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

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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