Let’s Make Connectivity Mobile – By Heading to Space: Nathan Kundtz at TEDxSeattle (Transcript)

So this morning, I’d like to talk to you about antennas. Cue enthusiasm. Yeah. There you go. And you’re right to be enthusiastic, because it turns out — If you don’t learn anything other than that in this talk, then we’ve won. OK, so good job. You’re right to be enthusiastic, because these are so critical in how we connect and in particular the antennas that I’m designing right now will change the way the world communicates.

But before I get to that, I want to start by asking you a question: How would you feel if I asked you to give up your phone for a week? Good, how about a month? Slightly less applause. For a lot of us, that gives us stress, right? Give up my phone? I use that constantly. In fact, I’m ignoring you right now. You want to talk about antennas? When we asked people this more broadly, it turns out that a lot of people would actually rather work another day every week or even give up their vacation rather than give up their phones. It’s true. We’re so intimately connected to those phones, and it’s not just us, people. It’s projected that by 2030, we’ll have 30 billion connected devices around the planet. 30 billion — that’s four for every man, woman and child on the Earth.

But what I want to talk about today is the fact that there are some problems and limitations in the networks that we actually use to connect those devices. The first one I think you’re probably familiar with, which is that they only work if you’re in a coverage area. That’s great if you’re here in Seattle, but it turns out only about 20 percent of the Earth’s landmass is covered by broadband networks. And so if you’re outside of those networks, or if you’re on a plane or a boat, you’re out of luck. You don’t have that connectivity, and you lose all the things that it brings to our lives. But the limitations don’t stop there. Actually, inside of that twenty percent, we have another problem, called “congestion.” And congestion is when all these devices start to compete for the same spectrum.

Now you might be familiar with “spectrum,” but if you’re not, spectrum is kind of like real estate, but for communications. We use spectrum to actually pass data, and the more that you have, the more data you can pass. Just like land, it’s a shared asset, and in our country, we have the FCC allocate that spectrum to companies that then turn around and build our mobile networks. And here’s the thing: they don’t have enough. Recently, the cost of that spectrum, as it gets allocated and auctioned off, has skyrocketed. Just last year, there was an auction for an additional three percent, just an incremental change in the capacity of our networks. The price tag was 36 billion dollars. 36 billion dollars — that’s before we build a single cell tower, that’s before we dig a single trench or even sell a phone. The prices are astronomical, and they limit what we can do.

But there’s a solution. It turns out that we can solve both the coverage and the capacity problems if we go to space. OK, we don’t have to go to space … even if you might want to. We can send satellites. Now satellites are actually really exciting, even though we don’t notice them all the time in our daily lives. For one thing, nothing can beat a satellite in terms of coverage. A single satellite can cover an entire continent with high-capacity data. Even two. And with three, you can actually blanket the entire planet with coverage. And just for context here: some of you may be aware, but SpaceX just announced that they want to build around 4,000 of these babies and put them around the Earth. Imagine what you can do with 4,000. These satellites can solve our problems. They really can. They can build this network, they can give us access to this capacity. And one of the reasons is because of the amount of spectrum that’s allocated to them.

It turns out that if you do the math, it’s actually about 5,000 times more spectrum available to satellites than to our terrestrial networks today. And to give you some context for that, the reason is because when we use cellular networks, we’re using the same spectrum that we used for televisions when they had rabbit ears, for those of you who remember that. And when we use satellites, we’re using the same spectrum that we use for DIRECTV, but we can use it 300 times across the sky. 300 satellites that are all broadcasting that gigabit-per-second type of connectivity. But — and there’s a big “but” — to access that, you need a dish. We’re back to antennas. I told you antennas are cool. That’s right — so you need a dish.

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You literally have to bend metal and point it at the satellite to make that Network work, which is crazy, right? That’s not a 21st-century solution. So, while there’s all this capacity available to us, and it’s wireless — it’s not mobile. We can’t use it on our mobile platforms. This is the problem that I’m working on. We need an antenna that can open up that capacity and can turn it into a solution for our mobile networks. Now to do that, you’ve got to build a platform that can actually point at the satellite electronically instead of physically. And it’s not just at the satellite. It turns out you’ve got a point within two tenths of a degree to make this thing work.

And to give you a sense of what two-tenths of a degree is, that’s like trying to putt a golf ball 100 feet. Only now you’re going to do it on top of an airplane. It’s a really hard problem to solve. But this is what we’re working on, because it’s an important problem to solve. And it turns out we’re not the first ones to think that this is an important problem to solve. For decades, scientists and engineers have been working on this a lot, and our military contractors around the country. In fact, over the last 30 years there’s been about 30 billion dollars spent trying to address this particular problem. And every time, we have failed, for a wide variety of reasons: cost, complexity, power consumption. But getting there wasn’t a time and money problem. We needed a breakthrough. We really needed new science to make this happen. And so that’s what we’re bringing.

