Navy ships improve attack with new multi-beam satellite antenna

Targeting enemy ships, bouncing war data off of drones, detecting incoming ballistic missiles, seeing approaching small boat attacks from over the horizon, intercepting anti-ship missiles and ... perhaps most of all … networking surface, air and undersea assets in real-time -- are all crucial elements of the U.S. Navy’s emerging Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) tactical attack strategy.

Offensive attack maneuver, fortified by advanced sensors and dispersed across vast swaths of ocean, is one of the tenets informing the Navy’s DMO thinking. Surface ships will by design increasingly operate in a disaggregated fashion, armed with long-range weapons and sensors; it is part of a multi-year Navy pivot toward broadly increasing lethality and attack technology throughout the surface fleet, by arming ships for high-end massive warfare on the open sea with a new generation of advanced weapons.

The sea service plans to benefit from a recently awarded Defense Innovation Unit evaluation and development contract with Isotropic Systems for new patented beam-forming antenna technologies and circuits. The goal, according to Isotropic CEO John Finney, is to “fuse multi-band, multi-orbit commercial and military capacity to deliver intelligence data at the tactical edge over a single platform.”

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The value-added with this new technology is to enable a single, smaller-form factor, surface mounted, software-definable antenna that can emit a precise, narrowly configured electronic signal to several satellites at once -- all while consuming less on-board power and increasing precision. It is a single, multi-beam antenna, which relies upon Isotropic’s new signal-forming optical lens technology, Isotropic Vice President of Development Brian Billman, told Warrior in an interview.

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) raising the American flag on its mast, this past February.

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) raising the American flag on its mast, this past February. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Zack Guth, File)

Technically, the antenna transmission draws upon a first-of-its-kind beam-forming optical lens engineered to send precise beams to several differently placed satellites at the same time, without using the entire circuitry of the system. While phased array antennas continue to be highly effective and widely operational, Billman explained that the new multi-beam antenna is quite different in that it can sustain its power and signal fidelity across multiple bands at the same time. Phased array antennas, Billman said, not only rely upon a wider aperture which consumes more of the circuitry and electrical power, but decrease in power and effectiveness when broken into two beams simultaneously. Whereas the optical lenses, designed to empower the single antenna functionality, do not need to all operate at the same time. Several different beam transmissions can connect with several satellites at once; the patented beam-forming system can connect satellites of different sizes, operating at various altitudes within different orbits. Phased arrays also, by contrast, require a larger form factor which consumes more real estate, and electrical power, on a surface ship. Also, when it comes to warfare operational resiliency, several more narrowly configured, yet dispersed, electronic signals emit a lower and less detectable signature than larger, phased array emissions.

The antenna design is engineered to enable “seamless make-before-break switching between satellites in multiple orbits, and continuous connectivity during turbulent pitch-and-roll conditions facing vessels traversing rough seas,” a company statement explained.

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An interesting essay in “Satellite Today” quotes Finney explaining some of the technical basis for the system. The radio waves, the article explains, are shaped by passing through an “isotropic device,” which increases linear precision in multiple directions simultaneously without losing any signal capacity. Finney applied “transformational optics - the manipulation of light to make objects appear invisible - to satellite antennas. Light and radio propagate through space in the same way, in a straight line, so radio waves can be bent just like light waves,” the essay states.

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DIU (Defense Innovation Unit) will, according to the deal, begin prototyping the antenna technology, engineered to support “multiple links over multiple bands of satellite capacity,” including S, C, Ka, Ku, X and Q-band connections. The evaluation will also seek to recreate challenging wartime contingencies such as an ability to operate in rough seas, sustain high winds and function in areas where there may be electromagnetic interference.