Satellite antenna developed to keep railway commuters online

Never miss a connection again: Satellite antenna promises to keep commuters online for the whole train journey and end patchy coverage

  • Trains connect to the internet via the masts of regular telephone networks
  • However, these can be scarce in both rural areas and alongside railway routes
  • Satellite-based communications could provide a far more reliable connection
  • Scottish experts have developed a flat satellite antenna suitable for use on trains

A prototype satellite antenna has been developed that promises to keep commuters online throughout train journeys — and avoid frustrating disconnections.

WiFi facilities on trains typically connect to regular telephone networks via mobile masts — but these can provide patchy coverage along railway lines.

Satellite connections could provide a more reliable connection on the move.

However, conventional satellite communications dishes are large, heavy and far from aerodynamic — making them unsuitable for mounting onto trains.

Researchers from Scotland have instead developed a flat panel antenna that could easily be added to rolling stock to provide seamless connectivity for passengers.

The research team — who are spinning out in a start-up called Infinect — will be conducting field trials of their antenna later this year with a major rail operator. 

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A prototype satellite antenna has been developed that promises to keep commuters online throughout train journeys — and avoid frustrating disconnections, pictured

According to a survey by price comparison website uSwitch, over two-thirds of passengers in the UK find themselves unable to connect to train WiFi. 

‘Poor connectivity on journeys is one of the leading frustrations of passengers globally,’ said Samuel Rotenberg, the engineer at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh who helped to develop the antenna design.

‘Today’s users are used to fibre-optic superfast broadband, with 4G connectivity seen as the minimum standard.’

‘Yet, on the move, our connectivity is patchy and continually interrupted.’ 

‘Cities provide continuous connectivity using a large network of antennas. However, there are fewer placed in rural areas, especially along railway tracks, which results in the signal being lost.’

‘However, extending the ground network to improve access in rural area is expensive and unreliable for transportation.’

‘Antennas for satellite communication are, in the main, large, heavy, bulky and dish shaped so aren’t aerodynamic and are impractical for high-speed trains to carry.’

WiFi facilities on trains typically connect to regular telephone networks via mobile masts — but these can provide patchy coverage along railway lines

‘Our research has developed a flat panel antenna which will communicate with satellites throughout a journey, without loss of connectivity,’ Mr Rotenberg added.

‘It’s fairly lightweight, at a fraction of the cost of existing solutions and will provide global coverage.’

‘Its design specifications mean it could also be adapted for the Internet of Things, and planes as they fly in the middle of the ocean.’

Mr Rotenberg added that using satellites means connectivity is ‘seamless’ for all passengers, regardless of the number trying to connect at once. 

The research team — who are spinning out in a start-up called Infinect — will be conducting field trials of their antenna later this year with a major rail operator

‘The UK is a market leader in digital communications and this technology will open up new, high-growth markets for satellite communications,’ said lead researcher George Goussetis, also of the Heriot-Watt University.

‘Our technology also has the dual benefit of improving the security of transport vehicles, [and] providing a continuous real-time stream of data — so, in the event of any unforeseen problems, the connectivity will help support the on-board team.’

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