Connectivity, Military

Inside the Phased-Array Antenna Boeing is Putting on the MQ-25

Photo courtesy of Boeing

Boeing is introducing a new flat phased-array satcom antenna for military aircraft, starting with the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker that the company is developing for the U.S. Navy.

The new electronically steered antenna, developed by Boeing's Phantom Works advanced technology division, is the fourth iteration the aerospace giant has come up with and the second to rely on Ka-band frequencies. It can also tap into the Defense Department's Wideband Global Satcom satellite system. Over its predecessor, this version improves all three of size, weight and power (SWAP) by getting smaller and adding air cooling and tacks on the ability to receive dual beams, according to Tom Gathman, manager of communications and mission systems for Boeing Phantom Works.

The price decrease, in particular, puts the antenna in greater consideration for adoption. Defense customers are willing to spend considerably more than the commercial operators; Gathman said that market studies are showing a willingness to spend "several hundred thousand" dollars per antenna.

"Certainly, a lot of the reports are, one of the [reasons for] hesitancy of adoption thus far has been on the price point, but we think we’ve got that licked," he said, though he declined to share a number.

The other demand from customers has been open architecture.

"Several customers have commented to us that being locked into proprietary solutions is not the way to go in the future," Gathman said, leading Boeing to design the antenna to be modular, scalable and work easily with third-party modems.

The modem and the network signal are the biggest determinant in performance, Gathman said, but the antenna can handle a throughput of tens or hundreds of MBs of data if enough satellite power is devoted to the task.

The antenna system, which comprises the antenna itself and a power source, both line-replaceable and able to be placed "quite a distance apart" from each other, can be installed quickly — measured in hours, not days — and easily. Previous generations have been done in the field.

It is also built to work on a large swathe of aircraft. It is not Boeing platform-specific, but Gathman said "pretty much anything we build, we're looking to target," as a starting point. Planes, drones and jets are all options, and since it is a self-supporting structure that requires no additional modifications or radomes, the only notable restriction is that it "gets tough when you get really small."

Boeing MQ-25. Photo courtesy of Boeing Defense.

While the Stingray is the launch customer for the new version of Phantom Works' antenna, Boeing is talking to the military about "a number of campaigns" which are in the down-selection process; expect to hear news of more platform in the next few months.

Beyond the U.S. military, Boeing has designs on selling the antenna internationally as well,  And while Phantom Works is "military first," Gathman said the antenna's technology "would certainly be applicable to our commercial aircraft" and trying to leverage across commercial and defense would be in line with the company's strategy.

It's hard to predict the launch time of the product on the Stingray because the drone, in that case, is also a new product that Boeing will be delivering to the Navy under an $805 million contract signed last August, and timelines for new platforms can get messy. But the antenna will be ready by mid-2020, before the Stingray.

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