Man-Packable Segmented Satellite Dish Antenna

It fits in a back pack

It’s tempting to imagine them appearing suddenly at dusk or filtering in through a side door—Air Force special operations personnel, coming to the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in Rome, New York, in 2008 with a request: build us a complete satellite terminal that will fit in a case the size of a carry-on bag. Something rucksack transportable and easy to walk onto, or maybe jump out of, an airplane with. The current 60-pound-plus system was weighing them down literally, and also figuratively, with the bulky systems cramping their covert style.

AFRL engineer Dave Legare, conducting antenna experiments in his own small space in a field behind the main lab, pondered the request. The “guts” of the terminal itself would be the easy part, relatively speaking. But how to fit a high-gain dish antenna into a small case along with everything else? He knew he would need to create an antenna that could be broken down into sections, so he started by chopping some aluminum dishes into segments to test. Besides being too bulky the pieces weren’t rigid enough, so Legare set his sights on composite materials as a possible solution. He talked to a company making a nano-coated carbon fiber material with promising conductivity and physical properties, but that company was primarily just a materials supplier—so they pointed Legare to Eclipse Composite Engineering, a two-person firm in Bluffdale, Utah, with composite prototyping experience. It was the beginning of a synergetic and fruitful partnership. Legare and his AFRL team provided the RF and antenna design expertise, while Eclipse brought materials and fabricating skills to the table. Both parties were committed to success from the beginning, driven by both the engineering challenge and the desire to deliver potentially life-saving technology to waiting warfighters as quickly as possible.

Legare’s strategy was to perfect the composite materials first and worry about making it collapsible as the next step. Working together throughout the process, Eclipse produced a composite laminate with the necessary characteristics, then used that laminate to build a one-piece parabola based on Legare’s design. Tests showed the composite antenna dish performed identically to the standard metal issue.

Legare then devised a clever, user friendly petalized design that Eclipse prototyped, largely in CEO Todd McNeill’s garage.

“We tried to make it very intuitive,” says McNeill. “We knew that users might be crawling around, or even under fire. They wouldn’t want to be shining a flashlight or reading instructions—they would just want to set the thing up fast and start sending and receiving data.”

The antenna’s six petals can be stowed in a space the size of a briefcase—shrinking the stowed volume of metal dish antennas by 87 percent, and trimming the weight by up to 61 percent. Petals click together in any order, and the unit can be assembled without tools in as fast as 20 seconds.

“We actually paid Eclipse for the work with a credit card,” says Legare. “When you’re doing research and development, you know what you want and you know what you need. If I had tried to do a more formal kind of R&D contract, it would have taken five years to get those special ops guys what they needed right now.”

“By the time the prototyping work was completed,” says McNeill, “we had so much passion for the project, and experience with the product, that it was a natural progression to license the technology to try to take it to the next step.”

With a patent pending on the antenna design, Sean Patten, Senior Technology Manager at TechLink, facilitated the licensing process (TechLink is a key Department of Defense technology transfer partner).

“Licensing is crucial in getting important technologies out to the warfighter,” says Patten. “Those special ops guys can go to Dave Legare and say they want this unique antenna, but who’s going to make it? Dave doesn’t have the resources to do that and neither does SOCOM. They need a private enterprise partner. With license rights to a technology, a company like Eclipse can take a calculated risk and build a business that can supply warfighters with the products they’re asking for.”

Eclipse also entered into a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with AFRL enabling the development of technology enhancements. Max Alexander, of AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, stepped in to procure important funding so Eclipse could continue the critical R&D necessary to perfect materials, designs, and processes to scale up production.

“Max saw it as an investment and championed our cause,” says McNeill. “He was our advocate with the Office of the Secretary of Defense.”

In 2010, Eclipse received funding through the Defense Acquisition Challenge (DAC) Program to push the prototype antenna into production, leading to contracts with prime contractors. MilTech, another DoD tech transfer partner, also provided funding and expertise to help Eclipse advance the technology and gear up its manufacturing operation. In the span of a few years, Eclipse grew from a two-person enterprise to a 10,000-square-foot manufacturing facility with a full machine shop, inspection room, R&D area, three ovens, an 80-ton platen press, pattern cutting equipment, paint booth, and lay-up stations. Still located in Bluffdale, the company now employees nearly 30 workers, and MilTech is working with the company to achieve ISO certification.

“We have all the military flags flying in our shop,” says McNeill. “A lot of our employees are former military—they believe in what we’re doing. They like that as much as they like the work."

Seven hundred antennas were fielded as a result of the initial DAC support, and McNeill estimates about 2,000 of the antennas are in use today. Around 80 percent of have gone to various military users who are using them to access X-band and Ka-band radio frequencies.

Support from a Rapid Innovation Fund contract is currently helping the company improve their materials and manufacturing processes even further. The use of conductive thermoplastic nano-composite materials will allow the antennas to be produced through an inexpensive molding process, reducing manufacturing costs by more than 80 percent, and facilitating a 4,000 percent increase in production capability. The target goal is to reduce per-petal production time from the original eight hours to fifteen minutes. Ramping up production is important, as McNeill reports that the Army anticipates needing 5,000 systems, added to the expected requests from the Air Force, Navy, and a growing number of commercial users in the portable satellite market space. First it was cables, then cell phone towers, now communications are moving to satellite feeds, with the market expanding annually.

“We’re like a secondary supplier to companies that build the complete satellite terminal,” says McNeill. “Customers come to us with their own unique design parameters. Sometimes it ends up being a big seller so we produce a lot, but the majority of the time it’s relatively small high-end stuff. Our challenge right now is to address the higher volume manufacturing.”

For both McNeill and Legare, the work means far more than starting a new business or inventing an innovative antenna.

“We’re providing a product that can save lives,” says McNeill. “People depend on it. In that, we were really in lock step with the Dave and the AFRL. There were about four of us that put our heart and soul into making this work.”

“We were successful because we were able to fund the early work quickly and accomplish the R&D efficiently,” says Legare. “I’ve heard from users who say, ‘you have no idea how much of a difference this has made for us.’ Technology transfer really matters.”

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