There was a time not so very long ago when people who wanted satellite TV or radio required dishes several feet across. Those have since been replaced by today’s compact dishes, but now it looks like even those might be on the road to obsolescence. A recent PhD graduate from The Netherlands’ University of Twente has designed a microchip that allows for a grid array of almost-flat antennas to receive satellite signals.

Marcel van de Burgwal’s system would not need to be aimed. Instead, the antenna array would electronically “aim” itself. It is a concept similar to the LOFAR project, in which numerous antennas located across the northeast Dutch countryside are linked together to form a virtual radiotelescopy dish. LOFAR requires a lot of calculations and fast communications, as would van de Burgwal’s system – that’s where the chip comes in.

Instead of the usual elaborate, energy-hungry processors, his system contains multiple smaller, simpler processors on a single chip. They can carry out tasks more flexibly, and can be turned off when not in use. The system’s infrastructure operates as a miniature network, in which TV or radio receivers are defined by software, as opposed to the traditional coils and crystals. The approach allows an entire computer network to be constructed over a space of just a few millimeters.

“Software-defined radio may seem much more complex, but we can pack so much computing power into the space taken up by, for example, a coil that it more than repays the effort”, he stated.

Van de Burgwal also discovered that his multi-processor chip would work well for digital radio reception on smartphones, due to its low energy use. The technology is being further developed by U Twente spin-off company Recore Systems.