In a global economy dominated by mass markets, manufacturing success sometimes seems to have been reduced to simply a function of volume.

From one perspective, antenna design and production fits that model to a T: Billions of mobile phones or the ubiquitous microstrip patch antennas of handheld GPS receivers have brought the full weight of economies of scale to the design process.

But the global economy is complex and diverse, with ever evolving innovations and applications that have special operational requirements and an accompanying need for customization. This is the space inhabited by Antcom Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of NovAtel®.

Based in Torrance, California, Antcom manufactures a diverse line of antennas for GNSS and telecommunications user equipment, offering a few hundred commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) models. However, 27 percent of its customers require customized products, according to Sean Huynh, Antcom's Vice President of Engineering/R&D.

For the latter group, volume is no longer the determining factor for Antcom's taking on a project. “We see customization as an investment in customers,” Huynh says, adding that Antcom embraces design challenges that other companies would ignore due to their complexity or high cost. “We take risks and do things we've not done before.”

Customization requirements typically fall into three categories:

  • Ruggedization- for harsh environments or very specific applications, such as deep sea, outer space, high-dynamic military platforms
  • Mechanical-special packaging, form factor, size, or weight
  • Electrical- designated frequencies, a particular beam pattern, or special isolation on gain or noise.

The resulting innovation is frequently designed into new Antcom products, with the latent effect of increased production volume once antenna customizations become integrated into a product line.

In its customization activities, “Antcom is really treated like a design house,” says Huynh. “R&D, in part, is driven by demand.”

One relatively new customer is The Boeing Company's Advanced Technology Programs (ATP) Unmanned Undersea Systems group based in Huntington Beach, California.

The Echo Ranger is a five-ton unmanned sub measuring 18 feet (5.5 metres) in length and capable of operating autonomously at depths of 10,000 feet (3,000 metres). Developed in 2001, the Echo Ranger has evolved into a sophisticated underwater vessel used for deep-dive reconnaissance, surveillance, and environmental operations.

Recently, the ATP-Unmanned Underseas Systems group wanted to add a combined GPS/wireless machine-to-machine networking capability to the Echo Ranger, which required an antenna that could combine GPS and Freewave Technologies' M2M functionality.

The onboard equipment must be pressure-rated to 10,000 psi at a minimum to ensure survivability throughout all of Echo Ranger's potential depth changes. Connectors also have to be rated to the same pressures, and, in general, components on the vessel also need to be somewhat corrosion resistant.

After a lengthy search, Boeing ATP turned to Antcom for a customized solution, the first project that has employed Antcom's antennas. The Echo Ranger uses the GPS antenna to acquire a fix prior to diving. The FreeWave is used to communicate health and status messages and gives the Echo Ranger's operators the ability to command the vessel to dive, says Brian Phelps, a systems engineer with ATP. Of course, while submerged the antennas cannot receive RF transmissions.

Phelps had first contacted Antcom several years previously but never actually acquired products from the antenna manufacturer. Despite the lack of orders, a member of Antcom's sales organization, MaryJo Jerro, stayed in touch with Phelps.

“Once we got serious about developing these special antennas earlier this year,” Phelps says, “MaryJo put me in touch with one of her design engineers-Ken Lee-so that we could set requirements and ensure that our requirements could be met.”

Customers can go through an archive of antenna schematics on Antcom.com to get a baseline idea of what might suit their needs. Then the engineering team at Antcom can modify designs to meet very specific requirements.

“I was pleased to learn that [Antcom] had already produced underwater antennas, and they quickly shared data with me during the process,” says Phelps.

Phelps provided Antcom with the antenna design requirements that were passed on to him by his project engineers.

“Antcom provided me with several different antenna designs that allowed the selection process to flow more easily,” Phelps says. “There are so few COTS antennas available that could meet the requirements set by my team. Antcom was able to deliver a working antenna that is rated for our requirements.”

Up to this point, the Antcom antenna has only seen depths no greater than 300 feet, Phelps says, adding “I look forward to taking their antenna deeper and monitoring its performance.”