Dr Neil Buchanan with a prototype of a Retrodirective Antenna. Credit: Queen’s Univ. Belfast
Bulky present generation satellite dishes and ground
terminals could become relics of the past thanks to research currently being
conducted for the European Space Agency (ESA) by Queen’s Univ. Belfast’s Institute of Electronics, Communications and
Information Technology (ECIT) aimed at developing discrete self-aligning flat
It is hoped the work could lead to a one-size-fits all
solution that could be optimized for a variety of technologies presently used
to deliver satellite broadband and television to travelers, as well as customers
in broadband ‘not spots’.
ECIT is currently working on an 18 month ESA project with
the aim of developing a completely self-contained solid-state self-steering
antenna that is much lighter and less power hungry than current alternatives.
The team being led by Professor Vincent Fusco plan to
complete work on a 1.6 GHz demonstrator—capable of providing transfer rates of
0.5 Mbits/s—with a power requirement of just 2 W. It is anticipated that the
device will ultimately have the capability to operate at 20 to 30 GHz in order
to provide much greater bandwidth.
The design currently being worked on is a 4×5 element planar
array measuring 30 cm by 40 cm and just 12 mm deep.
The circuits are entirely analog and incorporate
specially adapted phase locked loop circuits. By contrast, conventional
circuits convert incoming signals to digital, process them electronically, and
then convert them back to analog. This however limits their frequency, and
increases their complexity, cost, and power requirements.
Queen’s Univ. has a strong reputation in this specialized
field, having built the world’s first 65 MHz self steered antenna a number of
years ago. Since then, it has built a close relationship with ESA to whom it is
now the main supplier of quasi-optical filters.
Dr Neil Buchanan the lead engineer on the project who
recently received ESA’s Best Young Engineer award for his work in the field
“The work is especially exciting because it has involved
taking a piece of pure university research and bringing it into the real world.
We believe that self-tracking antennas offer the prospect of much simpler and
more cost effective alternatives to other current approaches. That, we believe,
makes them ideally suited to a variety of end uses.
“For example, satellite broadband aircraft antennas are
extremely complex. They need to be linked into the plane’s onboard 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
“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,” he adds.