June 30, 2022

LEOs and Novel Antenna Designs in the Age of Digital Transformation

NXTCOMM Executive Speaks at Digital Transformation & Innovation America 2022

The rise of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites will fuel digital transformation, which requires high-speed connectivity to process large volumes of actionable data. Fortunately, LEO satellites are launching at record levels, thanks to the rise of affordable launch and constellation players like OneWeb and Starlink. Industry estimates point to as many as 100,000 LEO satellites will launch into orbit in the next decade.

“GEO satellites are synchronous; LEOS are not. So, developing a singular antenna that can communicate with LEOs and provide connectivity is critical for massive digital transformation,” noted Brad Laird, VP of Engineering for NXTCOMM during a recent presentation at the Digital Transformation & Innovation America 2022 in Portland, Oregon. He spoke to large group of digital transformation decisionmakers from top-tier companies such as Amazon, Dell Technologies and Microsoft.

For NXTCOMM, which is building one of the world’s first affordable and scalable flat panel antennas that can perform the fast switching needed to operate in LEO, digital transformation has been a key enabler of the company’s product development journey.

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“What's more digital than our fragmented aperture?” asked Laird. “When we’re talking about digital transformation, it couldn’t happen without state-of-the-art processors that are in the market today,” says the technology executive.

NXTCOMM relies on genetic algorithms to design radiating elements for its ESA. Laird explained the process by which the antenna’s advanced data processing works: “You put in the design constraints, the design goals and the math framework, and the algorithm iterates and tests different designs against the constraints of the goal until it gets as close to the design constraints as possible. To me, that's processing power -- that's digital transformation.”

NXTCOMM’s technical team is looking to go a step further and add artificial intelligence (AI) to the algorithm. In this way, the math model will change as it gets smarter, Laird said.

“For digital transformation to take place, the hardware requirements have to be there as well.”

NXTCOMM’s engineers are seeking better, faster performance in a smaller and more simplified package that collectively will lead to a lower cost antenna.

Laird says the move away from basic processors and Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) to Application-Specific Integrated Circuits, or ASICs, has been key to NXTCOMM’s journey. It mirrors the digital transformation occurring across many sectors.

“FPGAs are like the Swiss Army knives, but are not application specific, suck up a lot of power, and they're hard to program,” he explains.

In contrast, ASICs are lower cost, lower power, higher performing and more easily integrated for miniaturization. Laird explained that ASIC-designed antennas are easier to procure because they require less parts or complexity to build.

Just as investment is key to launching LEOs, which will enable massive digital transformation, so, too, do hardware systems like antennas require investment if these next-generation satellite networks are to succeed.

Echoing the words of a SalesForce.com executive speaking to Jim Cramer, host of “Mad Money,” Laird said, “If we don't invest now in digital transformation, we won't have what we need five to 10 years down the road.” That statement “couldn’t be truer in the satellite antenna industry. We need that early investment,” he concluded.