This post is a continuation of the Disaster management technologies series. The idea here is to present not just the commercial side of technology but also to showcase technical activities which can help save lives. This story is from Daily Yomiuri, a Japanese newspaper and it reports about plans to launch a satellite to create an emergency cell phone relay station in space by 2015. This is to solve 2 common issues (which Pakistan also faced in 2005) that after a disaster cell phones may be rendered useless due to damage to the local base station and due to the heavy call volume after the disaster which overloads remaining base stations.

The paper mentions how this effort will help:

Setting up a base station in space would ensure calls for help reach the relevant authorities in time, allow people to confirm loved ones’ safety without clogging regular mobile networks and relay calls to and from places that have lost connections.

The stationary orbital satellite with an antenna more than twice the size of any existing satellite antenna, would be used to secure mobile phone connections when ground base relay stations have been knocked out in an earthquake or other natural disasters.

Cell phones that use communications satellites are already in use, but the large size of the equipment for sending and receiving signals restricts it to users with special handsets.

The Yomiuri adds:

The ministry’s plan would require equipment capable of receiving satellite-based signals to fit in normal-sized cell phone handsets. This requires a larger antenna on the satellite. For an average-sized cell phone handset to use a satellite phone service, the antenna would have to be more than twice the size of the largest existing communications satellite–the test satellite Kiku No. 8, launched in December by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency that has an antenna 19 meters in diameter. The new proposed satellite would have an antenna 50 meters in diameter.

The ministry plans to spend five years from fiscal 2008 developing this mega-antenna, which would be sent into geosynchronous orbit 36,000 kilometers above the Earth–the same orbit used for broadcast satellites.

The ministry plans to set up a consortium of relevant ministries and agencies as well as communication firms and cell phone manufacturers to start technical studies into the system. The ministry also plans to ask for about 2 billion yen for research and development in the budget request for fiscal 2008. The ministry said the total cost of developing and launching the satellite has not been determined.

The orbital relay station, when fully operational, will allow people to call for help even in mountainous areas or at sea, where no ground station is available. The ministry also is considering making the system available for areas not normally covered by cell phone stations.

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