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Star Trek communicator lives!

Finnish co. shows high-tech clothing that can send and receive messages via satellite.

By Layer 8 on Wed, 09/30/09 - 10:39am.

wearable attennaThe crew of the classic science-fiction show's Starship Enterprise wore small devices on their chests that they could tap to communicate instantly with their colleagues. Such communications technology is now closer to reality thanks to a Finnish company which this week demonstrated high-tech clothing that can send and receive messages via satellite. 

The demonstrator antenna, built by the Patria Aviation Oy company, looks like a simple patch of cloth but is capable of operating in the Iridium and GPS frequency band as part of clothing.  The Iridium satellites allow two-way voice and data communication, while GPS provides positional data to the user. Iridium could also relay the position of the user. 

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According to the firm, the project's main issue was selecting the fabric to use because the material's electrical characteristics had to be measured using a number of techniques. This is not a completely trivial task and different measurement techniques have to be used in order to evaluate the validity of the extracted parameters, such as the systems ability to store electric capacity, what researchers called its dielectric constant. The next goal was to determine the antenna's performance when the wearer was moving around or bending.

The antenna's geometry allows it to bend in a direction that least reduces performance. Testing proved that the antenna meets the electrical specifications under bending conditions, according to Peter de Maagt, a technical officer with the European Space Agency which funded the project.  

The radiating patch antenna is shielded against environmental conditions by a protective layer. The selected geometry meets the stringent requirements imposed by Iridium and GPS, maintaining 'circular polarization' of its radio signal over the full bandwidth even when bent, which is commonly recognized to be difficult to achieve with soft, wearable antennas, he stated.

The final hurdle will be manufacturing. The main concern is how to make the antenna robust enough against manufacturing tolerances, researchers said. 

Researchers said the project, which has been going on for about 17 months, is going in well and "several antenna samples of the final design have been manufactured for measurements."  According to the ESA Web site, the final work package will start after the measurements are successfully completed.

While the Patria Aviation communicator may be the first actually built into a shirt, at least one other company has compared its device to the Star Trek communicator.  The Vocera Communications System uses hands-free, voice-activated devices that users can carry around their necks to talk with co-workers any time, anywhere within range of the enterprise's Wi-Fi network.

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