GATR: Portable Satellite Antenna
Just days after Hurricane Katrina cut its deadly swath through the South, Paul Gierow scrambled down to a Red Cross shelter in an elementary school near Biloxi, Mississippi, with his fingers crossed. His oddball portable satellite antenna worked in his backyard and the few other places he’d tried it, but this situation came with higher stakes. Katrina had knocked out regional communications networks and scores of anxious, exhausted evacuees had been unable to connect with loved ones, relief agencies, and insurance companies. Gierow believed his unconventional antenna could help.
When he arrived at the shelter, Gierow opened two cooler-sized cases and unpacked his prototype GATR (“Ground Antenna Transmit and Receive”) system onto the ground: some electronics, an air pump, and what looked like a giant deflated beach ball. In about an hour he had inflated the ball, tuned its internal parabolic antenna, and established the only internet link in the entire county. A woman who had been dug from the rubble of her demolished house sent word to a friend in Iraq that she was safe. A recent transplant patient contacted a pharmacist, who drove four hours to deliver replacement anti-rejection medication. People who lost everything were able to start filling out Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance forms. Over the next several days, the inflatable antenna enabled more than 250 families to connect with relatives, get medical help, find housing, and begin to rebuild their lives.
GATR’s intended application—the original purpose for that prototype at the Red Cross shelter—was to provide a literal communications lifeline to Air Force Special Operations forces. Before GATR’s game-changing technology rolled onto the scene, there was nothing nimble about broadband satellite antennas, which had to be transported on flatbed trailers or in large trucks. In dramatic contrast, the entire GATR system can be packed into two cases, each weighing less than one hundred pounds—a weight and volume reduction of up to 85 percent over conventional antennas. One of the newer GATR antennas even fits into a backpack. For the warfighter, the compact size of the system and ease of set-up enables far greater mission agility and speed than was previously possible. The tidy GATR package also leaves room for more equipment and supplies in Humvees, helicopters, airplanes, or other transport—to say nothing of the tremendous reduction in transportation costs.
The antenna is basically an inflated sphere with a diaphragm-like parabolic dish in its center. A small transmitter/receiver feed mount attaches at the top of the sphere. The sphere, or “radome,” is made of a material similar to racing sails, and the internal dish is constructed of a proprietary reflective fabric. Continual airflow from a small air pump holds the internal dish to a precision parabolic shape and keeps the radome inflated, even after its been shot multiple times. The whole system can be plugged into a wall socket, or will run on batteries or a flexible roll-out solar array. Tethered by four guy wires, the radome is extremely stable in winds up to 60 miles per hour. The system has proven itself in extreme environments from the deserts of Afghanistan and Africa, to the humid forests of South America, to the tropical environment of Haiti, to the snow-capped peaks of North America and beyond. It is the most portable antenna ever developed, and represents the first new approach to satellite communications in over a quarter century—a genuinely disruptive technology, and definitely one of a kind.
Gierow was in the middle of an Air Force Phase I SBIR in 2005 when Katrina hit.
Follow-on Phase II grants allowed Gierow and his co-inventor, William Clayton, to perfect the materials, fine-tune the system, and scale production. A number of individuals and agencies made important contributions along the way, Gierow notes, but “Without a doubt, the GATR antenna would not exist without the Air Force SBIR. It allowed us to develop something sort of kooky that ended up being a valuable tool.” Working with a special ops team at Wright-Patterson Air Force base was especially important to the ultimate success of GATR, Gierow says. “If you have R&D funds without a user, you’re just sort of doing it for fun, or for technology’s sake. But when someone says, ‘I’m going to Djibouti in three months,’ it changes how you do things.” Among its numerous recognitions, GATR has won the prestigious Tibbetts Award, was named Popular Science Invention of the Year, won an R&D 100 Award from R&D magazine, has appeared on Inc. Magazine’s 500’s “Hottest Products” list, and made the magazine’s 500/5000’s “List of Fastest Growing Companies” four years running. In one recent three-year period the company’s revenues grew by 346 percent. And from Gierow’s one-man operation, the company’s work force now numbers around seventy, with projections of up to 180 employees in a couple of years.
Since that trial by hurricane in 2005, the GATR technology has transitioned from SBIR project to Department of Defense Program of Record. To date, more than 350 of the 2.4-meter GATR systems have been manufactured and delivered to units of all of the
U.S. military services, other U.S. Government agencies, several allied nation militaries, and disaster relief organizations including FEMA, which now owns sixteen of its own systems. In addition, more than 85 of the smaller 1.2-meter systems are in use by U.S. Special Operations forces across the services.
Navy physician and commander Eric Rasmussen heard about GATR’s success during Katrina and invited the company to participate in Strong Angel III, a six-day disaster relief simulation. “They were the only ones who walked in carrying their gear,” Rasmussen said in a story in Popular Science. "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."
Ever since their affecting experience during Katrina, GATR Technologies has set aside a percentage of its profits to help sustain the antenna’s use in disaster response. The company has now volunteered its technology and personnel in over a dozen other relief efforts, from tornado-stricken Kansas to earthquake-shaken Haiti. From kooky concept to cutting-edge breakthrough, GATR is the beach ball that saved the day. No one snickers now.