Researcher creates 'virtual satellite dish'

A Dutch researcher has created a way of building a small, flat ‘virtual satellite dish’ that doesn’t need to be aimed at the transmitter.

The same technology, says Marcel Van de Burgwal of the University of Twente, could be used to offer digital radio on a mobile phone without a massive drain on the batteries.

Both applications are based on a new technique which uses a microchip with relatively simple processors that can interact and communicate flexibly.

And the infrastructure is based on a miniature network, where a TV or radio receiver is defined by software instead of the classic coils and crystals.

“Software-defined radio may seem much more complex, but we can pack so much computing power into the space taken up by, for example, a coil that it more than repays the effort”, says Van de Burgwal.

Stationary antenna arrays could be made up of grids of fixed, almost flat antennae that could fit on the roof of a car, for example. The antennae don’t need to be carefully aimed, allowing for satellite TV on the move.

The system’s roughly comparable with the LOFAR project, in which a large number of simple antennae form a huge dish for radiotelescopy.

Conventional microprocessors don’t handle the calculations as efficiently, says van de Burgwal, as they’re highly overdimensioned and use too much energy.

Using smaller, simple processors on a single microchip, though, allows more flexibility and means processors and be switched off when they’re not needed. In this way, a complete computer network can be constructed that takes up just a few square millimetres.

The same type of chip also turns out to be suitable for a completely different application: digital radio reception on a smartphone. The main problem here is energy use, and Van de Burgwal claims major gains from new methods of communication between the different processors.

The processor is being further developed and marketed by the university’s spinoff business Recore Systems.