University of Tennessee faculty member Aly Fathy was on a family trip to Orlando, Fla., from New York City when he heard the all-too-familiar cry of “Are we there yet?” from his children in the backseat.
It was then that Fathy, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, first had the idea of creating some type of device that would allow his children to be entertained by the Disney Channel while on the road. Several years later, Fathy met Songnan Yang, a graduate student in electrical engineering, and together they transformed Fathy’s vision into a reality.
Yang and Fathy are now anticipating to patent their 3-inch, car-accessible satellite in the coming weeks. Major developers have already expressed interest, and Fathy said product development and production could begin as soon as a year from now.
While similar products already exist, Yang and Fathy said their satellite bests anything currently on the market in both technology and price.
“Available commercial products are either greater than 10 inches high, as they use a rotating satellite dish, or are very expensive, as they use electronic phase shifters,” Fathy said.
Fathy and Yang’s dish is actually less than 3 inches in height (diameter). This resulted because of Yang’s idea to make the satellite flat rather than upright. Yang’s planar satellite resembles a series of connected circuit boards more than the satellites currently seen attached to homes and RVs.
The flat design also offers a number of advantages. Since it is made of lightweight metal, it is easier and cheaper to manufacture than traditional satellites. It can be spread out over a vehicle’s roof, rather than standing straight up and being a hindrance to vehicles traveling through tunnels. The flat design also allows the satellite to maneuver easily, automatically achieving maximum reception, the inventors said.
Finally, the design allows for a plastic cover to encompass the satellite, making it look like a luggage rack. The cover protects the satellite from rain and snow and reduces the risk of theft.
When perfected, the satellite will essentially work the same way XM Radio does, Yang said.
“It works like an antenna,” Yang said. “You combine all the signals to the same point. That becomes your input (and) output.”
Toward the final development stage, users should need only one chord to attach the device to their television.
This is how the invention worked when presented in front of U.S. Patent Office representatives, UT Research Foundation program administrator John Hopkins and a handful of graduate students last Tuesday afternoon. A portion of the dish, attached to PVC pipe, was connected to a Honda Prelude and broadcast to a laptop without any noticeable glitches.
It has taken Fathy and Yang approximately three years to arrive at this stage, and they know their work is not finished yet.
“We still need to get an agreement with a developer such as Wineguard company to buy the rights for the patent and put a schedule for finalizing the product,” Fathy said.
The Winegard Company manufactures television reception products.
Fathy and Yang said for the time present the product would be sold for about $2,000 per unit. That is significantly cheaper than competitive products, which Fathy estimated at around $5,000.