30 November 2011—Since 2008, frequent fliers have relished the luxury of on-board Internet connections. Service today relies on a fixed antenna that picks up signals from a nationwide network of cell towers. But that method offers low bandwidth at sometimes ridiculous prices. New antennas based on metamaterials, though, may soon rescue Web-addicted travelers from expensive connections in the air and elsewhere, and a group at the patent-licensing firm Intellectual Ventures (IV) thinks that it can implement the new technology by 2014.
Ideally, airlines would be able to direct dynamic antennas straight up at satellites, which is possible in one of two ways: mechanically, with a gimbal that points a dish antenna to the right part of the sky, or with a phased array, a complicated setup that electronically directs a beam by pulsing individual elements of an array in precise patterns. But mechanical gimbals are not exactly aerodynamic—one example is that massive protuberance on the nose of Predator drones. And the many phase shifters needed for phased arrays make them extremely expensive—about US $1 million a pop.