European Space Agency Developing Self-Steered Antennas

Satellite based broadband service to vehicles and portable devices could become more affordable thanks to an analog self-steered antenna being developed by researchers at Queen's University of Belfast's Institute of Electronics in a European Space Agency (ESA) project. Professor Vincent Fusco and his team plan to complete work on a 1.6 GHz demonstrator. (This frequency, by the way, is in the range used by LightSquared for its hybrid satellite/terrestrial network.)

The Queen's University of Belfast news release didn't provide any details on antenna gain, saying only that it would be capable of providing transfer rates of 0.5 Mbps with a power requirement of only 2 Watts. The demonstrator antenna under development is a 4x5 element planar array measuring 30x40-cm across and only 12-mm deep.

It's anticipated that the technology will ultimately be able to operate in the 20-30 GHz band to provide much greater bandwidth. University personnel explained that conventional electronically-steered antenna circuits depend on the conversion of incoming signals to digital, processing them electronically, and then converting them back to analog. The Queen's University device is entirely analog and incorporates specially adapted phase-locked loop circuits that are less complex, lower in cost and which consume less power.

According to Dr. Neil Buchanan, the lead engineer on the project and recipient of ESA's Best Young Engineer award for his work in the field, the development should simplify antenna system design and will reduce costs of such systems.

"The work is especially exciting because it has involved taking a piece of pure university research and bringing it into the real world," said Buchanan. "Satellite broadband aircraft antennas are extremely complex. They need to be linked into the plane's on-board navigation system in order to find the satellite. In trains and road vehicles, they consume a lot of power and they require mechanical parts for tracking purposes. We believe that across these applications the solution we are currently working on could reduce power consumption by a factor of 10, weight by a factor of five and cost by a factor of four. It clearly has a lot of potential."

Doug Lung

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.