The engineers at GATR Technologies in Huntsville knew they had a good product early on, because, at natural disaster sites in the Philippines where they’d go to test it, governmental authorities tended to seize it to restore their own voice and data links.
At that time the product was a 2.4-meter inflatable satellite antenna that could be packed down to two cases of less than 100 pounds each, put on a plane to go anywhere and quickly create or restore telephone or Internet communications.
The inflatable package, secured to the ground with cables and weighted plates, protects and stabilizes the antenna dish inside while cutting the weight and packaged volume by 80 percent compared to rigid dishes. In 2004, the year GATR was incorporated, company president Paul Gierow tested the strange-looking ensemble on the beach while vacationing in Gulf Shores. “I might have looked a little odd, but I was the only person on the beach with a T-1 hookup, ” he says.
The technology got more of a trial by fire a year later, when Hurricane Katrina wiped out structures and services all along the Gulf Coast. It was exactly the sort of situation the packable communications system was meant to handle, and it convinced Gierow that the company had a winner on its hands. In the last three years, GATR has seen revenue growth of 346 percent and more than doubled its number of employees, which now stands at 51, he says.
The company also makes larger and smaller versions of the inflatable dish, including the 1.2-meter package, described as “backpack ready and jump capable, ” and the 4-meter version, with enough bandwidth to be a central command hub, communicating independently with satellites and ground terminals while directing voice and Internet traffic.
Among the newest products on their drawing board is a “tracker” dish that will mesh with newer, smaller satellites being put into orbit by private companies interested in achieving specific uses.
Private industry has become the driving force for launching small, task-specific satellites, according to attendees at the annual Small Satellite Conference conducted last August at Utah State University. Such satellites might weigh 1, 100 pounds or less.
“(Governments) are building big satellites; the private companies are trying to go new ways with a cheaper, more flexible satellite, ” Stephan Roemer, head of space project development and space sales at Astro-und Feinwerktechnik Adlershof GmbH, told The Herald Journal of Logan, Utah.
All of those smaller satellites overhead are playing into GATR’s next big thing, Gierow says. Cheaper and more numerous satellites could get the company closer to what he calls the “nirvana” of imaging and surveillance for warfighters and catastrophic event first responders.
“Our tracking antenna could pull imagery from small satellites and overlay that against older images of the area from before a hurricane or other natural disaster, so you could see exactly what changes have occurred in the landscape. A live Google Map is sort of the nirvana for us, ” he says.
Such innovations, which were developed with help from Huntsville’s Space and Missile Defense Command and the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, have landed GATR in the Inc. 5000 for six years in a row. U.S. and Allied militaries have fielded more than 300 GATR ISA terminals since 2008, the company says, proving the technology’s strength and reliability.
The company’s future was cemented last January when it won a five-year Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity contract from the U.S. military and other agencies with a ceiling of $440 million to provide them with inflatable satellite antennas. “We were extremely fortunate to leverage early Small Business Innovative Research contracts and Quick Reaction Funding from the Department of Defense to help us initially field and improve our technology, ” Gierow said at the time.
In August, the company participated in the U.S. Pacific Command’s capstone event, Pacific Endeavor in Kathmandu, Nepal.
As for what the future holds, Gierow sees it as a matter of trying to control and direct the interest shown in “the great big antenna in the little bitty box, ” as his marketing staff calls it.
“It’s all a lot of opportunity and a matter of execution now, ” he says. “I see us doubling or tripling in revenue and employees in coming years. We tie our company back to the storyline of Huntsville and the space program, but making it a more commercial application.”
Dave Helms is a copy editor for Business Alabama.
Text by Dave Helms