Mobile broadband satellite breakthrough: Vehicles stay connected while on the move

A new kind of mobile antenna could bring broadband to remote or infrastructure-damaged parts of the world—and do it while a vehicle is moving

Mobile broadband satellite antenna breakthrough
Credit: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Despite a slew of new broadband satellite projects up and running and in the pipeline, there’s a still a drawback to mobile satellite Internet compared to traditional wireless mobile networks. One big problem with satellite has always been that it’s hard to stay locked onto the transmission beam when you’re moving.

Airlines get away with it for their cabins because the aircraft moves in a relatively stable manner, making it easier to point the antenna and grab the signal. But automobiles don’t move like that, explains the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits in a press release.

The electronics institute may have found a solution, though. It claims it has developed a new kind of moving-capable antenna for ground vehicles.

The satellite antenna has to be aligned very precisely to the satellite, just like in the case of television,” the institute writes.

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Cars create constant arbitrary movement, which gets worse through poor road surfaces in just the kind of places one needs satellite internet—places where there’s no cell coverage, like disaster zones, remote oil and gas exploration fields and so on.

The institute says its vehicle roof-mounted antenna is going to solve this historic problem that’s hindered the groups reliant on remote broadband Internet. They include disaster response workers who use Internet for communications, situational awareness like weather reports and mapping of incidents. Video is desired, too, but is only possible with broadband.

Fraunhofer’s antenna uses algorithms that move the antenna’s aim very quickly. This fraction-of-a-second adjustment lets the mounted, and possibly shaking, antenna track and view the relevant satellites more accurately than before, it says. An antenna can’t be off by more than a twentieth of a degree. “Even just getting into a car moves it more” than that, the researchers say.

Using a flat panel antenna instead of a dish

The second advance that the electronics scientists have made is that they’re using a flat panel antenna rather than a traditional 60-centimeter dish. Airlines also use flat antennas.

Bulky and heavy, wind-capturing parabolic dishes aren’t good for mounting on moving vehicle roofs. They are usually erected on a stationary vehicle roof or trailer, or they are built out on the ground from a flight case.

In all of those traditional scenarios, it takes skill and time to perform the setup. One can’t just switch on a classic mobile-ready broadband satellite connection in the field like one can with a mobile network hotspot, say. The satellite apparatus is also hard to move.

The Fraunhofer Institute scientists, who have developed their “KASYMOSA (Ka-band systems for mobile satellite communications) project” antenna with four other German technical universities and institutes, say their system won’t drop out for capacity reasons either.

The system has a special modem that adjusts the data rate depending on circumstances.

Bandwidth, when moving, can be “several megabits per second,” Florian Raschke, of the institute, says in the press release.

“Of course, we don‘t approach the gigabit streams of a solid data line, but for satellite communication, it‘s a big step," he says. “Rescuers in the future will be able to send videos of the local situation and maps quickly, and without the connection breaking off. Just like you are used to from the Internet. And even clear satellite telephone calls without dropouts will be possible.”

The team claims that its algorithm-based moving system is impervious to thunderstorms, too, unlike traditional satellite transmissions that can be blocked by heavy rain.

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