A researcher in optical sciences proposes a new method for measuring radio antennas

By Ryan Irene Cella and Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona

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PhD student Joel Berkson uses a combination of laser projectors and cameras to create a 3D computer model of radio antenna surfaces.
Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona

Joel Berksonthird-year doctoral student at the University of Arizona James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences and Observatory of trade union delegateshas developed a new way to accurately measure radio antenna surfaces, which are used to collect and focus radio waves for astronomy and satellite communications.

These dish-shaped antennas, like those depicted in the 1997 film “Contact” starring Jodie Foster, must be manufactured with an extremely high level of precision to work well. To ensure accuracy, engineers measure antenna surfaces using metrology, a technique that applies the science of measurement to manufacturing, instrumentation and calibration processes.

“People always want to make bigger, more accurate antennas for radio telescopes, and more,” Berkson said. “If we can’t find better ways to make them faster and more accurate, the cost and time to measure each surface to ensure its quality will be prohibitive.”

Existing methods for measuring the curved surfaces of radio antennas and telescope mirrors involve placing stickers on the surface of the antenna or mirror, then using cameras to scan the surface by looking at the stickers. Other methods involve physically probing the surface with a coordinate measuring machine. These techniques are limited to measuring only the number of points indicated by the stickers or touched by a physical probe; it is a manual, slow and often expensive process.

To make matters even more complicated, sometimes surfaces don’t come out perfectly and need to be repaired and re-measured, which results in more money and time spent.

Berkson’s invention eliminates the need for stickers or physical contact. The method he developed uses a combination of laser projectors and cameras to create a 3D model of the surface. By rendering the actual shape of the surface as a computer model, the new process overcomes another limitation of older methods; rather than being limited to measuring hundreds of points, it can measure millions of points on a surface.

Technology launch in Arizonathe UArizona office that commercializes inventions from university research, worked with Berkson to patent the technology on behalf of the university and license it to Berkson’s startup, Fringe Metrology.

“It was especially rewarding to see Joel’s work, to consider an approach to solving a real-world challenge and turn it into an elegant business solution,” said Bruce Burgess, director of business development at TLA. “Joel recognized the wealth of resources that TLA offers researchers and was quick to work with our team.”

“Many systems that exist today are black box systems and need to be customized to be useful in the field,” Berkson said. “Ours is a system that can be easily configured to measure surfaces of different shapes and sizes. You can’t do that with other technologies today.”

When Berkson realized that existing metrology systems required the use of stickers to make measurements, he was inspired to take a problem-solving approach to simplify the process.

“Decals have been used in all areas and are the standard and trusted,” he said, “but as the demand for more precise and complicated surfaces increases, so do the measurement requirements. current ones aren’t as good as people want them to be and need to be able to advance those systems.”

In collaboration with its co-inventor, Justin Hyatta senior research associate at Steward Observatory, Berskon began developing the invention with funding from the National Science Foundation to advance current methods of making radio telescopes. He got in touch with TLA’s commercialization team, who worked with him to develop the intellectual property for the invention. Berkson then launched Fringe Metrology, licensed the invention from UArizona, and began building a business around it.

The startup is developing specialized systems for a variety of surface metrology applications but will initially focus on the meticulous measurements needed to manufacture radio telescope panels.

“Radio telescopes like the ones you see in the movie ‘Contact’ are very precise and expensive to make, and they need to be perfectly trained to work properly,” Berkson said. “The company will initially focus on these high-value customers to develop the initial go-to-market product.”

As Berkson focuses on growing his business, he hopes the technology can offer a solution to the current limitations of radio telescope manufacturing and help evolve the industry.

“Ultimately,” he said, “I would like to see faster, cheaper, and better measurement systems in every lab.”

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