Step 1: Shoot a satellite into geostationary orbit
Step 2: Place satellite dish on your roof
Step 3: Point said dish at said satellite
Step 4: Enjoy
Pretty simple, right? These same basic steps have been used since the 1960s to bring satellite connections to the masses. The beauty of Clarke’s geostationary orbit means that a satellite can remain in a fixed point on the horizon as it travels the same speed and direction as the earth’s orbit. Even at 35,786 km away, your average satellite television installer can hit that target with the pinpoint accuracy needed to establish a connection.
Keeping a stationary antenna pointed at a stationary satellite in the sky is one thing, but what happens when you put one or both of those two things in motion? The task gets even more difficult if that satellite is in a low earth orbit, meaning that it moves across the sky rather than sitting contently in one spot along the horizon. Maintaining a two-way satellite connection on the move is an engineering challenge for the ages. For example, what if you want a satellite connection on a cruise ship while touring the Mediterranean? Ever wonder what that giant dome is for on the ship? Well just that, it contains gimbal-mounted satellites, so when you turn left to port in Barcelona, the dish automatically adjusts to remain pointed at the satellite in orbit.
The gimbal-mounted dish approach is certainly effective, but the large, heavy mechanisms aren’t ideal. Just look at the Predator Drone design, the enlarged nose was built just to hold the gimbal-mounted dish required for remote control operation.
If you think adjusting a television satellite dish is tough, try maintaining a finely tuned, constantly-moving gimbal. Engineers have explored new options, such as phased-array antennas, but they too are big, expensive, complex, and use a lot of electricity. Through research in our lab, we believe metamaterials holds the answer to on-the-go-broadband satellite communication.
Metamaterials are a new class of synthetic materials that have properties not found in natural materials. In particular, Metamaterials demonstrate a remarkable new effect; it can manipulate incoming electromagnetic waves like light and radio waves and redirect it in a variety of potentially useful ways. Our team has been working on this idea since 2010 and recently developed the Metamaterials Surface Antenna Technology (MSA-T).
MSA-T uses tunable metamaterial elements to steer a radio frequency (RF) beam and keep it aimed at a satellite. The technology requires no moving parts or phase shifters. Instead, it relies on thousands of tiny elements printed on a circuit board. An RF signal is propagated along the surface of the elements, which are selectively activated by software to scatter the energy in a desired direction. This RF beam can be steered in real time to maintain a satellite connection, and the technology’s compact form means that it can be placed on just about anything. Best of all, it can be manufactured with common lithography techniques, making it more affordable than solutions currently on the market.
The upshot for consumers is that this powerful little invention could deliver better, more affordable broadband connections on planes, trains, cars and even on a boat in the middle of the ocean. Militaries could also use the technology to equip smaller unmanned aerial vehicles with satellite communications, or to stay better-connected with soldiers in the field. Beyond its mobile applications, MSA-T’s knack for finding and staying connected to a satellite could also be used in portable laptop-sized antennas. Pull it out, turn it on and enjoy broadband internet anywhere in the world.