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A Q&A with Hakan Olsson about Kymeta’s new flat-panel sat-comms system

by David Schmidt 20 Dec 2017 08:00 PST December 20, 2017

While some of us love sailing for the real-world escape hatch it provides, the simple truth is that connectivity is becoming increasingly important on racing boats, especially if they use weather-routing software and require up-to-date GRIB weather files. This being the case, savvy racers increasingly carry some means of satellite communications, be it a sat phone or a much faster and more robust sat-comms dome (a “terminal” in industry parlance). Now, however, a new solution is poised to disrupt the sat comms space, offering higher-speed performance than sat phones and current-generation domes, and significantly less bulk than radomes.

Best yet, the technology is poised to get smaller and cheaper as years progress, making it increasingly tempting. After all, if the technology becomes a commodity-level item in an industry as large as the automotive trade (which is one of the long-term goals), it will almost certainly represent significant cost savings over current sat-comms options.

Some backstory.

Dr. Nathan Kundtz founded the Kymeta Corporation (www.kymetacorp.com) in 2012 following award-winning graduate work at Duke University involving metamaterials that led to a stint at Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, Washington, where he developed a revolutionary flat panel sat-comms idea that, in turn, was spun off to become Kymeta. But unlike traditional sat-comms terminals, which articulate along their X and Y axes to track satellites, Kundtz’s flat panels instead use solid-state componentry and software to steer the radio-frequency energy that the antenna emits and receives.

The net result-called the mTenna-are thin, lightweight satellite terminals that drastically reduce weight and windage compared to domes, while also (eventually) delivering what Kymeta promises will be seriously fast service, once a new network of low-earth orbit satellites becomes fully operational. (For tech geeks and navigators, Kymeta has advertised that the panels are capable of download speeds of 100 megabits per second [Mbps], however the system is limited by the iDirect X7 modems that Kymeta employs, which have a max downlink speed of 65 Mbps.)

I caught up with Hakan Olsson, Kymeta’s vice president of maritime, at the 2017 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in early November to learn more about this exciting new technology and its coming impact on offshore racing yachts.

When the first Kymeta panels be shipping?

We are shipping now, and for the maritime world that is for one-panel solutions. What we’ve found during the sea trials is that one-panel solutions are working much better than we thought.

We are now seven months into the sea trials with the yachts that we’ve put our systems on. So, we are taking orders right now and doing installations as we speak on yachts.

So when you say one-panel solutions, you’re talking about single-panel systems, not networked solutions?

Correct, and what we’ve found is that they’re good for [latitudes] up to 50 degrees north and 50 degrees south. If you want to go further north or south from there, that’s when you need multi-panel solutions where you tilt the panels to be able to close the link with the geostationary satellite.

We expect those [multi-panel systems] to be available in the second quarter next year.

So you will physically manipulate the angle of the panels as a vessel sails?

No, when you install it, you find areas where it will be sitting at an angle as opposed to horizontal.

The reason that comes later is that we are developing what’s called a combiner receiver and combiner transmitter, which will combine the gain from any available terminals that can see the satellite for receiving data and also monitor which terminal has the strongest transmit signal and then transmit from that one.

I’ve heard that the target date for the automotive panels is roughly 2020. Is that correct?

Yes, we’re working on that timeline. We’re already engaged in a land-mobility deal through cars, RVs, buses and trains.

What [my colleague] may have been referring to is our relationship with Toyota, where Toyota wants to build a smaller version of this panel in every production car, which is a due diligence project over time so that when we have the antennae solution ready, they also need to get it into the production line. I don’t know exactly when that might be.

The [automotive] antennae solution is likely to be available in 2021, but when Toyota will have it I don’t know.

Would it be fair to say that the business plan is to use industries like marine and the energy sectors to create and develop the technology before then miniaturizing it for the automotive industry?

Yes, [we’re working on] finding markets that can take today’s solution with a 70cm panel.

In addition to yachts we’re already doing trials on commercial vessels [and] fishing vessels, and we’re about to start on oil and gas vessels as well.

We’ve also had good success with buses in rural areas, we’re starting on trains, and also big RVs – they’re essentially luxury yachts on land!

So if we’re talking about racing yachts-sailboats with no luxury at all, just go-fast boats who obviously want data as well-would it be fair to say the best Kymeta solution will be the smaller, automotive-facing panels?

Racing sailing boats, like the Volvo Ocean Race yachts or other offshore yachts, can certainly use today’s solutions. It’s significantly lower weight and the form factor gives lower windage [than sat-comms domes].

But it’s a bigger footprint isn’t it?

It’s about the same. Typically, today they use a 60 centimeter [dish] with a 75 centimeter [radome] diameter. Ours is 80cm, so roughly the same, but instead of being a metre high, we’re about 10 centimeters high.

Do you think in five to ten years from now it’ll be standard to have a smaller panel on most production boats?

I think so, I think it is likely to happen within the next two to three years, and I think that’ll scale all the way down to weekender yachts in the 30-40 foot range.

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