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New Antenna to Fuel Satellite Based WiFi on Some UK Trains

Thursday, February 27th, 2020 (9:34 am) - Score 2,450

A team of researchers working out of the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh have developed a new type of Hybrid Flat Panel Antenna (FPA), which could deliver fast on-board WiFi internet connectivity for trains by harnessing a Satellite broadband connection instead of a mobile (4G / 5G) network for capacity.

At present it’s already possible to equip fast moving trains, ships and aircraft with motorised dishes or antennas that can lock on to a Satellite and supply data connectivity. But such systems have tended to be quite big and expensive, which has largely ruled them out for use on ordinary commuter trains in the UK with our narrow tunnels.

By comparison the new patent-pending antenna isn’t much bigger than a large rectangular computer tablet (it’s a bit thicker though) and makes use of an innovative new approach to electronic control steering, which allows for tracking of the satellite. The new antenna can work with traditional Satellites, as well as the new generation of compact Low Earth Orbit (LEO) spacecraft in mega constellations (SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon, Facebook etc.).

The technology started being developed in 2016 under a European Commission (EC) funded project by the European Space Agency (ESA), following other sources of funding such as via the UK Department for Transport (DFT) and the ongoing High Growth Spinout Program (HGSP) funded by Scottish Enterprise (SE). Since then the team has created a spin-out company called INFINECT to commercialise their antenna.

As it stands the new antenna is currently being developed during 2020 to Technology Readiness Level 5 (level 8-9 is the launch window) after achieving TRL3 last year. The plan now is to conduct a user-led field trial with Network Rail by the end of this year, which means that it will need to be installed on some UK trains and will be used to supply on-board WiFi connectivity.

The new technology is a useful step forward, although it remains to be seen whether the high cost of data and painfully slow latency times of Satellite connectivity (at least until newer LEO networks become available) can provide a viable alternative to mobile based data connectivity for capacity supply on trains. Tunnels are also still a problem for satellites, which is something that mobile could overcome with a network of small cells.

At this point it’s worth remembering that, back in December 2017, the Government pledged to make “uninterrupted” WiFi and Mobile (5G) broadband speeds of up to 1Gbps (Gigabits per second) available on-board all UK mainline train routes by 2025, but since then they haven’t provided any updates on progress.

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12 Responses
  1. Avatar tim says:

    We’re not far from having LEO satellites online and they will use flat-panel type beaming forming antennas. So this tech for high orbit (geostationary) satellites may well be a bit too late to the game. However does help with competition between the two different approaches to satellite connectivity.

    Did they forget about tunnels? lol.

    1. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      The above antenna can work with all satellites, not only GSOs.

  2. Avatar Burble says:

    I’d like to see a motorhome version, but I guess this system will be very expensive.

  3. Avatar wirelesspacman says:

    I think the interesting thing here really is that they seem to have worked out how to do rapid beamforming with the antenna. If so, then it could prove very useful in other areas too (ie not just for satellites to trains n planes).

    For example, there is a growing number of 60GHz kit now available for FWA ISP use that uses beamforming antenna. These work well in sorting out the “alignment” between the AP device and the Station device, but the process takes seconds at least. Thus, if the units are not mounted securely then, for example, wind against the pole can still impact performance. If this new technology can cope with trains running at a couple of hundred km per hour, then hopefully movements due to wind on a pole would not cause it any real problems (as the speed of movement of the pole would be pretty slow).

    1. Avatar 5G_Infinity says:

      Very fast switching, or more correctly been steering, has been around for a few years. It is used by the oil, gas, ferry industries to deliver 150Mbps to oil platforms up to 20km offshore.

      For satellite, using these antenna on GEO/MEO is doable but those satellites are on the horizon for us in the UK and thus hills, cuttings etc make it almost impossible.

      These antenna on LEO are almost mandatory to allow fast tracking of at least 2 satellites simultaneously and in a polar orbit.

    2. Avatar wirelesspacman says:

      Thanks 5G, good to know. I guess that (currently at least) it is too expensive for the current set of 60 GHz FWA kit.

  4. Avatar Steve says:

    “can cope with trains running at a couple of hundred km per hour”

    I’m not sure it’d need that level of performance for the trains round here…

  5. Avatar Mike says:

    Will the rail replacement buses get them too?

  6. Avatar Whyohwhydelilah says:

    meh… 4G can deliver hundreds of megabits but we get 0.01mb.

    if we get sat broadband we’re still going to get 0.01mb but now with a 2000ms ping to boot.

    yes im a sceptic. cue the “hur dur you don’t know nuffin” comments….

    1. Avatar Adam says:

      “The new antenna can work with traditional Satellites, as well as the new generation of compact Low Earth Orbit (LEO) spacecraft in mega constellations (SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon, Facebook etc.)” I suggest reading up on Marks other articles on LEO satellites.

  7. Avatar Phil says:

    I wonder what the upload speed will be like?

    1. Avatar Optimist says:

      Uploads will be slow because of having to overcome gravity.

      I’ll get me coat….

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