related to manufacturing initial units. The commercial market, in turn, brings high-volume that drives down production costs for military users, allowing for broader adoption.

This co-dependency, coupled with the type of mass-producible, modular, common architecture being developed by Ball, has the potential to unlock the ESA market’s full potential. If military and commercial entities share part numbers, everyone benefits. Commercial users can take advantage of the investments made by the military and military users benefit from lower costs achieved through mass production.

It’s a win-win-win-win, with the third “win” being for manufacturers and sellers of this much-needed technology, and the fourth representing the end users. The end users include millions of consumers and the warfighter, who all gain reliable, high-speed broadband connectivity regardless of where they are or how fast they are moving.

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