Going Domeless
11/13/2017


By Jim Fullilove

No surprise—as editor of Marine Electronics Journal (MEJ) most of my time at boat shows is spent looking at new electronics—and the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show extravaganza in early November was no exception. Most of the companies that manufacture, install and service marine electronics have booths in what’s called the “Electronics Tent.” For anyone who hasn’t attended, it’s a huge fabric-on-frame structure with tons of air conditioning and carpets on the floor. Not too shabby.

I made several rounds over a couple of days talking to manufacturers and dealers and a bunch of other companies with oars of one sort or another in the marine electronics pond. Lots of new devices and new spins on old standbys, which we’ll tell you about in the weeks ahead.

Not far from the electronics tent was the Superyacht Pavilion, which as the name proclaims housed naval architects, yacht builders and a range of products and services aimed squarely at the multimillion-dollar megayacht set. Even for those of us who are a few million short of being able to take home a 200-footer, there was one product—call it a system—that is pushing the marine technology envelope.

Those giant domes at the top of antenna masts on yachts and commercial vessels contain stabilized satellite antennas. These are finely tuned machines that twist and turn in three axes to stay locked on to geostationary satellites despite whatever the seas are throwing in your path. Some link passengers and crew to satellite TV, while others provide access to the Internet and provide voice and data communications.

As it turns out, some megayacht owners don’t like the domes. They feel they are intrusive and ugly. Many naval architects agree—they’d like to see them gone. Truth be told, as marvelous as these machines are the stabilized antennas and their domes represent a lot of weight that can impact a vessel’s stability.








So, along comes Kymeta, a company that attracted funding from no less a personality than Microsoft’s Bill Gates---along with others. Their idea is to provide a satellite link using a technology called beamforming instead of mechanical antennas and domes. Kymeta supplies flat plate antennas that are rigidly mounted to the hull.  Each plate is half the size of the top of a card table and weighs about 50 pounds. The system’s computer software shapes and steers the beamforing electrons to stay locked on to targeted satellites. A vessel may need one or several of the antennas depending on the owner's needs and the vessel's area of operation worldwide.

At the Lauderdale show, Kymeta ferried interested parties to a demo yacht for a presentation and Q&A. I went along to see the system in action (that's one of the plates in the photo below---it's mounted on the foredeck). Apparently two major world-class boats are currently shaking down the Kymeta antennas: the state-of-the-art sailing vessel Maltese Falcon and the powerboat White Rose of Drachs. Their captains report very successful results, but the system has its detractors.

We’ll keep you up to date on how the beamforming technology works at sea. By the way, while it may sound like an entirely new approach to satellite connections, beamforming has been used on a modest scale in the vehicle industry for a while. Here’s what I wrote about the technology in the May/June 2017 issue of MEJ.

 





Kymeta: Dump the domes

Flat panels and beamforming vs stabilized marine antennas

In April, Kymeta Corp. began turning out a new type of satellite antenna for the marine market that the company says performs better than conventional stabilized marine antennas while eliminating the familiar dome housing. The flat-panel antennas accomplish this by harnessing a technology called beamforming to lock on to satellite signals rather than mechanically aiming the stabilized antennas.

There are two approaches currently under development. One involves panels that are rigidly attached to the vessel and all satellite tracking is done via electronic beamforming. The panels do not move and aren’t contained within a dome. The second approach combines beamforming and rotation of the flat-panel antenna within a conventional dome—Kymeta calls this a hybrid system.

Kymeta will offer three versions of its flat-panel antennas, ranging from a single panel to several that are combined for increased bandwidth and download speed and finally to the hybrid version that uses both antenna movement and beamforming. A flat panel is eight sided, less than 3 cm thick, weighs 40 pounds and initially costs about $30,000. A typical installation requires four panels, which can be installed in a variety of locations on the boat.

 

Similar to flat-panel TVs

Panels are made from naturally occurring materials that are arranged “in a specific pattern that produces a specific electromagnetic response that is not found in nature,” says Kymeta.  The ingredients are said to be similar to a flat-panel TV. In fact, Sharp will produce the panels on a TV production line. As a TV controls three color “dots” behind each pixel, a flat-panel antenna steers the signal through its surface toward the satellite. There are no moving parts to wear out or break down.

