Newcomer Starling set to unveil unusual Ku antenna

 - October 18, 2006, 10:07 AM

Starling Advanced Communications, a relatively new name among satcom antenna manufacturers, has officially kicked off a development program for a line of Ku-band satcom antennas that company officials said will bring data connectivity to business aviation in a package tailor-made for buyers of midsize jets.

Jointly owned by Israeli defense contractors Rafael Development, Elbit Systems and Elron, Starling Advanced Communications was formed in late 2003 to convert broadband data antenna technology originally developed for unmanned aerial vehicles to the commercial aviation market.

What makes Starling’s antenna unusual is its ability to fold open when in use to provide high-bandwidth data transfers in a package that is extremely small and has low power requirements. As a result, Starling’s line of mechanically steered antennas achieves an advantage over traditional designs in an ingenious way: instead of being a single-dish antenna or flat phased-array, Starling’s design actually incorporates a number of antenna panels that lie flat and rotate upward toward a satellite.

To get an idea of what this would look like, imagine a set of closed Venetian window blinds. When the antenna surface is lying flat, it receives signals just as a flat phased-array antenna does. But at higher latitudes, as satellite signal strength degrades, the antenna is able to fold open (similar to opening of window blinds) into three individual panels that tilt toward the satellite.

“We took a round, flat antenna and broke it into three separate antennas,” explained Starling CEO Micha Lawrence. “Each tilts toward the satellite, but the three separate signals combine into a single aperture.”

It is that single signal that enables passengers on board the airplane to surf the Internet at data rates claimed to be in the neighborhood of 10 to 12 megabytes per second. The antenna height is controlled by the size of each single flat antenna panel, while the aperture is the combination of the multiple panels. Lawrence said the designs Starling is now testing–which use technology taken from military antenna designs developed in the last 10 years or so–achieve good results, especially at higher latitudes where traditional antennas have a hard time “seeing” the satellite.

Business Aviation Applications

The company’s Mijet (which has three antenna panels) and Mini-Mijet (just two panels) antennas have very low profiles, enabling them to be installed atop the aircraft fuselage, and operate in a wide frequency bandwidth and at a wide range of elevation angles. Because the antenna works with existing Ku-band data satcom services for aviation, namely Connexion by Boeing and Arinc SkyLink, Starling has approached business jet OEMs and satcom makers about the technology. In fact, Arinc has already selected the Starling antenna for the Skylink service, which for the time being is exclusive to Gulfstreams.

Lawrence said Starling held discussions with Gulfstream about bringing the antenna to the midsize G150, an airplane built in Israel. He added that the next rounds of testing of the Mini-Mijet antenna could take place on an aircraft owned by Kollsman. The link is interesting because Starling co-owner Elbit also owns Kollsman, the supplier of the enhanced- vision system for Gulfstream’s long-range airplanes. No firm agreement has been struck yet between Starling and Gulfstream, but the pieces at least seem in place for the strong possibility of a deal.

Starling officials have also met with executives at Rockwell Collins, who are now grappling with design questions related to the eXchange high-speed-data service for business jets, which will use the Connexion by Boeing satellite link. Starling has pitched the Mini-Mijet design to Collins, but at press time there was no word on the avionics maker’s reaction to the design.

Starling’s 20 employees have been quietly working on Mijet antenna concepts for the last couple of years, but this month marks the official launch for the product line. Starling plans to exhibit a prototype antenna at the NBAA Convention in Orlando this month, Lawrence said. Flight testing will begin next year, with certification of the first antennas probably occurring aboard airliners, he added. The midsize business jet market remains one of the company’s top priorities because there are no viable alternatives for that class of airplane to access Connexion or SkyLink, he said.

The Mini-Mijet antenna is 14 inches in diameter, sits five inches high and weighs 55 pounds. The price has yet to be determined.