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Flat Panels: Lessons from the White Rose of Drachs

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The 65m motor yacht, White Rose of Drachs, was the first to complete the transition to flat panels by physically removing their old domes, radically altering the appearance of the yacht. Having successfully completed two seasons, we met with Captain Andrew Schofield and key personnel from Kymeta Corporation, e3 Systems and Media Broadcast Satellite to discuss their insight and vision for the wider yacht market. 

What challenges did Kymeta face in terms of development and application in a maritime context? 

Tom Freeman, Kymeta: At Kymeta we’re a bunch of technologists and we didn’t really have a product for yachts. Roger came to Kymeta and told us what was needed for the maritime sector which was great as suddenly we had a requirement for a market. It’s proved a very valuable relationship for Kymeta.

Evolving the technology for the sector has been a challenge – initially we needed new architecture and new algorithms. In the beginning we had separate transmit and receive panels and then eventually we put them together to create what was essentially the prototype of today’s panel.

Mathieu Cros, e3: New builds are a different market – and many builders are already considering going flat. In five years with LEO satellite connectivity prices closing the gap with 4G, we believe there will be a drastic change in the market for flat panels which will change the landscape of marinas.

Roger Horner, e3: Panels do not necessarily have to be mounted on the mast and provide more scope for designers and the opportunity for exceptional design.


Mathieu: One of the main challenges has been to bring the price of airtime down to a competitive level. None of the existing providers were quick to respond to the challenge. None of the incumbents came back to us with pricing to make panels competitive. They said there was no chance of matching existing prices. However, non-incumbents, including MBS (Media Broadcast Satellite), were quick to respond and meet this challenge which is why we now have eSAT.

Was it easy to persuade the owner of MY White Rose of Drachs and what has been your experience over the past two seasons?

Andrew Scofield, Captain, White Rose of Drachs: The owner was delighted to be an early adopter and part of this new tech revolution. As a businessman being constantly connected is hugely important, so he was very much in favour of the idea of flat panels and taking part in the trials. Also, from his side there was zero risk, as the domes were always there should the panels not have worked. And now he's extremely pleased with no panels in terms of aesthetics and performance.

My initial reaction was that ‘this isn’t going to work' as it’s phased array, but then the new technology was explained and eventually we decided to go for it. The panels deliver the same connectivity/bandwidth as our domes, yet they are so much easier to live with. There are no moving parts, they weigh only 23kg and installing them is very easy. Operation is similarly impressive as they acquire and lock on to the signal in a matter of seconds, unlike their parabolic equivalents. And on top of this, with services such as eSAT, the lower cost of airtime ensures connectivity is now at the same level as that of traditional domes.”

During the first year operation was seamless and, in the second, we didn’t even renew our airtime contract for the domes. By the end of the season we had made the decision to remove them altogether – with a weight saving in the region of 1.5 tonnes.

Also, very significantly, the appearance of White Rose of Drachs today is what the owner first saw in the original conceptional drawings, before the addition of domes and TV antennas. He now has the yacht he ordered.

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MY White Rose of Drachs before and after installation of Kymeta flat panels

Who’s the target market and what's the typical profile of early adopters?

Roger: Early adopters have been primarily motor yachts, but with sailboats making up only about 17% of the market it fits the make-up that we only have three sailboats. They range in size is from 89m to 15m - although our market is typically 24m plus. There will be slow growth over the next two years – the big change will come with LEO (low earth orbit).

Mathieu: The physical changes and impact of changing to flat panels on the performance of a sailing yacht are drastically different. Domes put weight on the mast and you have to put weight on keel to balance this. However, sailboats tend to go off the beaten track more often and we do not currently have coverage for panels in more remote areas.

What are some of the limitations in the real world when comparing panels with domes?

Roger: Panels have revolutionised some of the features of domes, for example, the tracking is exceptional. We put a single panel on the Maltese Falcon under the main mast and it tracked so quickly that the yacht did not lose signal at any stage. It is not affected by mast shadow in the same way as mechanical antennas as it takes 10 milliseconds to track from horizon to horizon. We were amazed during the trials when a single panel worked across the Caribbean, crossing the Atlantic and around the Western Med.

Andrew: Kymeta is software driven and enhances your ability to respond. The latest software updates can have a marked increase in performance which is not the case with parabolic dishes. With Kymeta the latest updates can result in using less bandwidth, for example, just through a software update. And any emergencies can be easily sorted out on board without the need to head to a yard.

Roger: LEOs are all set to change everything for flat panels. The first LEO satellites from OneWeb have been launched. Flat panel antennas can track these satellites with speed and real accuracy. The earth is moving, LEOs are moving, the boat is moving - and unlike conventional antennas, a single panel can easily track these constellations and will come into their own. In comparison, you will need a minimum of two parabolic antennas working together, placed at least 2m apart, both with a completely clear view of the sky.

