INVENTION AWARDS A Big Ball of Connectivity

An antenna that blows up like a balloon brings satellite communications anywhere, anytime
FIELD ARRAY Paul Gierow stands among his inflatable satellite antennas, which can be used alone or in groups for a stronger signal. John B. Carnett

_How do you prevent insurgents from shooting down choppers? How do you keep a cast from itching? How do you reinvent the brick? You sketch. And then you work: nights, weekends–for years, if you have to. You blow all your money, then beg for more. You build prototypes, and when they fail, you build more. Why? Because inventing is about solving problems, and not stopping until your solution becomes real.

This week, we begin rolling out the winners of the 2007_ PopSci_ Invention Awards. We’ll be doling out a new innovation each day for the next few weeks, so keep checking back for more of what the world’s brightest inventors are currently cooking up. And if you just can’t wait, pick up a copy of the June issue that just hit the stands.-Eds.

For a time-lapse video of the GATR-Com inflating for our photo shoot, click here

Name: GATR-Com**

****Inventor:** Paul Gierow **

Cost to Develop:** $1.5 million

Time: 5 years

Prototype | | | | |

No, it’s not a giant beach ball. It’s an ultralight, ultraportable antenna tucked inside an inflatable shell that can pull down a superfast broadband satellite connection at any location. The GATR-Com is designed for disaster-relief responders, far-flung video producers and front-line troops-anyone whose job (or life) depends on getting digital information-video, Internet, calls-in and out of remote places.

“You just can’t do effective disaster relief without decent satellite communications,” says Eric Rasmussen, a U.S. Navy physician and commander whose relief experience includes the Indonesian tsunami of 2004 and the aftermath of battles in Bosnia and Iraq. “But when the mud is two feet deep, if you can’t pack a dish on your back or drop it out of a plane, it’s not going to get there.”

The GATR-Com (an acronym for “ground antenna transmit and receive”) system, complete with electronics and tethering gear, weighs less than 70 pounds and fits easily into two backpacks. It can be powered by a car’s cigarette lighter or a small generator. There’s nothing else like it that’s this small or rugged.

The GATR-Com is the brainchild of engineer Paul Gierow, who spent 20 years developing large deployable space antennas for NASA. Gierow realized that the need for a highly portable antenna is just as relevant on Earth as it is in space-especially considering the earthly inevitabilities of gravity, mud and sky-high air-freight costs.

The antenna is made of a flexible, high-strength plastic lined with conductive mesh inside a large (six- or eight-foot) sphere constructed of a material similar to that used for racing sails. A valve from a small compressor directs slightly more air pressure to one side of the antenna, giving it a parabolic shape. At first, Gierow and his business partner, William R. Clayton, worried that an inflatable sphere might just blow away. But the GATR-Com’s spherical shape actually deflects air twice as efficiently as rigid disks do and protects the internal antenna’s shape from being distorted by gusts.

“The idea itself is actually fairly simple,” Gierow says. “The trick was to come up with a way to tie it down, target it [to a satellite] to one tenth of a degree, and keep it stable.” Backed by research grants from the Air Force and Darpa, the Pentagon’s R&D branch, Gierow refined his invention for nearly three years before he got up the nerve to quit his job as vice president of NASA contractor SRS Technologies and bet his livelihood on his creation.

The next day, Hurricane Katrina gave him a perfect opportunity to prove the device worked in the real world. Gierow drove from where he lives near Decatur, Alabama, to Biloxi, Mississippi, and set up his prototype at a Red Cross shelter. For two weeks, the system served as an electronic lifeline to the outside world. “One lady had just had an organ transplant, and she didn’t have her anti-rejection medication,” Gierow recalls. “We were able to get in touch with a pharmacist [about four hours north of Biloxi], and he drove it to us.”

Gierow’s improvised effort caught the attention of the organizers of Strong Angel III, a disaster-relief simulation led by Rasmussen. Held last August in San Diego, the six-day event brought together teams from the Pentagon, relief agencies and high-tech companies. The mission: to field-test new technologies and tools that could be used to respond to natural disasters, epidemics or terrorist attacks.

“They were the only ones who walked in carrying their gear,” Rasmussen says of Gierow’s team. “At first look, the device incited snickers. But they pulled it out of the backpack, inflated it, and tethered it-and in 15 minutes, we had a rock-solid satellite signal. This is a technology that could give us a huge increase in our capabilities.”

The GATR-Com’s $50,000 price tag makes it an unlikely accessory for most solo travelers. But its cost is far less than that of other remote-deployable satellite antennas, not to mention the savings it provides in transportation costs.

With inquiries from a wide range of potential clients, Gierow regularly puts in 70-hour workweeks in his warehouse office/lab. But last summer he managed to take a week off to bring his family to the beach. Not surprisingly, the antenna came too. “I was the nerd on the beach with the really big ball,” Gierow says, “and the T1 connection.”

More Invention Awards:

  • A Six Strokes of Genius – An engine that uses steam to squeeze more miles from gas
  • A Chopper Shield – Catches helicopter-bound grenades with a net made of Kevlar and steel
  • A Big Ball of Connectivity – An antenna that blows up like a balloon brings satellite communications anywhere, anytime.
  • The New Velcro – A stronger, better grip without the incessant ripping sound. Has a long-standing dream finally been realized?
  • A New Breed of Mouse – Give your mouse the finger to control your computer in three dimensions
  • The Flying Belt – Rappel up a wall at an astonishing 10 feet per second with the Atlas Powered Rope Ascender