California-based startup Orbital Composites has been on a solid roll as far as federal funding is concerned. Most recently, the large-scale 3D printing company secured a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract from the U.S. Space Force to develop Orbital’s patented, 3D printable quantum antenna. The proposed technology would feasibly allow for secure, high-capacity space and terrestrial communications.
Quantum antennas represent a niche and emerging area in the broader, and also emerging, field of quantum electronics. Classical antennas convert confined electromagnetic energy into open, unbounded radiation modes, essentially translating guided-wave energy, which flows in one specific direction into a form that can radiate far from the source. In contrast, quantum antennas are able to expand beyond a localized radiation pattern to achieve a global quantum state. Unlike their traditional counterparts, whose radiation pattern is spatially and temporally fixed, a quantum antenna doesn’t depend on position and can evolve over time.
Orbital Composites’ quantum antenna aims to utilize quantum principles to improve communication capabilities. While traditional antennas are key components of any data-driven solution or communication infrastructure, the quantum antenna offers potential advantages in efficiency and functionality, which may have long-term implications for both space and Earth-based systems.
Possible Applications of Quantum Antennas
Quantum antennas are devices designed to detect or transmit quantum signals, often leveraging quantum phenomena such as superposition and entanglement to operate. While they are not directly a part of quantum computing architecture like qubits, they could play a vital role in the broader quantum technology ecosystem that includes quantum computing.
One potential application of quantum antennas in the realm of quantum computing is in quantum networks or quantum internet. Here, quantum antennas could serve as the transmitting or receiving end for quantum information. Such networks could link multiple quantum computers together, allowing for distributed quantum computing and making tasks like quantum key distribution for secure communication more efficient.
Orbital’s 3D printed Ground Station Antennas and Radomes
Another possible relation could be in the field of quantum error correction. As quantum computing systems scale, error rates generally become a critical issue. Quantum antennas, by enabling more precise and noise-resistant signal transmission, might contribute to schemes that help mitigate errors in quantum calculations, although this is more speculative at this stage.
Also, advances in the miniaturization and efficiency of quantum antennas could lead to the development of portable or more streamlined quantum computing devices. This could facilitate the integration of quantum computing resources into conventional IT infrastructures, aiding in tasks like optimization problems, simulations, and data analysis that benefit from the capabilities of quantum computation.
Orbital’s Larger Goals
The acquisition of this SBIR contract comes at a moment when the ground station market is experiencing steady growth. This growth is propelled by an increase in satellite constellations, broadband internet projects, and other telecommunications-related ventures. In this context, Orbital Composites’ quantum antenna could offer an alternative to current technologies, providing both efficiency and potential cost benefits.
Orbital Composites is also looking to exploit the capabilities of In-Space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (ISAM). By utilizing ISAM for antenna construction, the company could create larger and more complex antenna structures in space, thus avoiding the physical constraints typically imposed by rocket launches and fairings.
Orbital’s proposed antenna factory in space.
The space antenna market has shown consistent growth, influenced by advances in satellite technologies and deep-space exploration initiatives. In-Space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (ISAM) offers the promise of more cost-effective and scalable solutions. According to Orbital Composites, the quantum antennas could potentially be produced at substantially lower costs compared to existing technologies.
The potential applications of Orbital’s quantum antennas extend to various aspects of the space economy, including connecting Low Earth Orbit (LEO) broadband mega-constellations to global mobile devices, providing secure military communications, and enabling more robust links between satellites and ground stations. There are also potential uses in Earth observation and deep-space communication systems.
Orbital’s Bold Approach
At the moment, the additive manufacturing (AM) industry is experiencing a rapid growth in large-scale 3D printing firms, ranging from massive gantry systems from the likes of Ingersoll and Cincinnati Incorporated to those based on industrial robotic arms, such as those from Caracol. They also range in materials, including metals, polymers, composites, and ceramics.
Orbital sets itself apart not only in targeting the burgeoning new space sector, but in chasing far out technologies. In addition to quantum antennas and free-space manufacturing, already somewhat distant prospects, the company is exploring space-based solar power. This strategy is a dual-edged sword when it comes to a startup, as it can garner media attention and research dollars, but runs the risk of failure to deliver on promises.
With regard to free-space manufacturing, former media darling Made In Space never quite realized the ability to 3D print satellite trusses from outside of the International Space Station, despite its many other achievements. This isn’t because free-space manufacturing is impossible, as DCUBED hopes to prove next year, but because it wasn’t possible in a profitable timeline. However, as Orbital Composites CEO Amolak Badesha pointed out, the only way the new space sector will actually take off is with the production of enormous antennas, which is only possible with in-space manufacturing. This, along with a host of other applications, will drive 3D printing in new space to reach $2.1 billion by 2026, according to the “3D Printing in Commercial Space: The AM Ecosystem in the Private Space Industry” report from Additive Manufacturing Research group SmarTech Analysis.
Anyone who gets excited about the prospects of space exploration can’t help but cheer for Orbital Composites. Among those who are cheering already are Axiom Space, Northrop Grumman, and the Southwest Research Institute, with whom the startup garnered a $1.7 million Direct-to-Phase II grant. So far, the firm has totaled over $6.5 in government funding through projects like these.