When a Cessna Citation business jet took to the skies over Europe recently, it marked a key milestone in Viasat’s path toward developing a phased array antenna at scale.
The April 22, 2021 test flight between the Dutch city of Rotterdam and Payerne Airport in Switzerland demonstrated a phased array antenna (PAA) developed by Viasat in close collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), the Swiss Space Office and the Netherlands Space Office.
Viasat's flat-panel PAA is a game-changing tool that can seamlessly connect to multi-orbit satellites, enabling end-terminals to communicate in a hybrid low-Earth orbit (LEO) to medium-Earth orbit (MEO) up to a geostationary (GEO) environment.
The technology Viasat has developed with its European partners steers beams electronically rather than mechanically, so the antenna remains stationary and does not need to rotate to track satellites.
Not only does this enable rapid, accurate satellite position tracking and a seamless handover between satellites — no matter how high above the Earth they are orbiting — it also lowers the profile of the antenna to a thickness of just 65 mm, or about 2.5 inches. This throws open the door for Viasat to bring its award-winning high-speed connectivity solution to more markets and more platforms in the future.
During the landmark demonstration flight, a team of engineers attempted to stress the system as much as possible by simultaneously using multiple laptops and cell phones to stream online entertainment content, conduct Zoom calls and upload data via VPN.
"We had four laptops and four cell phones at the same time – this included the pilots who were doing FaceTime with their families," says Carolina Vigano, RF and Terminal Director at Viasat Antenna Systems in Switzerland.
Stefano Vaccaro, Managing Director of Viasat Commercial Networks Europe, adds: "The experience was like being at home. You could stream YouTube or Netflix on your device, and that's what people are looking for on their flights."
The modular, scalable design of Viasat's PAA means it can be adapted for use on multiple mobile and fixed platforms — from the smallest of jets to the largest of ships — as well for government land, sea and air communications. The unique design is likened by Dave Ryan, Viasat's SVP and President, Space & Commercial Networks, to a "sandwich" of beam formers, electronics and antennas.
Green tiles – the lettuce in the sandwich, if you will — fit together to form part of the receipt and transmission aperture. They can be added to or taken away depending on individual requirements — much like playing a game of Tetris, explains Vigano.
"Modularity gives us the opportunity to scale up and down depending on needs. That makes it fit for different platforms and different applications," she says. The antenna's low profile also means it significantly reduces drag, resulting in fuel savings which Vigano says is something clearly on customers' minds when looking at new technology.
The demonstration flight and the research and development that preceded it are a prime example of the importance of international collaboration to Viasat as a truly global satellite communications and technology company.
Viasat has been working closely with the European Space Agency since 2017, when it announced a public-private partnership known as Project AIDAN between the agency and the company’s Lausanne, Switzerland-based Antenna Systems office. This team is working to develop key components for the upcoming ViaSat-3 constellation.
The PAA demonstration flight was a key milestone for Project AIDAN.
"ESA has been instrumental in many developments we have done in Europe, and we will continue to partner with them – especially in technology innovation," says Vaccaro, adding that "growing in Europe is key for Viasat."
The next step in Viasat's phased array journey is to continue the process of scaling up the technology and making it market-ready.
"Overall, I think the demonstration that we've just done puts us on the right footing to give us an edge in the market. We just need to bring it to maturity, and bring it to scale," says Jim Dodd, Viasat's President, Global Enterprise & Mobility.
Viasat is targeting a unique phased array antenna that will hit the right price point and leverage the multi-orbit, multi-beam, high-throughput, flexible and open architecture satellite communications system of the future.
The three-year process from on-paper design to test flight was "an accomplishment of the entire Viasat team – from California to India," Vaccaro says. “This is the technology on which we will base a large family of products. It will allow us to get on to multiple platforms and will open new and exciting satellite opportunities."
Not only will the new antenna be fully compatible with the ViaSat-1 and ViaSat-2 satellites, it is also designed to work with the upcoming ViaSat-3 GEO constellation and certain MEO and LEO satellites as they come on stream.
By accelerating technology in this way, Viasat ensures that it will continue to play a leading role on the satellite-based connectivity stage as the market grows and evolves.
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