A peek at the future: Kymeta, Intelsat roll their connected car into town

“Ky”, the Kymeta Across America experimental car with satellite-enabled “connected car” technology, rolled across America and through Miami this week. Here it’s shown in California.
“Ky”, the Kymeta Across America experimental car with satellite-enabled “connected car” technology, rolled across America and through Miami this week. Here it’s shown in California.

Boats, planes, trains of automobiles: Soon you be could be as connected to the Internet on the move as you are at home or in the office, even if you are in the middle of nowhere. At least that’s the promise of emerging technology that rolled — quite literally — through Miami this week.

Intelsat, the world’s largest commercial satellite provider, and Kymeta, a company that makes “smart” antenna systems for satellite applications, have partnered on the new technology to bring high-speed connectivity to cars as well as other modes of transportation.

Executives showed off their “Connected Car” prototype outside the Intelsat offices in Coral Gables, as well as in other places around South Florida, as part of a cross-country road trip ending next week at the Satellite Week conference in Washington, D.C.

Whether it’s the kids downloading movies or streaming Pandora in the back seat, the car’s software and firmware being automatically updated or vehicles able to share real-time traffic information, the use cases for the connected car are only just starting to be realized. “This is just the beginning; that is why we are really thrilled,” said Carmen González-Sanfeliu, Intelsat’s regional vice president for Latin America & Caribbean.

In the race for a connected world, these companies and their partners are betting that the future of the connected car — as well as boats and planes — is satellite-enabled. “The willingness to get the Internet across the planet is here. It’s about doing it efficiently,” said Kymeta’s vice president of maritime, Hakan Olsson.

Kymeta was founded in 2012 in Redmond, Washington, and is backed by $130 million in venture capital; Bill Gates is an investor and on its board. It has developed a thin, lightweight flat-panel satellite antenna, which was embedded in the roof of the test car, an orange Toyota 4Runner covered with signatures and stickers from places it has been, Olsson said as he showed the embedded antenna and demonstrated a Skype call.

Intelsat, founded more than a half-century ago, operates a fleet of more than 50 fixed satellites serving the globe and providing the capacity for broadband services for media companies, airlines and cruise lines, ISPs and the U.S. government. Its Latin America headquarters is in Coral Gables.

In January, the global company recently launched its most sophisticated all-digital satellite platform, called Epic, which provides 10 times the broadband capacity, González-Sanfeliu said. Last year, Intelsat invested in OneWeb, which counts Richard Branson as a big backer. OneWeb aims to provide a constellation of movable Low Earth Orbit satellites in a couple of years that will complement Intelsat’s global fleet.

Kymeta’s mTenna, a flat panel, software-based antenna system, simplifies the access to Intelsat’s satellite fleet by removing the need for heavy mechanical components and by using software to electronically point, steer and acquire the satellite signal, Olsson said. This allows for rapid installation of the hardware; the antennas are small enough to be carried onto a ship, for instance. It ensures that connectivity is maintained regardless of location, and it gives Kymeta the ability to use a simple push notification for software upgrades rather than taking the ship out of service.

The much smaller, lightweight and more affordable technology creates less drag, allowing planes, ships and cars to operate more efficiently, he said. It was also recently road-tested over 8,000 miles, he said.

Olsson said the first industry the technology will be targeted at is maritime — yachts, commercial shipping and cruise ships. For cruise ships, for example, the antenna system would be sleeker and less intrusive, easier to install and maintain, more affordable and would provide faster connectivity for passengers and crew, ship operations and even the lifeboats, Olsson said. He expects maritime applications to be introduced to the market next year.

Phase Two will follow quickly with vehicles, beginning with bigger cars, trucks, buses and fleets such as Fedex and UPS, where vehicle tracking is critical, and followed by consumer cars. Airplanes will take longer because of regulations; no time table is set.

The connected car won’t be the only vehicle rolling into Satellite Week; Intelsat and Kymeta will be demo-ing a connected yacht as well.

Nancy Dahlberg; @ndahlberg