April 22, 2013
Cloaking devices that render aircraft invisible to the naked eye remain in the realm of science fiction, for now, but the metamaterials research on which they may be based could enhance inflight connectivity on business and regional jets and commercial airliners in the next couple of years.
Kymeta Corp., a Redmond, Wash.-based start-up backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, is using metamaterials research to develop a new software-defined satellite aperture aimed at fixed, mobile and portable high-speed Ka-band broadband applications in the aeronautical, maritime and land-based markets.
A spinoff of Bellevue, Wash.-based patent-mining company Intellectual Ventures (IV), Kymeta was founded by Nathan Kundtz, a leading researcher in the field of metamaterials who has spent the past decade studying the technology. Along with Gates—Kymeta's largest financial backer and a member of the board—co-investors Liberty Global and Lux Capital helped close a $12 million round of financing last summer to launch Kymeta after the company gained exclusive license from IV for satellite applications of metamaterial surface-antenna technology.
In addition to developing a laptop-sized portable satellite hot-spot device to access high-speed Internet service absent Wi-Fi or mobile broadband signals, Kymeta plans to leverage the coming wave of satellite-based Ka-band broadband with a new fuselage-hugging surface antenna that has no moving parts, is roughly the size of a pizza box and uses only a tiny fraction of the power typically needed for phased-array antennas.
Known as the Aero Antenna, the satellite receiver relies on microscopic synthetic structures carefully engineered to embody properties not found in nature that can be used to manipulate and bend incoming electromagnetic radiation, such as light or radio waves.
Kymeta Chairman and CEO Vern Fotheringham says the ultra-thin structure of the surface antenna's waveguide is designed through a blend of circuit-board manufacturing, chip-fabrication and liquid crystal display techniques. In the case of the Aero Antenna, metamaterial surface elements are tuned to electronically point and steer a radio signal to low, medium or geostationary orbit, providing a continuous broadband link between satellite and aircraft.
Unlike mechanically steered gimbal apertures that are typically large, cumbersome, heavy and prone to wear, the Aero Antenna is a small, low-profile aerodynamic receiver that could be ideal for business jets and other light aircraft. Compared to phased-array antennas, which can require more than a kilowatt of power to drive the aperture, Kymeta expects to achieve comparable performance using just 0.5 watts to drive the beam. And because the antenna's metamaterial elements can be manufactured through lithographic printing techniques, the final product is expected to be low in cost.