When disaster strikes, communications can be the first to go. Yet communications are essential for rescue and recovery efforts, particularly within the first few critical hours and days. Depending on the conditions, existing telecommunication infrastructure may be inadequate or wholly non-functional, and frequently there is a need for alternative ad hoc systems to exchange vital data from remote locations. In these situations, robust, highly portable, high-speed satellite communications terminals play an indispensable role.
In view of this, ESA has supported the development of URDA, the Ultra Rapid Deployable Antenna. This ARTES 5.1 activity encompassed the design, construction, and testing of a compact Ku-band satellite antenna that can be folded, easily transported, and rapidly deployed. The prime contractor was HPS GmbH (DE), which is now developing the antenna into a commercial product.
A typical scenario would be disaster recovery, when a fast and reliable link with headquarters is essential to communicate the type of aid needed and to direct relief teams. Other potential users of the URDA antenna would be security personnel, journalists, scientists, and engineers involved in explorations in remote areas, as well as expedition teams preparing high-definition TV broadcasts from remote locations.
"Our market intelligence indicates that the new ground antenna will be a major breakthrough," says Ernst Pfeiffer, CEO of HPS. "Hitherto there has not been a commercial solution which offers this combination of performance and extreme portability. Up to now one could choose between small size or rapid deployment or high accuracy, but you could not have all in one. With URDA these three important characteristics are now combined in a single antenna that can be used whenever the existing terrestrial communication infrastructure is no longer available.”
Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of the new umbrella-shaped antenna is the flexible reflector surface that is based on technology developed for building large deployable reflectors for use in space. Made from shell-membrane triax Carbon Fibre Reinforced Silicone (CFRS) mesh, it offers both high accuracy as well as low susceptibility to high winds. The pointing capability of the antenna is managed by means of a lightweight and stable custom tripod with a tri-directional head that can be quickly detached from the reflector and stowed separately.
The system includes a battery-based power supply and a Skywan modem (ND Satcom) that can be directly connected to a laptop using a standard Ethernet interface. The antenna is designed such that it can be unfolded, pointed, and communications initiated within five minutes.
“During field tests, the URDA antenna has proven to be robust and reliable,” says Paolo Zolla, URDA development manager at HPS. “However, for us to develop it into a commercial product we will need to work on industrialising some of the components. The reflective surface of the demonstration unit required substantial manual work; for serial production, efforts will be made to reduce costs and manufacturing time.”
The company has set for itself an ambitious target: “Our goal is to have the first production prototype available by the beginning of 2017,” Zolla says.
“URDA has been developed by HPS thanks to the opportunities made possible by ARTES 5.1,” says Peter de Maagt, Head of the Antenna and Submillimetre Wave Section at ESA. “It is a good example of how ESA can cultivate the flexibility and innovative spirit of an SME, supporting it to become part of the European space industry landscape,”
“The new antenna is also a great example of a technology developed originally for a space application being transferred to a ground segment product,” De Maagt says.