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Israeli startup bets on ‘smart’ satellite antennas for global web access

JERUSALEM: Israeli startup Skyfi is looking to outflank Facebook and Google in a race to provide worldwide internet access by developing the first self-correcting antenna that can turn mini-satellites into powerful transmitters covering the globe.

The two technology leaders are working on ways to beam internet access from the sky to remote areas, Google with high-flying balloons and Facebook with a combination of drones and larger, more complex satellites.

But it will take an orbiting cluster of 60 miniature, or nano, satellites, each about the size of a shoe box, to provide full coverage of earth, said Raz Itzhaki Tamir, a veteran of Israel’s aerospace industry who co-founded Skyfi four years ago.

The way he hopes to do it is by using a parachute-like antenna that deploys once in space. The antenna can then mechanically adjust itself for imperfections in the transmitter’s surface, allowing a stronger signal to pass, and even alter the direction it points should broadcast needs change over the course of the satellite’s life.

That may not sound like much, but those are two major hurdles that have limited satellite operators for years.

While the company says it has a working “proof of concept”, the technology has yet to be proven in space, so don’t expect a fleet of internet-providing nanosatellites for at least a few years. But the antenna alone could be big business in the meantime.

Thousands of new satellites will be launched into space in the coming decade and many will use technology from Israel, which has built on its military expertise to capture a sizeable chunk of the growing commercial space market, particularly in the field of miniaturization.

Skyfi raised $3 million in a round led by Jerusalem Venture Partners, one of the country’s most successful venture capital funds, and says it has signed letters of intent to sell its antennas to global players such as Lockheed Martin and Spacecom.

Spacecom, which is collaborating with Facebook to beam internet services to Africa, said that if the new Skyfi antenna is successful, it would be in huge demand.

“This type of solution will conquer the market, because it addresses some of the most serious and bothersome issues for satellite operators,” said David Pollack, Spacecom’s chief executive.

For now, Skyfi is perfecting its system by testing a large version of the antenna in a 50-square-meter (yard) echoless chamber that simulates the conditions of space. It plans to launch its first unit in the next 18 months.

“Currently, if an antenna is not perfect, you have to live with it, with the losses,” said Tamir. “We can change that and be flexible, thus gaining more revenue from the satellite.”

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