Our approach is based on reconfigurable holographic liquid-crystal-mediated metamaterials. OK, so since you guys got that, I think I’m done. I want to spend just a few minutes on this, because remember, this is how we get access to all of that capacity. It’s there for us to have, but we’ve got to solve this choke point, and it’s going to change your lives so it’s worth knowing something about it.

So let’s start with “holographic.” This does not mean that Cortana jumps out of the antenna. That would be cool. It’s not what we’re doing. What I really mean is that we use the same physics of diffraction as holography. You may remember from high school or college physics, when you shine a laser through a diffraction grating and it splits off into two beams. Well, the same principles are at play here. Only we control that process dynamically. And we actually do that by having a set of pixels across our panel that can be turned on and off and either scatter or not. In order to make that happen, we use liquid crystals.

Does a panel of pixels that turn on and off using liquid crystal sound like something you’re familiar with? I’m looking at a few of them right now. It turns out it’s exactly the same stack up as an LCD television. In fact, we produce our antennas on the same production lines that make TVs. Making them very cost-effective, and leveraging 250 billion dollars of manufacturing infrastructure that already exists. But none of this would be possible without metamaterials.

So what’s a metamaterial? It turns out what metamaterials really are is a set of design tools that help us to understand and design complex structures like our antennas. In fact, those design tools have already done some really far-out science. You may be familiar with the invisibility cloak. You can’t see the invisibility cloak. So what these tools allow us to do is understand how thousands, or tens of thousands of these elements, will actually interact together so that we can design them to work in synchrony, just like atoms in a regular material. Only now, we can design them individually to do what we need. Does this sound hard to you? It was really hard.

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We’ve been working and doing focused development for about six years to make this happen. And our production line — Well, actually, our production line started last week. Our worlds are about to change because of this. And I want to spend a little bit of time talking about why. So let’s start close to home. In Washington, our economy is closely tied to our thriving ports and the ships that use them. Well, it turns out if you want to get a broadband connection to one of those ships today, you’ve got to put a dome about three feet tall on that ship, with a spinning dish underneath it. You’ve seen them, I think, on yachts, right? You’ve seen these things on boats. This is really expensive and hard to install and so, a lot of those ships never actually adopt, even though it’s fundamental to how they’re managing their logistics chains, and fundamental to how they manage crew welfare.

Also, this will allow you to get Amazon Prime while sailing in the San Juans. Look, connectivity is not just about getting video and logistics. Oftentimes, connectivity can be the difference between life and death. And I want to give you two examples. In 2013 in West Africa, there was an Ebola outbreak. And for months, that outbreak went misdiagnosed because we couldn’t get communication and the knowledge into those areas to understand what was happening, and there couldn’t be a governmental response. Closer to home, we’re all familiar with earthquakes.

Well, just this year in southern Japan, earthquakes wiped out their terrestrial networks for weeks. And what that meant was that first responders couldn’t get the information that they needed to go in and save lives. With this breakthrough, those gaps in our communication are going to be a thing of the past. But it’s not just first responders and saving lives. This is going to touch something every single one of us touch on a regular basis, and that’s our cars. With these satellite networks, we can push a terabyte every month into every single vehicle on the planet.

Now why do you want to do that? Your car likely has a hundred million lines of code in it right now. That’s more than a 787, the space shuttle, the Mars Curiosity rover and an F-35, combined. And you know what’s crazy? We can’t update them. This is life and death, and we allow these things to drive down. And we can’t fix them. In fact, it started to drive the recall, the complexity of that software started to drive our recalls on a global basis. This will be the first time that we have the capacity, in a ubiquitous form, to actually provide those updates. This also forms the backbone of what will become autonomous vehicles, which don’t just need the software updates, but regularly have to have updated maps in order to know where they’re going what’s going on around them. So we’re going to solve Seattle’s traffic problem. This is why you care about antennas.

When we started the talk, I asked you how you’d feel about giving up your phone, and I wasn’t trying to create additional stress for you today, although a lot of you thought that would be a good idea, so … I was really just trying to highlight how important those have become to our daily lives — and that the use of our phone faces some important challenges not only in coverage, but also in the capacity that we have available. And it’s increasingly competing. In fact, I’ve mentioned this “30 billion devices” — that’s not just phones but that’s household appliances and infrastructure that need those networks that are increasingly competing for that capacity. This is a wonderful thing for us. This is going to improve our lives just like our phones have.

But in order to really make it work, we’ve got to have more. We’ve got to have more coverage we’ve got to have more capacity, we need more capability in our mobile networks. And with the right tools, we can get that from space. Thank you.

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