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Innovations in VSAT antenna technology

Increasing volumes of data sent from ships to shore will mean shipowners and managers will need to upgrade their satellite communications antennas with more power. Current maritime VSAT antennas have low power block upconverters (BUCs) of around 8W or less, in order to keep the weight of the unit down. This is adequate for VSAT connections designed for the majority of traffic coming on the downlink to ships, but not if there is a ramp up in data transmissions to satellites from vessels.

To accommodate higher uplink data transmission rates, antenna manufacturers can install higher power BUCs, but this leads to more weight and larger antennas. However, Cobham Satcom has developed a 20W BUC that is of a similar size and weight as an 8W unit. This has been included in a high power version of Cobham Satcom’s Sailor 900 VSAT.

“Some shipowners want higher power on the uplink, so we needed to look at more powerful BUCs for our Sailor systems,” said Cobham Satcom director of maritime broadband business development Jens Ewerling. “Some people wanted 2-4 Mbps on the uplink, which an 8W BUC can achieve. But these are limited. If shipowners want higher internet uplinks, then they need higher power BUCs.”

For vessels with high uplink requirements, particularly research ships, Cobham Satcom would previously have offered a bespoke solution from its Sea Tel antenna range. However, it wanted a standard antenna, to lower the costs. “We looked at the whole design of our antennas for a new standard and we took the next step for higher power,” said Mr Ewerling. “We needed to find a way to develop a high power antenna with a 20W BUC on a Sailor 900 fully integrated unit.”

It achieved this in the second quarter of this year when it unveiled the Sailor 900 VSAT High Power Ku-band antenna with a 20W BUC. This improves the radio frequency (RF) performance of the antenna and connectivity to Ku-band satellites, especially on the uplink. The antenna system is factory-tested, balanced and ready to be installed with standardised quality RF, and needs only one cable between antenna and below-deck. Sailor 900 operates on all Ku-band satellite services and has been tested to work on high throughput services, including Intelsat’s EpicNG. It can also be converted for Ka-band to operate with Inmarsat Fleet Xpress and Telenor’s Thor 7 services.

Mr Ewerling expects that demand for higher power antennas will increase in the near future. “More owners are looking at this as more data is coming from the ship,” he said. “We will offer an upgrade kit to a higher power version so owners can benefit from faster uplinks. The upgrade could be done by a Sailor-trained engineer and would involve replacing the RF pack and reconnecting the cables. There would be no need to replace the antenna.”

Most Ku-band networks require 1m antennas, similar to Sailor 900, but these need to be installed by crane. However, as additional high throughput satellites with spot beams are introduced, antenna manufacturers can offer smaller 60cm antennas for Ku-band and Ka-band. Mr Ewerling expects more demand for 60cm antennas for both bands. “We developed a 60cm Ku-band antenna based on the Ka-band one. We have reorganised the RF equipment and made it more compact. But operators cannot use a 60cm for global Ku-band.”

Intellian Technologies has unveiled the v65, a 60cm-class VSAT for Ku-band. According to Intellian president and chief executive Eric Sung this has improved RF performance, enabling vessel operators to have a global service plan while using a smaller antenna. “The improved RF performance combines extremely well with the high throughput Ku-band capacity now coming online,” he said. “With this new tool at their disposal, our service provider partners can offer new value propositions to the highest volume market sectors.” Marlink will be among the first to offer the v65 for use on its new 60cm global network.

The v65 design incorporates updated motor technology with built-in encoders that improve tracing precision, while eliminating the need for three belts from the three-axis stabilised system. Another addition was a method of installing and testing the antenna without the need to remove the radome. The systems will be shipped without the usual red brackets that are designed to secure the system during transit. Direct cable connections provided on the underneath of the radome eliminate the need for technicians to do any internal wiring during installation. It can be commissioned and maintained remotely using Intellian’s Aptus system.

Mr Sung said the introduction of direct cable connections and Aptus was part of the company’s strategy of standardising VSAT packages and reducing the complexity of commissioning. Another strategy is investment in antenna innovation. Mr Sung said there would be more investment in multiband antennas. Intellian already offers a 1m Ku-band that can be converted to Ka-band, as well as a 2.4m antenna that combines C-band and Ku-band. “These are installed on cruise ships and offshore vessels using Ku-band as the main service, but with C-band as back-up to get bandwidth up to 100 Mbps,” said Mr Sung.

“We are developing a C-Ku-Ka band antenna that could get bandwidth up to 500 Mbps or perhaps even 1 Gbps. This would enable a huge change in lifestyles on cruise ships as passengers can share more bandwidth. This will mean future-proofing the hardware so there is no need to swap the antennas,” he explained.

Chinese antenna manufacturer Satpro has expanded its range of maritime VSATs with a 1m Ku-band and an 80cm Ka-band antenna. The K100 1m Ku-band terminal has stabilisation on two axes and satellite tracking on four axes. It already has a K60 Ku-band antenna for local services. It has added the B80 antenna, with stabilisation on two axes and tracking on three, to its B series of Ka-band antennas.

Satpro general manager Finn Liu said the company was getting type approval for its antenna from satellite operators Eutelsat and Intelsat. “Our antennas are already being used by China’s coast guard,” he said. “We do not need gyros for stabilisation or balancing on board ships, so installation is simple.” Satpro and its partners have installed around 500 Ku-band antennas so far on ships, and some Ka-band antennas. It is working with a Dutch marine technology company to install antennas “We have a Ka-band VSAT on an offshore support vessel and a Ku-band terminal on a container ship, and are in the process of testing and commissioning,” said Mr Liu.

KVH Industries has developed its own antennas with specialised modems for its mini-VSAT Broadband services. These include a multiband unit that is designed for both C-band and Ku-band. The TracPhone V11-IP is a 1.1m antenna that delivers 4 Mbps on the downlink and 1 Mbps on the uplink using Ku-band and C-band as a back-up. KVH also offers the 67cm TracPhone V7-IP that has capacity of 3 Mbps down and 512 Kbps uplink, and TracPhone V3-IP that has 2 Mbps download and 128 Kbps upload.

All the antennas come with an integrated CommBox modem and software and can be used for receiving content from KVH’s IP-MobileCast service. According to KVH chief operating officer Brent Bruun, these antennas will operate with the high throughput spot beams. “Our antennas are unique with modems based on ArcLight spread-spectrum and low power waveform technology, which means smaller antennas can be used,” he said. “Below deck there is an integrated control box and WiFi router. CommBox manages data allocation, least-cost routeing and crew email, and controls downloading.”

Mr Bruun said these antennas will continue to be updated as demand for data streaming increases and high throughput satellites are commissioned. “We continue to innovate and update our antennas. We integrated the modems and are looking at more updates for the high throughput satellites,” he said.

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