UQ researcher develops satellite terminal for faster internet

Thursday, 30 June 2016
University of Queensland's Dr Yifan Wang is working on new satellite terminal technology that could allow users to connect at speeds up to 10 times faster.

Internet speeds in remote areas of Australia – and the rest of the world – can be notoriously bad, with residents having to rely on poor satellite connections to get online.

But a University of Queensland researcher, working in collaboration with Brisbane-based company EM Solutions, is working on new satellite terminal technology that could allow users to connect at speeds up to 10 times faster.

Dr. Yifan Wang, from the University of Queensland, School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering, is developing a compact, low-profile, low cost Ka-band antenna to communicate with a low earth orbit satellite. The terminal is around the size of a pizza box, and he has drafted and simulated it with remote residents in mind.

Currently, residents need to use ground terminals to help connect to the internet, which can have hit and miss performance. But Wang’s project uses a flat panel antenna that he said is more accessible and mobile.

“It’s low profile and very thin, a little bit bigger than a laptop, but smaller than a pizza box, to provide the high speed communication at 20 or 30 GHz,” he said.

The antenna terminal is small enough to be installed on the roof of a house or even on top of a car or an unmanned aerial vehicle to provide mobile access.

“In theory, someone that is driving in the desert or someone that is operating a ship, which can hardly act as the conventional telecommunication signal, can communicate with the satellite to use the high speed internet,” Wang said.

The antenna terminal would work by connecting with low orbiting satellites. As the satellites are relative close to earth – as little as 160 kms away – faster data speeds can be achieved.

This could be a big win for those in remote areas, with many residents currently relying on satellite communication, which has its challenges.

“A geo-stationary satellite is very far from the Earth, which requires a very large antenna dish to be installed and fixed on top of a building or somewhere else to communicate with a satellite that always operates at a low data speed,” Wang said.

“The shortcoming of this communication is the speed is very low and it only supports satellite telephones and some of the low data rates of communication, such as sending a message or voice calls.”

This means access to internet sites that many people in more populated areas take for granted are off-limits to those in remote regions.

Antenna design

Wang has spent considerable time working on the antenna’s design and has looked at several different options, such as using a parabolic dish and reflectarray design.

However, both these approaches are generally rejected by communities because of the weight, size and cost of the antennas.

The other option was a reconfigurable flat panel antenna.

“That means the antenna itself is fixed and stationary – it’s not rotated entirely by mechanical arms – but the beamforming capability is realised by the internal reconfiguration of the antenna,” Wang said.

“So the challenge was how to design and how to make the antenna as thin as possible and as cheap as possible, and also provide a very similar performance as a parabolic antenna.”

Wang has been working on the research with Ph.D. students for around 18 months, and has been developing computer simulations to create methodologies on how the antenna should be designed.

He is also working on a prototype, which he hopes to have completed in another nine months. After the prototype’s completion, he plans to carry out trials. This will include moving the antenna terminals out of the laboratory to a remote area to communicate with a low orbit satellite and look at its reliability and the maximum bandwidth achievable.

Wang said it’s too early to say how much a terminal might sell for, but he expects the prototype to cost around $2000. He will also be using high-performance dielectric materials that major companies have available to them – using these types of high performance materials for the antenna makes it work more efficiently.

It may be another two or three years until Wang has developed a commercial product.

“At this stage we can say the simulation result is good and we are waiting for the measurement result to evaluate how efficient the antenna is and how good the performance is,” Wang said.

[Image: Freeimages.com/Andrei Firtich]

Don't forget to register for the Australian Engineering Conference 2016 in Brisbane on November 23-25.