Designing yachts to hide domes

21 January 2015
If you're on a tanker and dome interferes with the view, no-one complains. When on a luxury yacht, they can spoil the view.

Today’s yachts are totally wired for communication so owners, charterers and crew can conduct business anywhere, at all times. While owners almost expect to earmark budgets for communication devices that will likely be replaced in short order, no one seems to have earmarked a budget to tame those aesthetically intrusive domes.

It isn’t the manufacturers’ faults, as they have streamlined the equipment as much as possible. Blame the parabolic dish – 20th century technology in a 21st century world. Perhaps that is about to change as we sit at the cusp of yet another milestone in technology with the launch in 2013 of the first Inmarsat-5 satellite.

Communications domes seem to both proliferate and increase in size every year. As the size of the dome and the number of receivers required is directly related to the travel radius of the yacht, rising interest in voyaging to remote locations in expedition vessels with cruising ranges that span the globe has driven the issue to the breaking point. The lack of a single global satellite system also fuels the fire: to cruise from northern England to the Aegean requires more than one system as does the common trek from Mediterranean to Caribbean.

The largest domes are employed for satellite TV and internet connections, and while the domes for the internet have reduced in size in recent years, most pundits just don’t see TV domes shrinking in size like calculators and cell phones did. But there are alternatives to explore if the desire and budget exist. SeaTel, for example, has debuted a 24-inch Ku-band receiver that works at higher latitudes. This alone may allow some cruisers in North America to shrink their dish.

While radio and satellite receiving equipment is shrinking in the aviation and automobile industries, currently only the military have miniaturized receivers for sea vessels.

The world’s most sophisticated mobile communications centre is undoubtedly the US president’s Boeing 747, yet it isn’t festooned with Mickey Mouse ears or other obvious arrays, nor are the TV receiver domes on a rock band’s tour bus likely to scrape the nearest overpass. But the smaller footprint for communications domes in the leisure marine market hasn’t trickled down to yachts. I once had an engineer from Selex tell me he could duplicate the flat receivers in Air Force One, but it would cost a $1million. That seemed like a big figure at the time.

‘The marine industry has always lagged behind aviation and automotive, about three to five years,’ says Brian Coffin of Aquatic Navigation. ‘The pecking order is aviation, auto, marine. Militarized products and advancements from the battlefield filter to the private market later [after R&D costs are recouped through exclusive contracts]. That’s how technology comes to the marine market. If you look at new military ships, they’re into stealth; their technology is already hidden in the panels,’ he says.

Cars travel primarily in two dimensions and don’t require a rotating antenna to point to the sky, since a flat dish on the roof can gather all the signal they need. Since they don’t pitch and roll like boats, even those automotive in-motion antennas are smaller than a hat box.

Oceanco tasked its in-house design department to dump domes. One technical study later, and they managed to get 18 pieces of radar, security and communications equipment, out of sight mostly.

Of course, there is a caveat; satellites aim their signal toward land where subscribers, who pay for the service, live. Since the signal beams don’t point toward the sea, the signal is more diffused the farther it is from land, so a vessel needs a larger dome to gather it in. As any metal structure blocks the signal, large vessels may have two domes to alleviate a blind spot, and another pair for different cruising areas.

‘The technology will combine, someday, with one dome, one service,’ says Coffin. ‘But it’s too costly to do it now. It’s all about money. Who will pay for it? The sat companies with research and development budgets want a return for their technology investment, and each communications company would [need to] spend millions, which could mean billions spent by the industry to make the domes on a few thousand yachts smaller.’

However, electronics firms today are realizing that the market for receiving signals offshore is growing, not because of yachts, but because of offshore oil and gas platforms and even wind farms. This and the increase in ship traffic to supply the developing countries means there is finally some money to be generated from marine receivers.

The buzz word in the communications industry these days is ‘future-proof’. Consumers don’t want to spend upwards of $20,000 for a satellite TV receiver or a voice and data system that is going to be obsolete by next season. When C-band was replaced by the faster Ka-band, the ‘solution’ wasn’t suitable for those who cruised out of its range, and now the Ka-bandwidth is routinely overwhelmed with voice and data. Ku-band is the new thing, and L-band looms on the horizon.

