On Wednesday, March 16, Russell Hannigan, director of business development at IV®, spoke about some of IV’s work in the metamaterials space and revealed for the first time a project to develop technology for a new kind of flat and thin antenna optimized for mobile broadband satellite communications, such as for boats, planes and other vehicles. Unlike all other competing products that require complicated motors to steer the antenna physically so that it remains locked on the satellite, IV’s Metamaterial Surface Antenna Technology (MSA-T) is designed to steer a radio frequency beam electronically. Eliminating the motors greatly simplifies the user terminal, leading potentially to an order of magnitude reduction in size, weight, power and cost.

Russell joined a panel at SATELLITE 2011 in Washington D.C., where the title of his presentation was “Metamaterial Surface Antenna Technology (MSA-T): Ka-band satcom user terminal employing metamaterial technology to enable electronic beam steering.” We asked him to answer some questions about metamaterials and the pioneering work IV is doing, as well as provide recommendations on where to learn more about this fascinating technology.

1.    What are metamaterials?
The term “metamaterials” embodies a new class of artificial materials that exhibit properties that cannot be achieved with naturally occurring materials, allowing engineers to manipulate electromagnetic radiation, such as light and radio waves, in potentially useful ways. As one example, think of how glass bends light at the surface due to refraction. With metamaterials, it is possible to build structures that provide “backwards” bending of light (so-called “negative refraction”) – something that is not possible with naturally occurring materials. As another, perhaps even more exotic example, metamaterials can be used to create a “cloaking” device that bends rays of light to avoid an obstruction (the “cloaked” object), although the commercial implementation of such products are a ways off.

Metamaterials are most commonly composed of small elements, typically built onto circuit boards or assembled using nanofabrication techniques, whose feature size is significantly smaller than the wavelength of the electromagnetic waves they are intended to manipulate. As a result, each metamaterial element works in concert with numerous other elements such that they appear to the electromagnetic radiation as a homogenous material.

2.    What is IV working on? How is it unique?
Over the last decade, IV has amassed a deep and broad intellectual property portfolio in the area of metamaterials. We are fortunate and honored to be working with some of the preeminent leaders in this field to ensure that our technology portfolio is truly unique and foundational. IV’s investment in metamaterials demonstrates our foresight and commitment to disruptive technologies; although a decade ago we understood that such materials had the potential to deliver interesting properties, it was not clear which markets would be the first to apply them and where the ultimate pay-off might be.

In February 2010, Dr. Nathan Kundtz and I worked together to evaluate approximately 20 different applications of metamaterials, taking into account not only technical feasibility, but also customer needs, business scale and manufacturing factors. In essence, we looked for markets where real and growing needs existed, and where the technical attributes of metamaterials could provide a significant or, preferably, a disruptive advantage. In this regard, it is important to emphasize that throughout this evaluation we focused almost exclusively on the rather mundane, but incredibly practical, aspects of metamaterial technology. The application we chose – mobile satellite communications – has nothing to do with cloaking devices, but it is just as much an application of metamaterials and there is real market demand behind it.

 

3.    Why did IV choose satellite communications user terminals as our first application of metamaterials?
In order to maintain a two-way broadband link with a satellite, it is necessary to point the antenna extremely precisely. In fact, the pointing precision required by the FCC is less than the angular diameter of the full moon as seen from Earth. Pointing a satellite antenna this accurately is relatively easy to do when the antenna is fixed to a building. However, it is considerably more difficult to maintain this fine level of pointing precision when the satellite antenna is mounted on a moving object, such as a boat, aircraft, train, truck or other vehicle.

For the past three decades, the only solution to this mobile tracking problem has been to place a satellite dish (typically 40-100 cm in diameter) on two motorized gimbals. Thus, when a ship or plane rotates in any direction, the antenna senses this motion and the gimbals compensate by keeping the dish pointed in the same direction. As you can imagine, this is a difficult engineering challenge and leads to a large, thick, power hungry and, above all, expensive product. Typically, such terminals can cost in excess of $30,000.

IV’s metamaterials technology has allowed us to create a completely new kind of satcom terminal that can achieve that same fine pointing precision, but without the use of motors or other complicated mechanisms. Indeed, the antenna portion of the terminal looks much like a printed circuit board, being very thin and flat. We call it: “Metamaterial Surface Antenna Technology” or MSA-T for short, and it works as follows:

  • A radio-frequency (RF) “surface wave” is fed into and propagates along the surface of a thin (few-mm thickness) circuit-board-like structure covered with metamaterial tunable elements.
  • When activated, tunable metamaterial elements scatter RF energy of this surface wave off the surface.
  • Software is used to activate a certain pattern of tunable elements to compose a “beam” of scattered RF energy launched in a certain direction.
  • By changing that pattern, it is possible to launch the RF beam in almost any direction, thereby enabling beam steering.

The compelling advantage of MSA-T is that it can deliver the dynamic performance of phased array antennas – which can cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars – but it is much, much simpler and less expensive to design, build and operate. Indeed, we are designing MSA-T from the outset to use mature lithographic manufacturing techniques and utilize off-the-shelf electronic components that were previously developed for consumer electronics and automotive products. We believe MSA-T satcom user terminals have the potential to offer a factor of ten improvement in cost, size, weight and power in comparison to what is currently in the market today, thereby resulting in a highly disruptive product in a growing market space. We believe this is a good recipe for success.

4.    When will IV’s technology be available?
We are almost one year into a nearly four-year development program. Depending on which commercialization, partnering and product path we pursue first, we believe satcom user terminals incorporating MSA-T could be introduced as early as 2014. We plan to address both commercial and defense market opportunities.

5.    Can I invest in IV’s MSA-T work?
We are currently speaking with a number of potential strategic partners who have expressed a strong interest in supporting our MSA-T program. We remain interested in speaking with others companies who have a specific need and interest in this kind of capability.

6.    Where can I learn more about metamaterials?
To learn more about metamaterials in general, we recommend Professor David Smith’s website at Duke University and the website for Duke University’s Center for Metamaterials and Integrated Photonics.  You can also check out the Wikipedia page on metamaterials.  If you represent a company looking for more information on IV’s work in the metamaterial space, please email rhannigan@intven.com. If you are from the media or seeking general information on Intellectual Ventures, you can find the appropriate contact here.


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