Portable satellite dish could assist internet in remote areas

A portable satellite dish that automatically locates transmitting satellites could help roll out mobile internet to remote locations and developing countries.

Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) are developing their flat satellite dish (Flish) as a cheap and lightweight alternative to traditional equipment that has to be manually set up and precisely positioned to receive satellite signals.

Being able to quickly set up portable satellite dishes without expert help could allow them to be used more widely in areas where there is no broadband internet infrastructure, as well as making it easier for charities and journalists to operate in these kind of remote areas.

‘You can have vehicle-mounted antennas and as they move you can track satellite signals but those solutions are quite big and bulky and power-consuming,’ said Stephen Wray, commercial director at QUB’s Institute of Electronic Communication and Information Technology (ECIT)

‘The other market is the land-based antenna and the solution there now you need to set up with your computer, get a GPS location and go through a 10- to 15-minute process before you can link up and send your news report or whatever you want to upload.’

Unlike vehicle-mounted ’self-steering’ satellites that use spinning satellite domes, the Flish relies on a ‘retrodirective’ array of small antennas, which use digital signal processing (DSP) circuitry to calculate the signal’s angle of reflection and work out where it is coming from.

QUB plans to spin out a company called Flish to develop the technology commercially. Having proven the concept, the researchers are now due to start an EPSRC-funded project with several industry partners, including telecoms firm Inmarsat, to build a prototype system.

‘It can provide two-way communication and that’s important for the journalist-type scenario,’ said Wray. ‘But we could use the fundamentals of the technology to be receive-only [for television signals].’

The Flish team also sees a market for directional wireless internet, where multiple signals are directed to specific places around the home to meet the growing demand for data shared between an increasing number of internet-enabled devices.

Flish technology could initially be more expensive than conventional satellite dishes installed in people’s homes, but will likely be much cheaper than existing vehicle mounted or portable systems. Wray pointed out that costs could be recouped through companies sending out fewer technicians to install and maintain dishes.