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The ancient Roman technology that solves the problem of antennas in the space industry

Maija Palmer of Sifted recently sat down with Isotropic Systems to talk about the antenna under development that can handle signals from multiple satellite systems without moving parts.

Maija Palmer of Sifted recently sat down with Isotropic Systems to talk about the antenna under development that can handle signals from multiple satellite systems without moving parts.

The cost of sending a satellite into space is about 1 / 20th of the price it was two decades ago thanks to the arrival of SpaceX and its reusable rockets. But the price of the antennas that would receive the signals from all these new satellites remains prohibitive.

Additionally, with a large number of satellite constellations from Elon Musk’s Starlink, OneWeb in the UK as well as Inmarsat, Intelsat, SpaceX, Amazon, SES and Telesat, there is a growing cacophony of signals to listen to. , none of which will make the antennas cheaper or easier to build.

British startup Isotropic Systems, however, hopes to solve the satellite industry’s antenna problem with new technology capable of receiving beams from several different satellites – at a price low enough to be used on commercial aircraft, ships and even buses.

The company has just raised $ 40 million in Series B funding from investors such as SES, Boeing HorizonX Global Ventures and the UK Government’s Future Fund, to take the technology to commercial production.

John Finney, founder of Isotropic, says he was inspired to found the company after realizing how many different radio frequencies would be used during the wave of new satellite launches.

“I could see the satellite was going to have a big antenna problem,” he says.

The antennas are already difficult today. A high performance receiver can cost between $ 30,000 and $ 100,000 and can generally receive signals from only one type of satellite. They also need expensive mechanisms – or large phase arrays – to help track the signal as it moves across the sky.

“It has kept the market from being opened up to the use of satellites, it has really been the Achilles heel of the industry,” Finney said.

The isotropic antenna, which will be commercially available, is based on patented lens technology that curves radio waves so that they can be tracked without the need for moving parts for the antenna.

The technology was inspired by the Roman drinking glass, the Lycurgus cup, from the 4th century

Believe it or not, the technology was inspired by the Roman drinking glass, the Lycurgus cup, from the 4th century AD, which appears red or green depending on the direction in which the light passes through it.

The Lycurgus Cup works with tiny particles of gold and silver suspended in the glass that bend the light to make it appear different colors. The exact process of making this glass is not understood even today, but it made Finney, who has a background in optics and telecommunications, question whether radio waves could be bent using a similar method. .

The company now has more than 7 published patents around the technology and has contracts with the US military and navy to supply the antennas. The startup has also received support from the UK government, which is increasingly keen to develop a national space industry. The UK is working, for example, with Lockheed Martin, to become a center for building and launching small satellites. Isotropic is creating new space jobs in the UK, building a new engineering and testing facility near its headquarters in Reading which will employ some 220 people.

For more information, please visit the Isotropic Systems website.

Brian Billman, vice president of product management at Isotropic Systems, speaks at the IET’s Milsatcoms 2021 conference to be held online March 9-12, 2021. “One terminal. All satellites. Create the Future Multilayer Communication Ecosystem for MilSatCom “will take place on Wednesday March 10, 2021.

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