Kymeta will start selling in May its lightweight flat-panel antennas, meant to bring fast satellite-transmitted internet connections to cars, trains and boats. It will also sell the internet data plans in a partnership announced Tuesday with Intelsat.
Big, spinning satellite dishes that adorn boats and military trucks, connecting them to the internet wherever they roam, are heavy, clunky and not ideal for the future of the connected car.
That’s where Redmond-based Kymeta comes in with its flat-panel antenna technology, meant to bring fast, satellite-transmitted internet connections to cars, trains and boats using a lightweight antenna.
Kymeta announced Tuesday an expanded partnership with satellite company Intelsat that will allow customers to purchase internet data plans directly through Kymeta. That means when the company officially launches sales of its antennas in May, customers will be able to mount the small antennas and sign up for internet service all from the same company.
The service, called KALO, will be sold much like a cellular plan. Intelsat has 50 satellites that can transmit to the Earth, all roughly the size of a school bus.
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The satellite dishes we are used to seeing mounted on the sides or roofs of houses are really only useful for a fixed setting because of size and reception limitations, Kymeta CEO Nathan Kundtz explained. Something else is needed for a boat, car, truck — really anything that moves.
With Kymeta’s flat-panel antenna technology, “We have an opportunity to make a huge dent in the industry,” Kundtz said.
Kymeta certainly has the backing to do so. The company, which spun out of Bellevue patent-licensing company Intellectual Ventures in 2012, has raised $124 million from investors, including Bill Gates.
Kymeta’s flat-panel antenna uses metamaterial technology.
The inner part of the antenna, made of liquid crystals, moves slightly to point toward the nearest satellite, wherever it might be. It’s guided by inexpensive sensors like those used on cellphones and Kymeta-built software.
The antenna itself, which looks like a plastic-coated octagon about the size of a stop sign, stays fixed in place. It is lightweight and easy to fit or partly conceal on a moving object.
At Kymeta’s Redmond lab, engineers and physicists test the antenna’s reach and reception in rooms covered with thick foam padding to simulate different environments. The 145-person team is versed in everything from electrical engineering to advanced physics to software coding.
“It’s a very, very multidisciplinary environment to take on a task like this,” Kundtz said. “Rocket science is easy compared to the number of disciplines needed to make the antenna.”
Kymeta’s mTenna-branded antennas will be sold soon to commercial customers — yacht owners and maritime companies, as well as governmental entities that need to stay connected in remote areas.
The price varies based on the exact use, but a single antenna will cost about $15,000.
The connected car is the big consumer push for Kymeta, though it likely won’t be realized on a large scale for several years.
Inside a warehouse near its Redmond lab, Kymeta unveils a series of Toyota cars in various degrees of construction. Kymeta has partnered with Toyota to build its antenna into cars to ensure the vehicles can be connected to the internet no matter where they are.
The challenge has been integrating a working antenna into a normal-size car. Kymeta now has a prototype within a Toyota that it successfully tested on the road last month.
When car buyers encounter the antennas a few years down the road, they’ll likely be built inside the roof of the vehicles.
Connected cars need fast internet connections, partly for manufacturers to push software updates to the car. A Tesla now has to be connected to a Wi-Fi or other network to get a big update, a hassle that could have bigger implications in self-driving cars.
Autonomous vehicles always need to be connected to a network, whether in the middle of a city or driving down a remote country road. Unlike cellular or Wi-Fi networks, satellites from their position in space are able to blanket the Earth.
Satellites also are able to deliver much faster speeds than cable broadband on the ground, certainly an advantage when drivers are trying to find directions or implement a software fix while on the go.
Kundtz sees another upside of the satellite technology: security. If a natural disaster or other incident severs networks on the ground, satellites safe in the sky keep transmitting data.
The Redmond company isn’t alone in its use of flat-panel antenna technology, though its focus on installing them into moving objects is pretty unique. Public satellite company ViaSat also makes such antennas, and uses them largely to provide broadband services to homes and to government entities.
“Flat panel antennas hold the promise of being much easier to install and also a much smaller form factor,” said Mike Crawford, a senior analyst at B. Riley & Co.