The same basic steps have been used since the 1960′s to connect satellites to the masses. Communications satellites are generally placed in the geostationary orbit, a circular orbit 35,786 km above the Earth’s equator which follows the direction of the Earth’s rotation. A satellite in this orbit has an orbital period equal to the Earth’s rotational period, and thus appears motionless and at a fixed location in the sky from ground observers. The beauty of the geostationary orbit is that satellite antennas which communicate with these satellites do not have to move to track them, but can point at a permanent position in the sky. 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 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. Engineers have explored new options, such as phased-array antennas, but they too are big, expensive, complex, and use a lot of electricity.
We believe metamaterials hold 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 one form, metamaterials demonstrate a remarkable new effect; they can manipulate incoming electromagnetic waves like light and radio waves and redirect them in a variety of potentially useful ways. Our team at Intellectual Ventures Laboratory began working on this idea in 2010 and worked on the early stage development of 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 miniature patterns 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.
Now that the design and test prototyping phase is complete, our new spin-out company, Kymeta, will take the MSA-T project on to commercialization and full-scale product development. Kymeta expects the technology to be available for use in 2015 – just in time to take advantage of new high capacity satellites being deployed over the next few years. In the meantime, you can check out all the details at www.kymetacorp.com.