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Satellite communications for all?

31 May 2012

It may or may not come as a surprise to learn that mainstream wireless technologies like cellular cover less than ten percent of the globe. Alright, the remaining 90 percent is either ocean or very sparsely populated territory and so this doesn’t really matter, does it?

Not so, says Cambridge Consultants’ wireless division head, Richard Traherne, who points out that our hunger for ‘always on’ connectivity, combined with an increasing desire to control and monitor what goes on around us, means that this is no longer the case.

But global cellular would be an unaffordable, unnecessary luxury, wouldn’t it –and certainly impossible with any surface based infrastructure? There is, however, an alternative approach, and that is low earth orbit (LEO) satellite, which Mr Traherne asserts is by no means the niche technology that many might believe it to be.

A rising star in the LEO satellite firmament is the US company, Iridium Communications Inc., owner of a satellite constellation providing one hundred percent coverage of the earth. And as LEO satellites orbit just 480 miles above the earth’s surface (as opposed to their geostationary alternatives at 21,500 miles), there are less in the way of data latency issues. According to Mr Traherne, Iridium has more than 500,000 subscribers worldwide, which means it has definitely begun to break out of niche markets.

Cambridge Consultants has been working alongside Iridium as the latter’s design partner for nearly ten years. It recently conducted successful trials of new key components of the world’s largest push-to-talk (PTT) radio system – the US Department of Defense Distributed Tactical Communications System (DTCS). DTCS enables soldiers in isolated areas to communicate without the need for ground infrastructure – and in locations where they often can’t pick up a geostationary satellite’s signal unless they move to higher ground.

Mr Traherne says his company has developed radio transceiver electronics for DTCS handheld radios, as well as gateway infrastructure to support the DTCS service. Both of these elements are critical to the success of the system, with the gateway element ultimately targeting a ‘five nines’ (99.999%) reliability rating, to ensure that soldiers have service when they need it most.

Cambridge Consultants says the new technology it has developed includes advanced software radio functionality that will provide multiple receiver capability and rapid synchronisation to Iridium satellites to enhance PTT connection speed and call quality.

The price of variable speed drives
Commenting on a recent food & beverage (F&B) market sector report by Frost & Sullivan in which the researcher revealed that prices of variable speed drives (VSDs) are dropping by about 3 percent per year, and thus affecting the profit margins of suppliers, GAMBICA deputy director, Steve Brambley takes issue with the report's emphasis on the 3 percent price fall, declaring it to be hardly 'headline news' at all.

Indeed, Mr Brambley believes this recent report from Frost & Sullivan made headline news for all the wrong reasons. "It presented the fact that VSDs are dropping in price by three percent per year as its most significant finding," he says. "Furthermore, many of the news reports buried the most important results - the fact that electric motors consume two thirds of the energy used in the F&B sector.

"A cursory analysis of a three per cent drop in price for variable speed drives demonstrates that the product is holding its own in the recession," Mr Brambley continues. "For instance, compare the price drop to the average cost of an LCD television today and its equivalent five years ago. Suddenly a three per cent drop seems like a figure that can still provide a comparatively high profit margin.

"In contrast, compare the amount of energy used in the F&B sector now to the amount used five years ago, when the automation of the industry was substantially less advanced than it is today. There were thousands fewer electric motors in use, thousands fewer opportunities to save energy using VSDs and millions of pounds less being spent on energy. 

"The bottom line is that 66 percent of all industrial energy (not just the F&B industry) is used by motors and 97 percent of motor lifetime cost is energy. The financial gains provided by VSD control are uncomplicated and compelling. In comparison a three per cent price drop doesn’t seem like headline news to me."

Glasgow aglow
The University of Strathclyde gained a feather in its cap last week when Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, Europe's largest organisation for applied research, announced its intention to establish a new Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics in collaboration with the university. It is hoped that the Centre will become a hub for industry-driven laser research and technology for a variety of sectors, including healthcare, security, energy and transport.

At the same time Fraunhofer will establish a UK headquarters - Fraunhofer UK Research - at the university, which will be the umbrella organisation for any additional UK-based research centres in the future. The new Fraunhofer Centre will be based in the University’s Technology and Innovation Centre, which was launched in March last year. It will be funded by Fraunhofer and the university, the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Funding Council.

The UK headquarters and the Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics at Strathclyde joins a growing community of global Fraunhofer Centres. The organisation has more than 80 research units in Germany alone, and is establishing Centres throughout Europe, Asia and North America - most recently among them that powerhouse of research, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A University of Strathclyde spokesperson said that this first UK venture could be the model for more Fraunhofer research centres around the UK.

Les Hunt

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