Oceano's 90m vessel hides some of its receiving equipment under the upper deck's roof.

Manufacturers are listening though, and SeaTel will be releasing a three-axis receiver that it says will serve the largest possible operating area and ‘all known or planned’ bandwidths. Intellian in July 2012 introduced V110GX , its first multi-band and multi-orbit VSAT receiver.

KVH, for its part, says its new one meter Tracphone V11 receiver is 85 per cent smaller than a C-Band dome and even smaller than existing Ku-band receivers. Ku-bandwidth allows download speeds of 50Mbps and uploads of 5Mbps.

The next new thing will be Inmarsat’s Global Xpress utilizing the Ku-band. Inmarsat says this is a $1.2billion development program based on three new generation I-5 satellites currently in build at Boeing.

Introduction is planned for 2013 and receivers will be smaller than today’s VSAT antennas. Expect this receiver for voice and data to be about 60cm or the size of a laptop.

That takes care of comms, but what about TV receivers and what about the proliferation? Will domes ever disappear to the naked eye? Probably not. But what if yacht designers styled the yacht around the domes to conceal them within the superstructure without decreasing signal and bandwidth? Would the market reciprocate?

‘You can always enclose the domes,’ says Craig Tafoya of Penumbra Marine Logistics. ‘People put in fake stacks on classic yachts. How is this any different?’

On just-delivered Topaz, the symmetrical dome array seems proportionate and even screens the stacks nicely. But Topaz is 146.9m LOA.

Recessing domes is limited because sinking the dome down into the structure for a smaller footprint decreases the area of service. Anything in front of the dome hides the signal.

‘Perhaps the components inside the domes could be divided into four quadrants mounted into recessed pockets in the bulwarks, forward, aft, port and starboard,’ says Jon Overing, naval architect. ‘This concept has multiple points to communicate with the satellite.’ A signal management device would select the best signal. ‘The recessed housings would have angled sides and tops to provide an overlap to the adjacent quadrants so there would be no blind spots.’

‘The naval architect would need to work closely with the manufacturer, but this concept could work,’ says Jens Sikes, who manages the projects department at Radio Holland USA. But putting the dish in a different housing could create a warranty issue for the electronics manufacturer, as a clear view of the sky is required to pick up signal.

‘Some of these domes and even worse, radar units, stick out like a sore thumb,’ says Sikes. ‘If the arrays were recessed down in area with that same type of material, I think that would work because it’s not anything different than sitting inside the dome. Although you couldn’t recess the Seatel 9707 dish, except maybe in a cruise ship.

‘Manufacturers are aware that, on the yachting side, a lot of captains don’t want these large domes,’ Sikes says. ‘It behooves the manufacturer to reduce the footprint, and I think the dishes will get smaller. Beyond that, I think the naval architect’s idea is right – change the design of the boat itself.’

The maritime market is slow to accept new technology, so it’s hard to change”

Paul Pazzaglini, PLiiNC, president

While Oceanco’s project is a concept, the Feadship De Vries yard is actually building a hidden array atop a large project now in construction. Rather than designing a fiberglass cover, all receivers will sit inside an open box-like structure atop the upper deck surrounded by fiberglass grillwork hiding the gear from any perspective but above.

A low-profile dome called Zip Phaser II offers broadband internet with X-, Ka- and Ku-band service at broadband speeds up to 10Mbps. This flattened, phased array satellite solution is military technology and uses an electronic beam, not a mechanical three-axis motor, to stay connected. The dynamic mount points at a southern equator location with low-horizon capability and offers a gimballed mount to automatically compensate for pitch and roll at sea. A Zip Phaser has a smaller height than a dome and can submerge into the deck without the gimballed mount.

‘The maritime market is slow to accept new technology, so it’s hard to change,’ says Paul Pazzaglini, president of PLiiNC, the company that integrates components for Zip Phaser.

Perhaps replacing the parabolic antenna is the final frontier, but until that day, designers are starting to address the total beauty of their yachts by stepping outside the envelope and looking up.

MegaYachts volume 14: Concept – Design – Construction (2013)

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