Kymeya no domes 600
Kymeta - the potential to revolutionize design and alter the marina landscape

Generally, customers don’t care where connectivity comes from as long as they are connected. e3 is aiming to make yacht communications just happen as they switch between 4G and satellite. At the moment keeping connected is quite labour intensive - ETOs spend a lot of time dealing with connectivity. This will change.

Andrew: A dome will track one satellite at a time while panels can track many. So this means fewer blockages and faster speeds. In practical terms, this means faster upload and download plus fewer blockages. Constant coverage.

Mathieu: LEO constellations will close the market gap between 4G and satellite connectivity – currently 10 times more expensive. With LEO in 2021 all markets will be affected by this technology. At the moment Kymeta is the only commercially available antenna in the market that can track these satellites and they will start early LEO testing later this year.

Roger: However, we will never stop marketing dome technology – there will always be space for domes. Flat panels provide a great solution for a yacht operating in the Med, Atlantic and Caribbean but, if a yacht has a wider itinerary, we would advise dome technology until LEOs are operational.

What is the primary motivation for yachts changing to flat panels and how quickly will the market change?

Mathieu: Market projection will be fairly slow over the next two years, however when LEO comes things will change – a logarithmic change in 2021. This will transform things as the price of airtime will drop and the more panels that are out there, the more their price will drop.

With eSAT we have achieved a price point that makes hardware and service competitive – a big breakthrough for us. Now there is a commercial reason for customers to switch other than just for the aesthetics or being an early adopter. There won’t be a complete shift to flat panels but I can see a majority being flat as why would you fit something mechanical?

Sven Sunberg, MBS: MBS is a One Web certified teleport ready for LEOs. The industry is evolving and MBS are ready for it; as soon as LEOs arrive you will see a big difference. You will always need two parabolic antennas to work with LEOs but not with Kymeta – this is when the game will change.

eSAT covers the Caribbean, Mediterranean and transatlantic regions and we have capacity to expand. MBS has global infrastructure – we are not limited to one satellite user so we are flexible – its a scalable solution.

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Roger Horner, Group Managing Director, e3 Systems

How does eSAT compare to previous solutions?

Roger: The panel is just half of the solution. It’s useless without the airtime, which is why we developed eSAT in partnership with MBS and launched it at the start of April. We evaluated a number of other options from third-party providers – but the price point was not commercially viable.

Some of our existing partners will view our new venture as disruptive but eSAT is just for flat panels. Their options were not commercially viable – they are not ready to create a competitive service for flat panels, possibly protecting their existing customer base, so their airtime options remain expensive.

Now we have over four years’ experience with flat panels, the ins and outs of the technology, how they work and track, how to install them, what connectivity is required and how to include TV. It has all been a groundbreaking education and is all manufacturer independent, so it was a natural progression to develop the airtime solution. What we now have is a service where we are in control and that we can supply to other integrators.

Mathieu: The missing part was to move the market on from early adopters and make the panel commercially viable to the vast majority. This partnership was necessary to make the price point happen and match that of domes.

We’ve learnt from our BIG DATA 4G business that if you provide no commitments, clients like it and actually use more data. Clients don’t like to be tied down, So we are thinking outside of the box. We are planning to offer a monthly allowance service, a bandwidth on demand service and, ultimately, a zero commitment service. We are also looking at combining 4G and VSAT into one monthly price.

KY MF at sea2
Kymeta flat panel installed in Maltese Falcon

Roger: Satellite airtime is expensive compared to 4G, if we can provide a hybrid solution it is very cost-effective for the end user. Kymeta can switch seamlessly between 4G and VSAT so there's no need to physically switch. This is available now and was demonstrated at the MWC in Barcelona in February in the Kymeta test car.

Sven: Between us we have created a service by investing a lot of time and experience. We are now being approached by others to see if they can use eSAT as a white label service. We both have a lot to gain here. This is completely new thinking that will put pressure on new players as we are very agile – some of the incumbents have been slow to notice there is change going on in the industry.

What are the main differences between use on land and at sea?

Andrew: VSAT originated on land – in the US every gas station and SevenEleven has VSAT – but the building doesn’t move. As soon as you move, especially on the water, it becomes more complex.

Tom: To put a panel into a car, the price point we are currently looking at needs to be $250 and there’s a whole lot of space between where we are now and where we want to be tomorrow.

Mathieu: And LEO constellations should close the market gap between 4G and satellite connectivity. We are already looking past yachting and talking to ferry operators, fishing boats and train manufacturers who are building 5-year plans and can’t rely on 4G/5G. We already have seamless HYBRID solutions using 4G and satellite but, for this to happen, the total cost of using satellite connectivity needs to be reduced.

Andrew Scofield
, Captain, White Rose of Drachs
Tom Freeman, Senior Vice President, Land Mobile, Kymeta Corporation
Mikala Johnson, Solutions Engineering Manager, Kymeta Corporation
Sven Sunberg, CEO Media Broadcast Satellite
Roger Horner, Group MD, e3
Mathieu Cros, Group Sales Director, e3

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