Phased Array Antennas: Revolutionizing Connectivity in the Sky and Beyond

Phased Array Antennas: Revolutionizing Connectivity in the Sky and Beyond
by Clarence Oxford
Los Angeles CA (SPX) Jan 03, 2024

Photo - ViaSat.

In a significant advancement for satellite communications (SATCOM), Viasat, in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), has been pushing the boundaries of what's possible with phased array antenna technology. This innovative leap was demonstrated vividly during an April 2021 test flight over Europe, where the team aboard a Cessna Citation business jet showcased the robust capabilities of this novel technology.

The test flight was not just a demonstration of technical prowess but a display of the practical, real-world application of phased array antennas in SATCOM. The antenna, developed jointly by Viasat and ESA, successfully maintained high-quality connectivity throughout the flight, supporting multiple online activities, from streaming on Netflix to video calls on Zoom and FaceTime. As one team member aptly put it, "The experience was like being at home."

Phased array antennas represent a significant step forward in satellite technology. They consist of multiple antennas, often in the hundreds or thousands, forming a larger, more effective antenna array. Through a process known as beamforming, these antennas can create a high-gain, directional beam, steerable in any direction electronically, without physical movement of the antenna itself. This feature is crucial for moving vessels, like aircraft, ensuring stable and reliable connectivity.

Moreover, these antennas can produce multiple beams simultaneously, increasing their functionality in tracking multiple targets or establishing various communication channels. This versatility is vital in applications ranging from automotive radar to weather monitoring and military operations.

The timely emergence of phased array antennas is pivotal in an era where data processing and sharing are becoming increasingly complex and global. These antennas are at the heart of a virtuous cycle involving commercial and government sectors, particularly in satellite technology.

With the growth of commercial satellite technology, there is now a crossover point where commercial entities can provide economies of scale, benefitting government and military operations as well. In return, government and military research contributes to advancements in satellite technology, beneficial for a wide range of applications.

The diverse applications of phased array antennas are extensive. In the commercial sector, they enhance satellite connectivity in remote locations and moving vehicles, supporting internet services and situational awareness for military operations. In the automotive industry, they are critical for advanced radar systems aiding in adaptive cruise control and collision avoidance.

For commercial aviation, they provide in-flight internet, enhancing passenger experience. Weather monitoring also benefits from phased array radar systems, enabling precise and rapid data collection for accurate forecasting. In terms of military applications, these antennas support secure and reliable communication networks and play a vital role in air and naval surveillance, enhancing situational awareness and early detection capabilities.

Looking ahead, Viasat's commitment to phased array antenna technology continues to grow. The company was recently awarded over $80 million to support the development of Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) systems, a subtype of phased array antennas. Dr. Jeanne Atwell, general manager for Viasat's Arizona Operations, emphasizes the importance of these initiatives, stating, "Viasat has an impressive legacy of solving [some of the most difficult problems] for our warfighters." These developments are set to improve the performance of various sensor, satellite communications, and line-of-sight communication systems, operating in challenging conditions across multiple domains.



Combining technologies including machine learning, field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), graphics processing units (GPUs), and a new radio-frequency image processing algorithm, research has streamlined the modular handling of radar signals to reduce processing time and cost. The improvements – as much as two or three orders of magnitude – could lead to real-time analysis of RF image data from sources ranging from potential enemy targets to speeding automobiles headed toward collisions. The research, which has been tested on a 16-element digital antenna array, was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Tensors for Reprogrammable Intelligent Array Demonstrations (TRIAD). While the project has so far focused on real-time imaging operations on vast amounts of data, it supports the conventional beamforming operations also done by phased arrays.