European Space Agency

Satcoms support for modular smartphones

The modular smartphone is a new concept in mobile telephone design. Current smartphones have a mostly monolithic construction, but a modular smartphone would be built from components that can be independently upgraded or replaced. This should not only make the handsets easier to customise, but also lower repair costs and reduce electronic waste.

In response to this development, ESA has launched an Invitation to Tender, Satcom modules for smartphones, which offers European SMEs up to €550k to support the development of satellite communications modules for modular smartphones. This ARTES 5.1 ITT opened in August and closes on 14 October. 

One of the first modular smartphone concepts was presented by Phonebloks. This has triggered various other modular smartphone developments, such as Google's Ara ProjectPuzzlephoneNexpaq and Fairphone 2. The basic idea behind these initiatives is to develop a standard interface and a baseline mobile phone for which new modules can be developed by the mobile telecommunications industry. Hardware modules would be purchased by users through an online store, just like mobile apps are bought from app stores.

The Phonebloks concept (YouTube)

A satcom module for a modular smartphone would allow the device to function as a satellite terminal. Dedicated satellite handsets currently cost upwards of €500, but a satcom module built using commodity parts could conceivably be considerably cheaper, while offering attractive user interface. For the ARA handset (now expected in 2016), Google targets a price point of $50. If the total cost of a combined terrestrial and satellite unit was less than $150, this could give the use of handheld satellite communications a tremendous boost in parts of the world not well served by land-based services. Combined with emerging standards for machine-to-machine communications via satellite, a satcom module implementing energy-efficient messaging would be another important breakthrough.

The module to be developed could have an L-band antenna for compatibility with Inmarsat, Thuraya, Iridium, and Globalstar satellite systems. Alternately, a module using S-band or lower frequencies such as VHF and UHF can also be proposed. Given the small dimensions of smartphones, the physical size requirements of the antenna may require some creativity on the part of the developer.

The concept is not a completely new one. Thuraya's SatSleeve makes it possible to add an external L-band satcom module to iPhone and Android smartphones. In a modular smartphone, such a module would be plugged in internally, making it a more compact and elegant solution.

Slideshow image credit: Phonebloks

Published 26 August 2015
Last updated at 14 September 2015 - 09:35