“It’s like magic,” Tom Freeman says from the front seat of the Range Rover, iPad in hand. A driver is taking us in a loop around the Walter E. Washington convention center in Washington, D.C. It’s a nice enough drive—a mural of a skeleton dressed in Civil War attire here, a library with a lowkey glass aesthetic there. But Freeman, whose job titles include “Chief Evangelist,” isn’t here to show me the scenery. In fact, he doesn’t want me looking at the outside world at all. I’ve got an iPad of my own on my lap and he wants me to watch the video.
On the screen, there is a room where we both just were, minutes ago: a room in the Convention Center where Freeman’s company, Kymeta, has a booth. This will turn out to be one of the last events of its kind before coronavirus closes everything—in fact, the conference will close a day early, on March 11. But for now I’m watching a feed of the booth, connected through a white rounded object on top of the Range Rover, the Kymeta u8. The u8, which resembles a small formica-white card table with rounded edges, is the company’s “next generation flat panel electronically steered antenna platform,” which means that it can get amazing video and audio through a mix of both satellite and cell reception. No matter the condition, no matter the chaos outside. Kymeta is targeting both first responders and militaries as customers, saying that if there’s a forest fire or a firefight, the connection will never break or bend.
“We’re not doing something lightweight, like Google Hangouts,” Freeman tells me. The video is running on Cisco Webex.
The video I’m watching is very boring. Satellite 2020 is a trade show, and a few people walk back and forth, up and down a hall, small talk, elbow bump because of coronavirus. But there’s very little lag, as the u8 is continually switching between satellite connection and cell towers. There’s a very slight lag when these changes occur—a freeze frame—and then the video catches right up with them as they move to and fro.
The sound is terrific. When I first start hearing the small talk, I’m convinced my recording device is actually on by mistake. There’s a very small lag at times, which Freeman says happens as the device is switching from a satellite connection to a cellular one. There’s a 600 millisecond lag as the device switches from using a satellite connection to a cell, and 38 millisecond delay from cell to satellite. Driving around DC, buildings continually block our connection to the satellites above but the video is able to pick right up again as if nothing has happened. Having pulled my hair out over Hangouts and Skype, seeing video and sound work this well without WiFi is, in fact, its own sort of magic.
But of course, I’m not the target audience. The u8, which is going to replace the u7, is targeted at first responders of all stripes—federal, state, municipal. The u8—which can either be purchased up front or leased out at $999 a month—offers any vehicle a full communications suite on the move with broadband speeds. It weighs around 55 pounds, making it noticeably lighter than other technologies that can do the same things for around 400 pounds.
The case studies where this could be helpful are easy to find. Wildfires wrecked havoc in California in 2018, among them was the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest recorded fire complex in the state’s history. A combination of two fires, Mendocino burned 459,123 acres, destroying 280 buildings and killing a firefighter along the way.
"I hate to use the pun, but you have to respond first.”
During the midst of an epic fight with the fire, Santa Clara County firefighters realized that they were fighting a two-front battle. On one side was the fire, and on the other was Verizon, their data provider. "Please work with us," a systems analyst for the Santa Clara Fire Department begged the telecom giant in an email at the time. "All we need is a plan that does not offer throttling or caps of any kind."
According to documents from Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden, Verizon had slowed its data rates to just one two-hundredths of normal speeds. The result left firefighters paralyzed and Santa Clara County was essentially forced to buy a new, more expensive plan on the fly.
Internet and cell reception are crucial for first responders, be they firefighters in California or state troopers after a tornado in Tennessee. It allows for them to connect and coordinate with other first responders, to make sure no weak points are being missed. It allows them to view the damage from above through drones to better plan. It allows them to get information back to their headquarters, so that the public can be informed on ground conditions as soon as possible.
“As you have events that are occurring that are exceptionally rapid, maybe even unanticipated—I hate to use the pun, but you have to respond first,” Walter Berger, Kymeta’s President and Chief Operating Officer, tells Inverse. Berger, who once ran hip-hop radio stations while working at CBS, has a calm, intense demeanor. “And to respond first means you have to have knowledge, you have to have connectivity, you have to have data. And if it’s interrupted, or if it’s latent, or if it’s too expensive, then it’s going to mitigate one’s ability to address dramas and traumas.”
Holographic, beam-forming metamaterials
What makes this all work is the u8’s holographic, beam-forming metamaterial antenna. That’s a lot, and Freeman breaks it down for me. He’s giddy to Berger’s stoic, complete with cowboy hat. “Hologram means that we use holograms to use mathematics to point and control our beams. Why do we have beams? Just like in a parabolic antenna [also known as a dish antenna], you have to focus your energy. You can’t listen to everything out there, only to a specific thing. So we point out beam at a satellite, everything else we’re not listening to. Internet broadband travels up and down that beam, and it travels down the surface of this,” he says, pointing to the u8,“and that is the beam-forming.”
And those metamaterials? “The liquid crystal system that allows it point back and forth. Lot of complex words, but essentially not unlike how a television works.” Freeman is able to get all of this out in under a minute.
The u7, the predecessor to the u8, had the same holographic beam-forming metamaterials, but they came as attachable units. The u8 has them integrated, making the device smaller.
The result, Freeman says, is a device that can work in cellular deserts like “Dogbreath, Montana,” where there is no Internet connection to speak of, cellular shadows where a connection is blocked by buildings or bridges, and cellular eclipses, which Freeman describes as giant concerts or sporting events, the type of place where a cellular network can get overwhelmed.
“And then you go one step further, when you look at autonomy,” he says.
Berger tells Inverse that Kymeta’s goal down the road is get their technology into smart cars, offering a seamless and just about perfect connection for cars that have self-driving capabilities. “At times you’re going to want to rely on the cloud, and at times you’re going to want to rely on computing, and ultimately it will come down to a compromise” between the two, Freeman follows up. Kymeta sees itself as that compromise. For any first responders who use the technology, it should hopefully mean no compromise at all.