Ensuring the reliability of VSAT antennas

ByTim Conrad, Winegard Product Manager Mobile Broadband

VSAT systems allow engineers and geologists to sit at headquarters and evaluate several sites at the same time, maximizing these specialists’ time and making the process more cost effective.

Internet access and related communication is essential for exploration, drilling and production at remote sites and offshore drilling platforms. VSAT systems allow engineers and geologists to sit at headquarters and evaluate several sites at the same time, maximizing these specialists’ time and making the process more cost effective. Downtime associated with unreliable VSAT antennas not only leaves these experts idle, but backup communications that keep the data flowing may be far more expensive than VSAT per minute. In addition, downtime can mean delayed or lost data that can cost thousands or more.

VSAT users are looking for equipment that works for years with little maintenance and no downtime. The challenge for these users is not only to secure everyday reliability, but to find a dependable system that works in remote locations and challenging environments.

The use of high quality materials is critical for a dependable terminal. Only high grade metal can withstand high winds and harsh weather conditions. The metal must also be “painted” with a high quality substance to resist harsh environments that lead to corrosion and rust. In addition, the antenna system itself should be well protected by the skid that is used to transport the system. A robust skid is especially critical in a mobile broadband antenna system, as it is moved many times to various locations.

VSAT users can determine the quality of an antenna’s electronics and motors by looking at its Ingress Protection (IP) rating. This number classifies the degree of protection of the electrical enclosures from both solids and liquids through the use of custom enclosures and seals. An IP rating of IP65 or higher indicates protection from dust and water from any direction.

A solidly built unit also comes with a good anchor system, meaning the unit is moved little, if at all, by wind. Antenna movement by outside forces is a primary factor in losing satellite connectivity. An antenna system that is well anchored represents how resilient the system is to “backlash,” its stability and resistance to movement in high winds. Systems designed with ultra low backlash gear trains use sturdy materials and are carefully designed.

The second step for evaluating a VSAT antenna is to look for units that allow for easy preventive maintenance and remote troubleshooting of problems. For starters, preventive maintenance should be simple to perform with the manufacturer providing easy-to-follow instructions, including keeping the equipment clean by power washing the system. If there is a problem, remote troubleshooting can reduce diagnostic and repair times significantly, with the best systems allowing for someone to remotely connect to controllers. These technicians can log in using a VSAT connection, or out-of-band communications, if the VSAT is down. The units should also feature field serviceability, meaning they are built as a modular design that enables repairs on-site, saving time and money. With a modular system, only damaged parts need to be repaired, not the entire unit. Simply replace what was broken and the system becomes operational. All motors and electronics should be field replaceable, and it should take no more than 20 minutes to replace and repair a damaged part.

A third measure of reliability is whether a VSAT system can automatically acquire a satellite without any operator intervention and without a technician. An auto-acquire system is computerized to search for and identify the correct satellite, and lock onto the signal to maximize signal strength. Maximum signal strength is acquired by pressing one button at set-up and every time the system is moved. In addition, the system periodically re-peaks on the satellite to ensure harsh environmental conditions haven’t compromised the signal strength. With a manual-acquire system, a technician must manually position the satellite antenna on the correct satellite and lock onto the signal. In reality, satellite acquisition time and signal strength depend on the abilities of the installation technician. Furthermore, the cost of sending a trained technician for the initial set-up, all relocations, and readjustments for maximum signal strength can compound quickly.

While it is not practical to re-peak signal strength in a manual-acquire system, in an auto-acquire system, this recalibration can be configured to occur based on the demands of the customer, such as every 15 minutes.  

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