Researchers at the Centre Tecnològic de Telecomunicacions de Catalunya (CTTC), the University of Luxembourg, and the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) have taken CubeSat technology and blended it with 3D printing to design a nanosatellite which can be held aloft by balloon to deliver broadband connectivity to disaster-hit regions in as little as 90 minutes.
"Our project provides a solution that means that a communications network to provide help in emergency situations can be established quickly," says Carlos Monzo Sánchez, a professor at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. "It uses equipment that offers a communications service quickly, when it would not otherwise be possible. It is especially designed for emergency services, so that they can work in a safer and more coordinated way in complex situations."
The core of the concept is the CubeSat standard for nanosatellites, low-cost- highly-miniaturized satellites which have been used extensively for experimentation in space. In the team's approach, though, it doesn't have quite so far to go: the CubeSats, built on a 3D printer in as little as 90 minutes, are lofted above the disaster zone on a balloon, communicating with the ground over a LoRa low-power long-range radio.
"Our solution enables communication over long distances, as well as providing a scalable system for a large number of users that is reusable anywhere and at any time," claims Raúl Parada, a researcher at the CTTC and first author of the paper. "We chose [a] CubeSat as for communications in difficult environments due to its speed of deployment and functioning. It operates independently of current communication systems, which may be damaged during a disaster, and enables long-range communication."
The team's prototypes are based on the Semtech SX1278 LoRa transceiver, which can be connected to an antenna as simple as a length of metal ruler. The 1U CubeSat in which the transceiver is installed was 3D printed and fitted with a sensor package including a Bosch Sensortec BME280 environmental sensor, a TDK InvenSense MPU-9250 inertial measurement unit (IMU), a Hanwei MQ-135 air quality sensor, and a Roithner LaserTechnik GUVA-S12SD ultraviolet light sensor, all linked to an Arduino Nano microcontroller — with a GPS receiver added at a later date to make it easier to recover downed satellites.
"Our solution is designed to provide a rapid service in complex scenarios, and as such we have prioritized its ease of deployment over its use as a telecommunications solution in normal situations, where other infrastructures would be more suitable," Monzo concludes. "The next step is to work on the services that could be included in this type of infrastructure, minimizing deployment times and ensuring it can be used in a wide range of situations."
The team's work has been published in the journal Aerospace under open-access terms.