Kymeta Sees ‘Clear Path’ Ahead After Successful Antenna Demonstration
Kymeta, the spinout from Intellectual Ventures making thin, light-weight satellite antennae with engineered metamaterials, has completed a key demonstration, taking it one big step closer to commercialization in 2015.
A prototype antenna in Vancouver, B.C., established a two-way Internet connection with a Ka-band satellite, the company says. It was able to stream video and carry a Skype chat with Kymeta headquarters in Redmond, WA, at “true broadband” speeds, says Bob McCambridge, president and chief operating officer. The demonstration also showed the technology can stay within the narrow signal band regulators set for transmitting at high data rates to satellites from the ground.
Kymeta says this is a first for a metamaterials antenna.
“It’s significant because it represents a breakthrough from a technology milestone point of view that enables a clear path toward commercialization of these metamaterials antennae,” McCambridge says.
The company will conduct field tests in 2014 with customers and partners, and aims to begin commercial sales the following year.
Metamaterials are artificial materials often assembled in patterns and with structures engineered to have specific effects on light, sound, radio or other waves. Kymeta says its metamaterials antennae, which are only a centimeter thick, are like a printed circuit board with “several thousand sub-wavelength resonators that can be individually tuned” in a software-driven pattern to form and steer a signal beam.
The company—backed handsomely by investors including Bill Gates, Osage University Partners, The Kresge Foundation, Lux Capital, and Liberty Global—sees advantages for its technology over existing satellite antennae on several fronts.
Despite billions of dollars invested in high-throughput satellite communications, and smaller satellites for specific applications, the antennae back on earth haven’t kept pace over the past 10 to 15 years, McCambridge says.
“There’s been a lack of innovation on the ground systems,” he says.
The typical parabolic dish antenna requires a heavy, mechanized mounting system and drive structure to track a moving satellite, or to stay connected to a satellite in stationary orbit if the antenna is mounted on a vehicle in motion.
Kymeta’s antennae are lighter weight and have lower drag—key considerations for antennae mounted on aircraft and in space applications. And with no moving parts, they promise greater reliability and lower operations and maintenance costs.
McCambridge says they can also be produced inexpensively using manufacturing methods and other techniques borrowed from established technologies, such as liquid crystal displays, radio frequency microwaves, and printed circuit boards.
At the high end of the market, phased array antennae commonly used by governments for things like signal processing, intelligence, imaging, and command and control, can cost $1 million or more and often consume kilowatts of power, McCambridge says. Kymeta has a view to prices that are orders of magnitude less, and its antennae draw only 2 to 3 watts via a USB connection.
Kymeta spun out of Intellectual Ventures, which acquires intellectual property and licenses it to technology companies, and sues those who supposedly violate its patents, in August 2012. It began with six engineers and has since grown to 96 employees, with plans for additional hiring, albeit at a slower rate, in 2014 as it builds up operations and manufacturing functions ahead.
The $50 million Series C round announced by the company in July provides adequate capital to reach commercial revenue, which Kymeta still expects in 2015, McCambridge says.
Its first commercial product will be a so-called VSAT, or very small aperture terminal, with a broad set of potential applications. The same core technology platform will be at the center of application-specific devices for use on land, air, and sea, and by government agencies.
Kymeta manufactures its prototype antennae in Redmond, where the company recently expanded into a new building. McCambridge says a full-scale, commercial manufacturing facility, to be located nearby, will be announced in the next couple of months.