The cost of sending a satellite up to space is about 1/20th of the price it was two decades ago thanks to the arrival of SpaceX and its reusable rockets. But the price of the antennas that would allow you to receive the signals from all those new satellites remains prohibitively expensive.
Plus, with a huge number of satellite constellations from Elon Musk’s Starlink, the UK’s OneWeb as well as Inmarsat, Intelsat, SpaceX, Amazon, SES and Telesat hitting the heavens, there is an increasing cacophony of signals to listen for, none of which will make antennas any cheaper or easier to build.
UK startup Isotropic Systems, however, is hoping to solve the satellite industry’s antenna problem with a new technology that can receive beams from multiple different satellites — at a price low enough that they can be used on commercial aircraft, ships and even buses.
The company just raised $40m in Series B funding from investors including SES, Boeing HorizonX Global Ventures and the UK government’s Future Fund, in order to take the technology through to commercial production.
John Finney, Isotropic’s founder, says he was inspired to found the company after realising just how many different radio frequencies would be in use as the wave of new satellite launches took place.
“I could see that the satellite was going to have a big antenna problem,” he says.
Antennas are already difficult today. A high-performance receiver can cost between $30,000 to $100,000 and can typically receive signals from just one type of satellite. They also need expensive mechanics — or large phase arrays — to help track the signal as it moves across the sky.
“It has stopped the wider market being opened up for satellite use, it has really been the Achilles heel of the industry,” says Finney.
The Isotropic antenna, due to be commercially available, is based on patented lens technology that bends radio waves so that they can be tracked without needing any moving parts to the antenna.
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The technology was inspired by Roman drinking glass, the Lycurgus Cup, from the 4th century.
The technology, believe it or not, was inspired by Roman drinking glass, the Lycurgus Cup, from the 4th century AD, which shows as either red or green depending on the direction light is passing through it.
The Lycurgus Cup works by tiny particles of gold and silver suspended in the glass bending the light to give it the appearances of different colours. The exact process of manufacturing this glass is not understood, even today, but it set Finney, who has a background in optics and telecoms, thinking about whether radio waves could be bent using a similar method.
The company now has more than 7 published patents around the technology and has contracts with the US Army and Navy to supply the antennas. The startup has also received support from the UK government, which is growing increasingly keen to develop a national space industry. The UK is working, for example, with Lockheed Martin, to become a centre for building and launching small satellites. Isotropic is creating new space sector jobs in the UK, building a new engineering and testing facility near its headquarters in Reading that will employ some 220 people.
Boeing and SES are both customers of Isotropic Systems but have stepped in to back the company with no strings attached. “They have no blocking rights, we can take investment from anyone, and they do not get any special pricing,” says Finney.
Competitors to Isotropic include US-based ThinKom, the market leader for high-performance antennas and Bill Gates-backed Kymeta which is aiming to make liquid crystal-based satellite antennas for use in connected cars. But, says Finney, Isotropic’s ability to handle multi-beam signals should set it apart in the market.