QuadSAT CEO Joakim Espeland on Certifying Ground Station Antennas

25th Jun 2024
QuadSAT CEO Joakim Espeland on Certifying Ground Station Antennas

Ground stations are no longer esoteric government installations. They are parts of commercial enterprises requiring certification, which can be extremely difficult. Antenna ranges for type acceptance take up tons of space for manufacturers, and installations can be even more intricate to measure. The problem seems to be solved at the microwave level, however, by the Seraphim Space-backed Danish startup QuadSAT. The idea of using UAVs seems obvious in hindsight, but getting there wasn’t easy. QuadSAT CEO Joakim Espeland tells how it worked out.

Shipping in an idea

OT: Tell us how you got started.

Joakim Espeland: I used to work in the oil and gas sector, in Norway, installing maritime Vsat antennason ships and on oil and gas platforms, and so on. I was doing this when there was a really rapid adoption in the oil and gas market because they could then process data faster. It became a requirement very, very quickly, so we were installing antennas on a lot of ships in Norway and around the world. But it was quite difficult to test an antenna after you installed it, or after an upgrade during preventative maintenance and so on. We often would have to take the whole ship out and sail around in the port to make sure that the Vsat antenna under the radome could actually track the satellite as the ship was sailing.

That’s basically where the idea struck me to start with, that maybe instead of moving the ship around the satellite, we can move a satellite, or a drone, around the ship. So, that’s where the idea started. I was working at a company in Norway at the time, and I went to study and I met my co-founder there, Andrian Buchi and we discussed this and we started writing about this in our studies for university.

We’ve learned a lot but we had a primary focus on maritime and tracking, basically emulating tracking capabilities. It wasn’t until we reached out to GVF, now GSOA, who then invited us to come to Singapore, where there was the communication satellite conference. The leading satellite operators at the time were presenting a new framework for antenna testing called SOMAP (Satellite Operators, Minimum Antenna Performance Requirements), and we presented in front of them. That’s where we also got inspiration from them that we can actually use this technology not just to emulate a tracking capability, but to actually measure and qualify antennas and bring them onto the market more quickly, and helping antenna manufacturers and satellite operators bring new antennas onto their satellite fleet by qualifying user terminals.

In the beginning, there was quite a bit of focus around user terminals. It wasn’t until later that we started looking into larger antennas more and more. At first, we thought it would be so hard to measure larger antennas, and that we should just focus on user terminals. But then we quickly realized the value of the asset, and that it is a little bit logistically harder to measure a large antenna than it is to measure a user terminal but not that much. Not as much as we thought it would be. And all the technology remains the same. It doesn’t really matter to us if it’s a 60 centimeter antenna or if it’s a three meter antenna or if it’s a 15 meter antenna. The same principles apply.

Then we got more into testing with OneWeb and their ground segment as well as other things. We’ve worked with European Space Agency on their deep space network, antennas up in Kiruna and many other large antennas. We’ve tested and calibrated, and this was picked up by the satellite operators again. We worked with Eutelsat, and we announced a partnership with them in March, where our technology can be used for anybody with a large antenna that wants to access the Eutelsat network. They can do that by testing with QuadSAT and then showing those results to Eutelsat and then they’ll get access.

OT: So you actually started from shipping. Would you say that the ground stations became the primary focus, or does QuadSAT really have a focus on the maritime industry?

Joakim Espeland: I came from shipping, but I worked from the telecommunication side, so most of the work there was in satellites for shipping. I had also done some larger antennas, so I had a little bit of experience with that as well. We do measure quite a few maritime antennas now, but we also measure any other type of antenna equally. It doesn’t really matter to us if it’s a maritime or it’s an aerospace antenna or a land mobile antenna or just a fixed station. It’s kind of the same technology that is required from our side and that there might be a little bit of difference in the process and how the measurements are done. Basically, it’s the same for us on what to do.

OT: So if you’ve got a flat panel for a radio base installation on a tower, it’s essentially the same as working with a dish.

Joakim Espeland: There are some nuances. Of course, the frequency ranges are important to get right. The satellite industry has different frequency ranges than telecommunications, for example. So that’s one of the things that vary between a flat panel antenna and a parabolic dish. One of the main differences when it comes to our technology is that a flat panel antenna is non-reciprocal, meaning that you need to be able to both transmit and receive on our test equipment to measure both the receive and transmit of the antenna on the test. That is something that in a dish would not be necessary.

Drones and signals

OT: Can you tell me about the drones are you using?

Joakim Espeland: We don’t build the drones ourselves. We partner with drone companies and we build the payload that hangs under the drone. This payload consists of a radio element and a pointing element. We build a pointing gimbal, and then we build a radio in there so that it can transmit and receive the test signals. It can do some modulations. And we’re constantly building out those capabilities.

And then we can change the front end based on which frequency range we need, as we cover everything from 1 to 31GHz, which is a very broad frequency range. To cover all of those frequency ranges in all the different polarizations and so on, we have three different types of front ends that cover different frequency ranges. And then we have two different kinds of payloads. One is a test signal only, basically a tone that you send out. The other one comes with an SDR that can transmit and receive with modulations and you can do more things like spectrum monitoring and stuff like that as well.

OT: So you’ve got you’ve got the drone with the payload. Then, you’ve got an RTK setup, sitting somewhere, right? Do you bring that in in advance, like a week or two to let it settle in, or how does how does the land side of that work?

Joakim Espeland: Actually, what we do is we generate a local reference system while we’re on site, because as long as we know where the antenna is and we know where the drone is, then we don’t really rely on the global positioning system. We just need a local one.