The hybrid version, under development by Intellian, rotates the Kymeta panel mechanically around a vertical post to offset the fact that the Kymeta can’t currently beamform the signal below 20 degrees above its horizon. The panel, mounted at a tilt on a vertical post, will rotate to approximately the direction of the satellite and beamforming takes it from there, fine tuning the direction at 20 degrees per second. As the vessel turns, the Intellian version’s antenna rotates in response to stay locked on the satellite. Beamforming accommodates the pitch and roll.

 “One panel has about the same gain as a 60cm stabilized dish antenna,” says John Minetola, Sales Manager-Americas for e3 Systems, which will distribute the Kymeta system to the superyacht sector. Panasonic is distributor to the overall marine market. “They can be grouped together to get more gain. One LNB [low noise block converter] per panel, one BUC [block up converter] per group that transmits.”

 

Higher throughput, lower terminal costs

According to Kymeta, “Leveraging production methods used in LCD televisions, this innovative, software-enabled, metamaterials-based, electronic beamforming antenna is the first designed for mass production to generate volumes never considered before.” The company says its antennas are capable of higher throughput than Fleet Broadband and have lower terminal costs than comparable VSAT antennas. Additionally, Kymeta says the panels offer seamless connectivity with any satellite as well as MEO/LEO switching and tracking. Unlike conventional stabilized satellite TV antennas, Kymeta systems do not offer TVRO—live TV. Instead, the flat panels provide a link to the Internet.

 “Kymeta is betting that people on boats will watch video over the Internet, just like people at home are cutting off their DirecTV and cable TV,” says Minetola. “They watch Netflix and Hulu over the Internet. Also on a yacht and airplane, movies and shows can be downloaded in the background at less expense than live-streaming—to be watched later. Also faster and less expensive satellites are launching in the next couple years.”

In a demonstration during the Monaco Boat Show last year, Kymeta says two of its mTennau7 ASMs (antenna subsystem modules) “simultaneously received eight live Panasonic multicast eXTV channels, performed multiple live Skype video sessions, multiple HD and Ultra HD Netflix video sessions, and provided WiFi access to an average of 80 users at any one time, during the show. The demonstration also confirmed the low-power consumption of the Kymeta mTenna technology, drawing only 12 watts of power per ASM.” (An artist's rendering at left shows domes replaced by Kymeta plate antennas.)

Minetola says the flat panels can be carried aboard by hand and installed in “a matter of hours.” He says for commercial vessels the cost of a Kymeta system may be “two to three times higher than conventional [stabilized marine antennas] but is faster and easier to install without tying up the ship.”

As for yachts, he says, you need to “consider the whole cost of conventional domes plus the mast and wings, including TVRO and multiple receivers for multiple cabins, multiplied by the number of countries visited. Kymeta replaces this with multiple panels, but subtracts the receivers and service contracts with DirecTV US, DirecTV Latin, Sky Mediterranean, etc.”

Minetola says he doesn’t think the typical MEJ reader will be selling the antenna in the near-term “because of the price/no TVRO/multiple-panel-issue. However, Kymeta and the idea of getting rid of the antenna farm will get a lot of publicity.”


Not everyone was or is enamored of the idea of using flat plate antennas at sea. KVH is one of a handful of manufacturers that make high-quality stabilized satellite antennas and systems which deliver voice and data communication as well as TV. We asked KVH to comment on flat-panel antenna technology. Below is a response from Rick Driscoll, VP Satellite Products & Services.

 

KVH: marine conditions favor dome antennas

Most of the press describing use of flat-panel antennas revolves around two-way satellite communications, or VSAT. One reason for this is that generally TVRO services require simultaneous reception of wide bandwidths (typically a GHz or more) and simultaneous dual polarity. This simultaneous reception is difficult to realize in dynamically scanning flat-panel designs.

