What’s so special about phased array antennas?

Explore the power of phased array antennas to transform SATCOM capabilities, and how Viasat is pioneering advancements in this space.

Viasat phased array antenna

In April 2021, Viasat sent a team on a flight over Europe in a Cessna Citation business jet. The goal? To demonstrate just how powerful phased array antenna technology could be in powering SATCOM, even in moving aircraft and traditionally disconnected areas.

The phased array antenna powering the initiative had been developed in partnership between Viasat and the European Space Agency (ESA), a tool that could connect to multi-orbit satellites to support new levels of satellite connectivity.

In flight, the team did its best to test the system’s capabilities—they ran multiple devices, streamed video from Netflix, conducted Zoom and FaceTime calls, and more. The connectivity never faltered.

According to one team member on the flight: “The experience was like being at home. You could stream YouTube or Netflix on your device, and that’s what people are looking for on their flights.”

The antenna was working as expected, and its potential extended well beyond in-flight entertainment.

In the time since that groundbreaking flight, phased array antennas have remained a key part of Viasat’s satellite technology development and supporting near-global broadband coverage.

In this article, we’ll explore exactly what’s so special about phased array antennas and the capabilities they’re powering for SATCOM in the future.

Quick takeaways:

Phased array antennas are powered by groups of antennas combined to create single high-gain, directional beams.

This process is called beamforming. Beams can be quickly, electronically steered around the sky, and can be optimized to reduce interference from outside signals.

Phased array antennas offer more flexible and reliable satellite connectivity in remote areas and for moving vessels (like ships, vehicles and aircraft).

They’re experiencing a timely rise as commercial satellite providers use them to support scaled SATCOM across public and private sectors.

Phased array antennas support a diverse set of commercial and government applications that range from in-flight entertainment to weather radar to military surveillance.

What are phased array antennas?

A phased array antenna is a group of antennas (often numbering in the hundreds or thousands) that work together to act as one larger antenna. They’re arranged in a two-dimensional or even three-dimensional grid or array, and can be simple dipoles or more complex designs, depending on their planned applications.

Phased array antennas work primarily through a process called beamforming, or by manipulating the phase and amplitude of the signal at the individual elements of the array to create a high-gain, directional beam. This beam can then be electronically steered in any direction without having to move the entire antenna.

Depending on the design, phased array antennas can also generate multiple beams simultaneously. This versatility allows for tracking multiple targets or establishing multiple communication channels.

Thanks to these capabilities, phased array antennas play a crucial role in supporting communications on moving vessels, such as ships, submarines, and aircraft, by providing stable and reliable connectivity even when the vessel is in motion.

Beamforming can also minimize interference that may be coming from a different direction than the signal of interest. This helps to prevent jamming or other interference.

The flexibility, scalability, and elevated security possible through phased array antennas has put them at the forefront of satellite communication (SATCOM) innovation for the future.

Phased array antenna infographic

The timely rise of phased array antennas

In every facet of our world—commercial, government, military, and more—organizations are processing and leveraging more data than ever in daily operations. They’re also operating on a faster, more global scale. This requires more agile and flexible communications and data-sharing capabilities, ones that can often only be delivered with the help of SATCOM.

Moreover, there’s a unique crossover point happening between the commercial and government/military sectors as it relates specifically to satellites. Satellites were once used more exclusively by government and military organizations—for example, the Department of Defense (DOD) has had many purpose-built satellites to support individual and niche missions when no commercial alternative existed.

Now, with the growth and advancement of commercial satellite technology, a crossover point exists at which commercial organizations can support economies of scale and support government and military organizations in leveraging satellites more comprehensively across their operations.

At the same time, government and military resources contribute to the ability to explore new satellite innovations and capabilities that can be used across a diverse set of applications.

Phased array antennas are one of the technologies at the center of this virtuous cycle, delivering the wide-range usability and flexibility needed to drive cost efficiencies while delivering the cutting-edge satellite capabilities organizations now seek.

How are phased array antennas used?

Now that we know phased array antennas are used across commercial and government sectors, let’s walk through some of the specific key use cases they fulfill for organizations today.

Enhanced satellite connectivity

Phased array antennas helps ensure fast, reliable, and secure SATCOM even in remote locations and within moving vessels, like cars, ships, and aircraft. This reliability supports everything from commercial internet service to military situational awareness and more.

Automotive radar

In the automotive industry, phased array antennas are critical for advanced radar systems that facilitate features like adaptive cruise control and collision avoidance. Their ability to rapidly adjust beam direction powers real-time detection and tracking of objects, enabling life-saving technology in vehicles.

In-flight entertainment

Phased array antennas are used in commercial aviation to provide in-flight internet access to enhance the travel experience. With in-flight internet, passengers can access entertainment, stay active at work, and communicate with people on the ground as needed during their journey.

Weather radar

Phased array radar systems enhance weather monitoring by providing rapid, precise data for accurate forecasting and early warning systems. Their ability to scan the sky quickly and adapt to changing weather patterns is crucial for meteorologists to issue timely alerts that reduce the impact of weather events on communities.

Air and naval surveillance

Phased array antennas play a pivotal role in air and naval surveillance, enabling real-time tracking and identification of aircraft and ships. Their rapid beam steering capability ensures continuous monitoring, enhancing situational awareness and supporting early detection of any adversarial presence.

Space surveillance

Phased arrays are used for monitoring space objects, including satellites and debris, in Earth’s orbit, ensuring the safety and functionality of space assets. Their adaptability and precision tracking contribute to space situational awareness to ensure the safety of vital space-based infrastructure.

Secure military communications

Phased array antennas support secure and reliable military communication networks, enabling military forces to communicate even when they’re on the move in far-reaching remote areas, all while helping to prevent interference from outside or adversarial signals.

Looking ahead to the future

Going forward, with these diverse and high-potential applications in mind, Viasat is excited to continue engaging in partnerships that help to advance Viasat’s own phased array antenna technology while also supporting important initiatives around the world.

Recently, Viasat was the recipient of over $80 million in awards granted to support the development of Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) systems, a type of phased array antenna that offers enhanced flexibility and resilience to support military platforms for ground, maritime, and space applications.

Dr. Jeanne Atwell, general manager for Viasat’s Arizona Operations, shared the importance of this and similar Viasat initiatives:

“Viasat has an impressive legacy of solving [some of the most difficult problems] for our warfighters,” she shared. “These developments promise to improve the performance of a myriad of sensor, satellite communications, and line-of-sight communication systems operating in the most demanding of conditions across multiple domains.”

Learn more here about how Viasat is pioneering the development of phased array antennas and other cutting-edge satellite technologies.