Ruling the wavelengths: Isotropic Systems on satellite multi-beam technology
Traditional satellite ground station antennae are either a dish or an electronically phased array that can only connect to one satellite at a time. Isotropic Systems CEO John Finney explains how the company’s optical technology bends radio waves to mesh signals from several satellites.
Elon Musk has radically changed the launch industry with a reusable launch vehicle. Historically, a space launch was the equivalent of flying to Australia and throwing away the plane, and that drove high launch costs and minimised the number of satellites you could put into orbit.
Several things happened around the same time to make satellites profitable: there was a new way of building satellites meaning they can be built in days and weeks, not three to five years. And you can now launch satellites in a very cost-effective way. That has opened up the new paradigm by which many thousands of satellites are launched into different orbits – LEO, MEO HEO – every year, and each one is designed to serve different markets.
The way the satellite industry works is to get frequencies you need to file with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and to get satellites in orbit, you need to have a launch window, and the launch provider. These projects are very capital intensive, typically in the billions, so there's a funding cycle that pre-empts the deployment of these systems.
Around 2014 we were at the point where, instead of seeing three or four satellites for many points on Earth, you could have hundreds, possibly thousands, all doing different things at different orbits. I realised that those satellite systems have not been designed to speak to each other the way mobile operators talk to each other at the network level.
I looked at the antennae and there were two dominant mature technologies; a dish or an electronically phased array, but they're prohibitively expensive and they can only connect to one satellite at a time. That opened the opportunity to mesh satellites together, if we could figure out a way to do that.
This has been the satellite industry ‘s holy grail for probably 25 years so. I realised I’d have to go outside of the industry to find the answer. I started to look at various scientific fields that I thought might hold promise and stumbled across transformational optics. That informed my thinking that I could use material and computational science to bend radio waves in multiple directions through optical lenses.
That's what we're doing now. We have antennas today that are capable of connecting to multiple satellites at once; solid-state with no moving parts, only an electronic device that's creating invisible beams that are shooting off the different satellites. That means we're able to mesh together with the best attributes of all systems down into one single integrated antenna so that customers can radically change what they can do in their network.
// Isotropic Systems’ multi-beam terminal meshes signals from multiple satellites
Right now, we're between technology readiness levels seven and eight. We're delivering prototypes to customers at the back end of this year, and we launch our first product in June next year. We are through the mass manufacturing stages of our optical lenses and we have the first tape-out of our chips that we need to drive the terminal.
We've proven our technology in the field, connected to multiple satellites and handing over from one satellite to another so we're at a very advanced stage. As a rule of thumb, for deep tech solutions, you need £100m to get your first product and that's broadly speaking where we are now.
Our approach aims to offer resilience. If the base station goes down on a mobile phone, you wouldn't dream that you’d no longer be able to take phone calls until you walked to the next base station; the network is built for you to just simply switch across to another network.
That's not the case in satellites; if current antenna technologies or a satellite system fails, it’s game over until it's fixed. When you have a multi-path system you immediately have a backup; your uptime availability increases dramatically with multibeam.
SCS Government Solutions and US military
We've been talking to the US Armed Forces for some time. They are particularly enamoured by Isotropic because we present them an opportunity for the first time to be able to converge MILSATCOM with COMSATCOM.
If you have all of these capabilities in space, you might want to use different systems for secure and non-secure use cases, but increasingly relying on one system is not the path that the US is on; and NATO forces are close behind.
As an example of what drives that, the Chinese Army's D2 defence and denial strategy essentially describes the first few minutes of battle as they perceive it, and it's to render the US and its allies deaf, dumb and blind by taking out satellite communications, GPS, and frustrating position navigation and timing. That means that satellite is not the invulnerable high ground that it once was.
The more of these satellite systems that go up, the more it creates the demand for an antenna that can connect to more than one at a time without compromising performance.
Satellite capabilities increase the closer to Earth you get, but that means they are more susceptible to missiles, jamming and interference. The way to overcome that is to harness the commercial satellite systems that the US trusts and wants to use into their military SATCOM strategy and create resilience that no other force could match.
To do that, you either have to build satellites that can talk to other satellites – and that's not possible because commercial satellites can't have inter-satellite links – or it has to be done from the ground. We presented that capability to the US Space Force who now manages all of the satellite communications for all of the US Armed Forces.
We see a similar path around the world. The UK has acquired One Web; for me, it's an inevitable conclusion that One Web becomes a strategic element of global military communications for the UK MOD. The Chinese have announced that they're deploying 13,000 LEO satellites, which of course will have a strong military role, and the European Union wants to build its own constellation.
The more of these satellite systems that go up, the more it creates the demand for an antenna that can connect to more than one at a time without compromising performance, and that's what's made Isotropic such a hot ticket right now.
The digital domain
A lot of people see us in the optical space, which is the way that we create multiple links, but everything below that is in the digital domain. The reason that's important is that it allows us to become a platform; the antenna portion is just a means to an end. The platform will deliver value-added software services; we are effectively the world's first multiple software-defined radio.
If you want to add a beam, what we call beams as a service, add a link. For NATO forces, we can work with their proprietary technology and host that directly onto our application-specific integrated circuit using their digital waveform.
We end up with a system within systems because our role is to aggregate anything that the NATO forces want to access in space and be future-proofed for any other systems that come along over time.
Isotropic Systems is a UK space company aiming to improve satellite connectivity via its novel multi-beam connectivity technology. In February 2021, it held its Series A funding and since then has completed trials with the US military and secured contracts with the ESA along with the UKSA.
// Main image: John Finney is CEO at Isotropic Systems. Credit: Isotropic Systems.