A new kind of satellite antenna that is cheaper, thinner and has no moving parts could throw open satellite communications to a vast array of new opportunities, bringing cell phones and the Internet of Things to remote areas.
The antenna, made by Redmond, Washington-based Kymeta Corporation, is made from electromagnetic “metamaterials” that can efficiently steer a beam to connect to a satellite without the need for moving parts. It can maintain a near-continuous satellite connection even on moving cars, boats and aircraft.
In January global satellite provider Intelsat announced that it will use Kymeta’s cutting-edge antenna for satellite communications with connected cars and for maritime applications.
Kymeta’s metamaterial antennas “will help us get gigabit wireless to everyone on the planet,” says computer hacker and futurist Pablos Holman, a scheduled speaker at 4YFN, a parallel event that focuses on innovation and the future of mobile taking place during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona March 2-5.
Holman works at Intellectual Ventures, founded by former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold. The firm specializes in inventions and patent licensing and is exploring how to use metamaterials. Kymeta was spun out of the Intellectual Ventures lab in 2012 as a standalone company.
The promise of metamaterials has helped Kymeta raise a total of $82 million from investors that include Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
So what exactly are metamaterials? The short answer is: artificial materials engineered to have properties that have not yet been found in nature. The idea is to mimic the way atoms interact with light, but with artificial structures that are much smaller than the wavelength of light itself, making it possible to bend light and manipulate it in unusual ways.
A Cool Party Trick, But Not Very Practical
One of the first uses for metamaterials was cloaking — the ability to bend electromagnetic radiation, such as light, around an object, giving the appearance that it isn’t there.
“It is a cool party trick for a physicist; it is not practical for anything we have thought of, but it showed the potential of these materials,” says Holman. So Intellectual Ventures started collaborating with metamaterial researchers to explore what else could be done with “these cool new super powers in physics.”
New antenna technology was the first out of the gate. “Metamaterials give us tunable dielectric materials to create this array of tiny little antennas that can work together to create a beam in a manner that is not practical to do in other ways,” says Holman.
On Kymeta’s mTenna suite of products, tunable elements are arranged in a precisely calculated pattern. Radiofrequency (RF) energy is managed when these elements are activated, holographically generating a beam. The direction of the beam is defined by the specific elements that are activated — and that allows for both continuous and instantaneous changes in direction. The use of Thin Film Transistor LCD technology in the antennas mean that existing television manufacturing facilities can be used to produce Kymeta’s antennas cheaply.
This is potentially hugely important in the many places in the world without cell towers or economical satellite connections.
Putting Cells In Previously Inaccessible Places
“If you can make a small, cheap antenna that can electronically steer a beam you radically change satellite communications,” says Holman. “You can use metamaterials to create an antenna the size of your laptop and put it on the roof of a car or on a boat or airplane then anywhere you go you can have high-speed Internet,” says Holman.
“Today we have cell towers everywhere but when too many people are talking to one cell tower it gets real slow so we put up more towers,” says Holman. “Using satellite for backhaul is becoming practical for the first time, in part because of new satellite networks but fully because of Kymeta,” Holman says.
“Imagine,” says Holman, “all I had to do [is] climb up on the roof and stick a flat antenna on it. I don’t have to aim it, just plug it into a power source and it provides backhaul to the network via satellite. This could fundamentally change the economics of the industry.”
That’s not all. “In the next generation of stuff we would imagine a metamaterial-antenna that can dynamically use existing spectrum to create a separate beam for each user and give 100% capacity to each user,” says Holman. “That can change the way wireless works.”
The first generation of Kymeta’s antennas will be used for applications such as connected cars as well for boats and commercial ships, says Håkan Olsson, Kymeta’s senior director of maritime.
Even Used In Space
“There will be millions and millions of connected cars,” he says. Boats will no longer have to have multiple big unsightly domes to get connected (see the before and after photos).
Agriculture is another area. “Everything from new generation harvest machines to irrigation systems will have connectivity,” says Olsson. “The challenge is where there is no 3G or 4G connection to have satellite connectivity. Today the cost is too high but with the new generation of satellites — lower orbit, balloons or whatever, the cost will go down and demand for connectivity will increase.”
An additional initial target for the technology is wireless backhaul. Today in remote locations it takes an engineer a day or two to install a tower connection and create a small cell network. “What we will enable is the easy set-up of satellite backhaul,” says Olsson.
“Going forward low-earth orbit satellites or balloons — all of these spacecraft will need smart antennas to manage high speed,” says Olsson. “Our antennas are made from space-hardened liquid crystal so we can also use them on spacecraft,” he says.
If Holman is right Kymeta will signal the start of a new era in communications.