NXTCOMM is set to begin initial production of its flagship antenna in early 2021. How does the company plan to steer its mission differently from the competition?
Satellite antennas may be the unsung – and unseen – heroes of aero-connectivity. Hidden away under a radome, snugly fitted to the top of a jetliner’s fuselage, the antenna must maintain its link with a satellite orbiting more than 22,000 miles above the Earth’s equator. Through turns, climbs and descents, and under extreme temperature variations, the antenna is a key element of the connected aircraft.
With no moving parts, greater reliability and the elimination of the inertia that can cause errors in positioning, electronically steerable antennas solve many of the issues inherent in mechanically controlled systems.
Aiming to take the technology to the next level, Atlanta-based NXT Communications (NXTCOMM) has designed AeroMax, a new flat-panel electronically steered antenna that uses a fragmented aperture – an innovation developed in collaboration with the Georgia Tech Research Institute.
“At the end of the day, any flat-panel antenna system is generally a collection of tiny little antennas pointed toward the satellite, and then all the complicated stuff behind it – the beam formers, the phase shifters and everything else you need to do the voodoo of electronically steering the beam,” Carl Novello, NXTCOMM’s chief technology officer, explains.
“The better-performing the antenna – even with the same satellite capacity – the faster you can go.” – Carl Novello, NXTCOMM
NXTCOMM’s objective is two-pronged: improve performance and provide operators with a better value proposition. The latter will be achieved by simplifying production. “Oftentimes we’ve seen new antenna technology that requires the invention of new manufacturing processes and materials,” Novello says. NXTCOMM’s antenna is made up of multiple subarrays – what he calls “our basic Lego block” – which are themselves made up of printed circuit boards (PCBs). “PCBs can be manufactured in ridiculous volumes with a pretty well-known cost basis,” Novello adds.
But what really differentiates the AeroMax is the aforementioned fragmented aperture technology, based on a design with roots in military applications, which significantly reduces interference between an antenna’s elements: the more than 10,000 tiny antennas in a standard aircraft installation. Along with reduced interference comes higher efficiency and performance.
“With a fragmented aperture approach, we’re able to reach an aperture efficiency percentage in the mid-to-high 80s, whereas in traditional applications everybody’s happy once they’ve hit 60 percent, and 50 percent is pretty darn good, too,” Novello says. “But the better-performing the antenna – even with the same satellite capacity – the faster you can go.”
“To the Maximum” was originally published in the 10.4 November/December issue of APEX Experience magazine.