OT: You’ve got an interesting service, but antenna ranges have been around forever. Is there any technical advantage to using a UAV?

Joakim Espeland: One of the key metrics that we’re looking at when we do far field measurements is the angular accuracy. Traditionally, the antennas being tested sit on a robot and then they twist the antenna to get the lobes and these robots are very, very accurate; they make very, very small movements. But even though those angular inaccuracies translate into very big issues the larger you build your range. So, the further away you are, the more these inaccuracies within the robot will affect the measurements.

Meanwhile we’re kind of the opposite, because we’re moving the probe out there. The further away we go, the more accurate our angular accuracy becomes. So, if we need to achieve higher angular accuracy, we just move the drone further back and at a point it just starts becoming negligible, that inaccuracy.

Market conditions

OT: From your perspective, how is the market for ground stations?

Joakim Espeland: Right now, I wouldn’t say that chaos is the right word, but there are a lot of things going on. You have, Starlink, Kuiper, Lightspeed, and OneWeb coming in as four disruptors into the satellite industry. Starlink, which has launched so many satellites in so few years, is really driving the industry. What we’ve seen in the last years is some consolidation. We just had the announcement that SES would be acquiring Intelsat. We had Inmarsat being acquired by Viasat before that. And we had Eutelsat announce that they’re looking to sell off all their ground antennas, all the infrastructure that they have, and just work with industry partners on that. So, there’s quite a bit happening there. I think that for the satellite operators, the consumer, or direct to home internet as such, that has never been the majority of their business.

So that is the target market of Starlink and others, and it should be different. But the industry still seems like its being affected by these new players coming onto the market. Another thing that is also driving a change with these new constellations and how the ground segment works is that these satellites didn’t move before. Basically, they had been geostationary.

Now, all the satellites are moving. It used to be that the majority of interference came from communications on the move. During the deployment of a lot of maritime terminals, satellite operators saw increasing interference because the antennas were moving and now they also have to point and track all the time, which of course brings an interesting new part into it. That’s quite a challenging thing to do, and they will be doing that on the move as well. So, you’re moving from a static to a very dynamic ground segment.

OT: Are there other changes that have to be taken into consideration?

Joakim Espeland: There’s the element of flat panel antennas. Dishes have traditionally been parabolic and so on, and now you’re adding in a new technology which the test facilities are not necessarily designed to accommodate, and on top of that, the former standardization in the industry is based on parabolic dishes.

Now we have new antennas that operate in a completely new way. It’s become very important to ask what performance requirements and access to satellite should be? Because if you just take the requirements of a parabolic and impose those on a flat panel antenna, that’s not entirely fair because the flat panel antenna works differently. So, it’s important to identify how these antennas should work and how these should be qualified compared to parabolic antennas. But that’s something that we’re working on with Helen Weedon in the Satcoms Innovation Group together with satellite operators, antenna manufacturers, and us as the test entity.

QuadSAT and its investors

OT: You’ve got some first class backing. How did you how did that come about?

Joakim Espeland: We started QuadSAT as we graduated university. We knew very early on that we weren’t set up to penetrate the space industry without having external capital coming in. The gap that we identified in the market seemed to be quite an important thing, so basically, we were building up a deep tech company in a growing market.

In 2017, when we started the company, Elon Musk had just landed his rocket and there were a lot of changes happening in the satellite industry. There were 1500 satellites in space when we started seven years ago. Today we’re getting close to 10,000; the change in the industry has been dramatic.

OT: What was the path to Seraphim like for QuadSAT?

Joakim Espeland: I saw that we needed to go out and look for capital, and I started pitching investors in Denmark and, and it was very difficult because we were not big on space tech in Denmark. There are some good space companies here, but it’s not the primary thing for Denmark as such.

It was a little hard to get investors to understand the value of what we were creating. And that led me to be a little frustrated and to then expand my horizons and look for international capital. I thought that that also made sense because we had to be an international company from the get-go.

Then, looking at Seraphim and their portfolio, these are the kind of companies that we want to be working with. We wanted a backer that is not just money, but has more to offer, that understands the industry that we’re in, understands what’s happening in the industry from a very high level, and also has some connections into the industry that can help accelerate things with us.

That’s why we pitched Seraphim and got them on board. IQ Capital came in later and that was also from asking who the good deep tech investors are. IQ Capital has an incredible reputation and a strong portfolio which also aligns with what we’re doing, so it made sense to expand and go with them on the next round.

We also have the Danish government’s venture arm as one of our investors, and they’ve been in since very early. That helps a lot with understanding what’s going on in Denmark, and how we should be building. I’m not Danish, and my co-founder isn’t Danish and we have, I think, 23 or 24 different nationalities in our company. We’re very, very international and then building a company in Denmark, so it’s good to then have an investor that comes from the government side and knows all of these ins and outs there as well.

Editor’s Note:

Orbital Today would like to thank QuadSAT CEO Joakim Espeland for taking the time to speak with us about his company.

Leave a Reply Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



  1. Nice interview. I started CommNetworks in 2016 to use drones for radio measurements, focusing on Cellular markets. My progress came to a halt after Hurricane Florence destroyed my place in Sept 2018. I’m Mitch Mitchell (K8UR), founder of ComTek Phased Arrays, and helped make 4-Squares famous in the Ham world.
    The radio drones I make are networked, allowing data to be taken in real-time remotely from anywhere. We need articles like yours to help fund us..
    73, K8UR

Related Articles

No records

Explore Orbital Today