The award-winning project addresses the lack of connectivity abroad and in Canada
Maybe your day starts something like this. Get up, open the bathroom faucet, brush your teeth. Head to the kitchen, turn on the light. Turn on your phone to check the news or log in on a laptop to start your day at school or work.
Now, turn off the water supply. cut off power. Disconnect from the Internet.
To do without the first two is very difficult. But the pandemic has raised the internet to a similar rank, which is essential to keep us working, connected, and just going about everyday life. Consider closing schools, says Murray Little, former executive director of Light up the World (LUTW), a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing energy access in remote parts of the developing world.
In some places, education has essentially been halted when the virus has made it dangerous to congregate, “because there is no internet,” Little points out. Today, nearly 3 billion people live in those regions, most – but not all – of them in developing countries. Combined with the denial of education, the lack of internet means a lack of access of the kind many of us would take for granted like a glass of water or an incandescent light bulb.
Make sure the connection is, says Lytle, and “there is great communication potential.”
That’s why he reached out to NAIT, as LUTW has done in the past, to tap into the creativity and ingenuity of students. The organization wanted a system to bring the Internet to underserved places without it, and to ensure that the system operated completely off-grid.
The result was a plan that topped the efforts of students from six other Alberta post-secondary institutions and was awarded a capstone project for the 2020-21 year by the Alberta Association of Science and Engineering Technology Professionals (ASET).
Moreover, it can make a difference not only abroad, but in Canada.
A sign from heaven
After previously working with alternative energy technology students at NAIT to install solar energy systems in Guatemala and Peru, LUTW is back with new order in the fall of 2020.
says Lytle, who retired as LUTW CEO in January 2022.
In areas too far from major cities to be reached by Internet providers using terrestrial cables, consumers can get a signal from the sky, specifically via Starlink. The satellites float 550 kilometers above the Earth in a constellation that surrounds the globe. You only need a modem to receive the signal and a power source to power the system.
This is an oversimplification of course – especially in areas where there is no ready power.
“The idea was to build a prototype that could be dropped anywhere.”
“The idea was to build a prototype that could be dropped anywhere,” says Kevin Jacobson, Head of Wireless Systems Engineering Technology, who partnered with Alternative Energy Technology to fulfill LUTW’s request. Part of the idea was also to offer an inexpensive enough solution to societies in the developing world.
“It solves an existing problem,” Jacobson adds.
For students who signed up to address this issue as part of a graduation project that concluded their programs – including Natasha Bergstrom BeyerAnd the Abdullah Farah | And the Jacob Maxwell (now Alternative Energy Alumni, 2021), and Stephen Saqr And the Spencer Tracy (Wireless Systems Graduates, 21) – One of the main challenges will be the off-grid nature of the project.
Another was the epidemic.
From Edmonton to Peru
In earlier virus-free times, NAIT students would travel abroad for such a project, going into the grounds to install solar-powered lighting, for example, so that businesses would remain open after dark and children could finish their homework without having to endure The fumes from a kerosene lamp.
With travel curtailed by the pandemic — and a Starlink modem shortage preventing the group from getting a single device — data has bridged the distance between Edmonton and rural Peru.
To determine the potential impact of their system, which would receive a signal from a satellite and then remove it via a terrestrial wireless ISP (see chart above), Sager contacted Starlink users on Reddit who shared stats like download and upload speeds.
“From the basic calculations, we were able to determine that we can provide internet for at least 50 or 60 people,” says Sakr.
At slow speeds, he adds, the system can accommodate up to 300 to 600 people.
Using simulation software, the alternative energy team identified the right mix of solar modules and battery power to ensure internet access throughout the day and part of the evening. Maxwell, who served as the project leader, said the needs wouldn’t be great, amounting to a similar power draw for two 60-watt incandescent bulbs.
Despite the relative simplicity of their system, the cost ranged from $7,000 to $10,000—a significant sum, given that just over 20% of the Peruvian population lives in poverty, with rural areas being disproportionately affected.
“Our thought was that, hopefully, this would be within the reach of the average off-grid Peruvian agricultural citizen in Peru,” Lytle says. “It became clear that this wouldn’t work.”
Here, too, the students presented a solution: turn access to the Internet outside the network into a business. “Anyone in that community can buy the equipment, break the signal, and sell it to their friends and neighbors,” Lytle says. He adds that LUTW could fund the purchase.
“We thought this was cool, because if we want this to spread around the world, this is the way to do it.”
“I think the greatest satisfaction will come when this project is on the ground and is life-changing,” says Maxwell, who is now at Lethbridge College for a degree in wind turbine technology.
Saqr also went back to school at the University of Alberta to earn an engineering degree. The NAIT project is viewed with pride. “I thought it was something we could change the world with, because accessing the internet would change someone’s life,” he says.
“Having more access to information can allow them to develop their skills and knowledge to benefit their community, particularly in parts of the world where that information is hard to come by.”
Or here in Canada. The team is now working to inform another capstone project at Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. Approximately 80 minutes east of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, the community is not off-grid, but it does need reliable, high-speed internet. A new group of wireless systems students will help design and implement the Starlink system, building on the results of their award-winning predecessors.
“They’ve proven that it’s possible,” Jacobson says.
“I thought it was something we could change the world with.”
They may also have proven that a lack of internet connectivity is a problem that societies can begin to solve on their own — while governments wait to tackle the problem more broadly, which the pandemic has prompted them to do.
“We need to ensure that all Albertans, no matter where they live, have a chance to participate in this future digital economy,” Prime Minister Jason Kenny said during announcing a $390 million investment in broadband for indigenous and rural communities. Albertans live.
By 2027, the project is expected to connect all homes and businesses at a reliable high speed, boosting regional GDP by up to $1.7 billion as a result.
As the pandemic has shown, another five years is a long time to continue to be excluded from the digital economy, educational opportunities, and more. In the meantime, students eager to develop their skills and do some good might have an answer.
“We are standing on the shoulders of giants with the newly available technologies that have been presented to us,” Maxwell says. “In this coronation, we have to say, ‘Well, what’s the latest and greatest?’ What can we do when we put these pieces together, and how can that help people? “
Along the way, they have proven not only technology, but also themselves.
“I would put this team up against everyone else I’ve ever worked with,” Lytle says. “They were able to open my mind to things I wouldn’t have thought of.”
What is “technical”?
As alternative energy technology graduate Jacob Maxwell describes, technologists create real and practical solutions to current market needs. They bring engineering designs to life.
“The contribution that technologists make every day is really important,” says Barry Kavanaugh, CEO of ASET, the Alberta Association of Science and Engineering Technology Professionals. Kavanagh defines them as “practical engineers,” meaning that their work is practical in fields ranging from architecture to welding.
This year’s annual ASET Award for Best Capstone Project highlights student innovation in tackling real-world problems. As such, it highlights the quality of education in Alberta’s post-secondary institutes and its impact, through students and teachers, on society.
Regarding the success of the five students in alternative energy technology and wireless systems engineering technology who won the 2020-2021 Sustainable Satellite Internet System Award, the award “really shines a light on NAIT and what it does — producing people of great use,” Kavanaugh says.