Better, Faster, Cheaper: The Vivaldi Antenna

Vivaldi Antenna

Better, Faster, Cheaper: The Vivaldi Antenna 

‘Desert Rose’ Blooms: Game-Changing, Deployable Satellite Antenna Invented in Record Time

Lockheed Martin and teammate engineers have invented an innovative new satellite antenna that is less costly, easier to produce, and more capable than traditional antennas. And they designed, built, and demonstrated its effectiveness in just three months—despite the challenges of working during the COVID-19 pandemic, a testimony to Lockheed Martin’s agility, innovation, speed, and commitment to solving our customers’ toughest problems.

The antenna was designed for a customer who needed a quick and inexpensive satellite antenna feed design.

“Those customer values led us to rethink our approach altogether,” said Thomas Hand, Lockheed Martin Associate Fellow and Radio Frequency (RF) engineer who led the project development. “It became about how can they get a capability on orbit in two to three years, rather than the usual five to ten years. How do we change the traditional ruleset and think about things differently?”

Hand and his team started searching for ways to use innovative and agile solutions,  as well as their expertise, to create a more efficient and economical alternative.

“We decided to look at the antenna as a black box and asked if we could meet our requirements inside that black box with a simpler feed with fewer parts that’s easier to construct,” Hand said. 

Vivaldi: A Simpler, More Effective Antenna

For the antenna element solution, they worked from a simpler heritage design – the Vivaldi antenna. The team dubbed it the “Desert Rose Feed” because the array elements resemble the flower’s petals. The novel feed arrangement has several advantages: 
  • Easier to manufacture and assemble feeds: Elements and support structure can be 3-D-printed for reduced cost.  
  • Lower cost, size, and complexity compared to the heritage design: The Desert Rose has three unique assemblies rather than five, and offers a significant cost reductions.
  • Commonality and multiple capabilities: Auto-tracking feeds are suitable for both military and civil uses, including communications. 

Completing the design, build and demo phases usually takes a long time: eight months to a year – and that is without the added challenge of COVID workplace protocols. With concept work starting in January 2021, the team began finalizing the design in April.  By June, they had completed the design, built and successfully tested the new feed, demonstrating excellent modeled to measured correlation.

“The key point is that within that short timeframe, not only did we do the mission analysis and propose a cost-effective payload solution, but we also built and tested the demo,” Hand said. “When you think about all the challenges, like people working remotely and the constant (online) meetings because of COVID, this is unprecedented.” 

‘Bunch of Superstars’ – Assembling a Diverse Team for Agility, Speed and Mission Success

The “bunch of superstars” that brought their diverse talents and experience from across Lockheed Martin to the project were a key factor to success, Hand said.  The team was a mixture of RF, antenna, mechanical and test engineers at various career stages, “working nights, weekends, whatever it took to get the drawings, the models and the simulations done, and work with our teammates.”

The team took advantage of digital transformation tools. In addition to using additive manufacturing for some of the parts, the team designed the system digitally with the help of a digital twin which enables advanced modeling, simulation and testing prior to being deployed in orbit.

The Lockheed Martin team also collaborated with Louisville, Colorado-based Tendeg, a 38-employee company that makes deployable space antennas and structures. “When you have an agile company like Tendeg, that agility tends to rub off and create a snowball effect of ‘out of the box’ innovative thinking,” Hand said.

Tendeg contributed an existing, flight-proven reflector that worked with the feed design.

Eric Kelso, Tendeg’s senior mechanical engineer, said the collaboration benefited from other synergies as well. “The combination of Lockheed Martin’s immense amount of RF expertise, their team, and our being able to leverage our hardware and existing designs, made us nimble together, and contributed to the overall success of the project.”

This new invention helps advance Lockheed Martin as a space industry innovator and a formidable payload supplier. “Space isn’t just competitive; it’s hyper-competitive,” Hand said. “This invention represents an additional discriminator that adds to the already impressive intellectual property portfolio of Lockheed Martin.”