Kymeta is very interesting technology, and there may be applications that lend themselves to their design approach and constraints. However, we don’t feel Kymeta will have universal applicability, particularly in applications with low elevation angles, highly dynamic environments (like maritime) and/or applications where wide bandwidth and simultaneous reception and/or transmission are required. If the “hybrid” approach (mentioned in the article) involves mechanically moving or tilting the flat-panel antenna, then it would defeat much of the purpose of the flat panel.

The biggest difference between flat-panel/phased-array antennas and reflector-based/dome antennas in the maritime market is that flat-panel antennas don’t perform as well on a boat that may be pitching, rolling, or cruising in northern latitudes. The reason has more to do with geometry than with the antenna technology itself. With a flat-panel antenna, you will get a weaker signal when the panel isn’t fully perpendicular to the satellite, which can happen quite often at sea depending on boat location and motion.

Having been a pioneer in flat-panel technology when we introduced a phased-array satellite television antenna more than 10 years ago, KVH remains excited about the potential of low-cost, high-performance flat-panel antennas to provide better experiences for our customers in suitable applications. We still make a phased-array satellite television antenna for the automotive market—it’s called the TracVision A9.  For the maritime market, our engineers have always found that our reflector-based/dome antennas are better suited (TracVision TV-series for satellite television; TracPhone V-IP series for satellite communications) than flat panel as there are many issues created by boats pitching and rolling that make phased-array signals weaker in that application.

With flat-panel antennas, captains and boat owners should be sure they ask about elevation range and how their vessel’s location and motion will affect the phased-array antenna’s performance; they need to ensure the phased-array antenna will be compatible with the satellite service provider’s bandwidth; and they need to really think through the issue of having several phased-array antennas on the boat to do the same work that one dome antenna has proven it can do for years.

 

 


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Comments | Leave a Comment
Page 1 of 2 ( 9 comments)

 
Darryl:(3/27/2017 10:17:15 PM) "Putting the MSRP with each unit reviewed would have been helpful. If each unit was actually tested, the reports on each unit would have been helpful too.


Thanks Darryl---we generally don't mention prices due to confusion over so many variations---MSRP (mfg. suggested retail price), MAP (min. advertised price), MRP (min. resale price) and then there are internet prices on some websites that go their own way. But your point is well taken--buyers need to know if something is in their price range. We'll work on it.
There is independent testing of some of these products on sites like panbo.com but the information we receive from manufacturers rarely cites the results of any shootouts they may conduct against the competition's products. "
 
 
Laurie Seibert:(2/16/2017 2:00:20 AM) "Thanks EV Collier for sharing this informative blog. It is important to know the causes of EMI filters. We use these parts in our daily life in the electronic products so we should know that what are the causes are cures of EMI Filters.

Great job and keep updating!

Regards
Laurie Seibert
http://www.lcr-inc.com/"
 
 
Yes:(2/10/2017 7:22:40 AM) "EMI/RFI filter causes and cure. There are very few people who share such information with everyone. I was looking to read such informative blog!

Great job!

Regards
Lisa Wilson
http://filterconcepts.com/
"
 
 
hugo:(1/30/2016 2:00:32 AM) "Why is no integrated ais transceiver available? Only recivers.

Hugo---

Each AIS system consists of one VHF transmitter, two VHF TDMA receivers, one VHF DSC receiver, and standard marine electronic communications links (IEC 61162/NMEA 0183) to shipboard display and sensor systems (AIS Schematic). Position and timing information is normally derived from an integral or external global navigation satellite system (e.g. GPS) receiver, including a medium frequency differential GNSS receiver for precise position in coastal and inland waters. Other information broadcast by the AIS, if available, is electronically obtained from shipboard equipment through standard marine data connections. Heading information and course and speed over ground would normally be provided by all AIS-equipped ships. Other information, such as rate of turn, angle of heel, pitch and roll, and destination and ETA could also be provided. Check out: http://www.navcen.uscg.gov/?pageName=AISworks"
 
 
Islander Sailboat Info:(12/4/2015 9:49:32 AM) "Great post!! This is the missing introduction I've been looking for. Thank you for taking a complicated subject and making it very easy to understand."
 
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