In Arizona, students work with Viasat engineers to produce solar-powered hotspot

Prototype created during senior design project could help deliver Community Internet to off-grid sites


In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, a team of university students worked with Viasat engineers to create a product that could be life-changing for people living off-the-grid.

The solar-powered Wi-Fi hotspot they designed may be used to help deliver Viasat’s Community Internet, connecting people to the internet in off-the-grid locations.

To date, Viasat has used traditional power sources to set up its Community Internet sites.

Working on the equipment.

While the hotspot still needs testing and some other finish work, Viasat engineers who helped with the project hope it can be demonstrated and put to use soon.

“Especially with lockdown, it’s important for some of these communities that don’t have reliable internet access to be able to access telemedicine,” said Nathan Welborne, a business development manager in Viasat’s Tempe, AZ office. “I think the business case has grown for it.”

Viasat and the University of Arizona have worked together on a senior design project for the last several years. Each proposal must have social impact and be limited in scope to allow students to complete it within an academic year.

Viasat Tempe Vice President Ken Crawford proposed this year’s idea for an off-grid Community Internet terminal.

Designing the project

Viasat engineers who oversee the project play the role of the customer, providing specs, objectives and all other necessary details. The students do most of the work, with engineers offering feedback as needed.

The UA students selected to work on the project even decided which power source to use, ultimately choosing solar because it’s an abundant resource in Arizona. They started their work at the beginning of the 2019-2020 academic year, never imagining the project’s planned conclusion would be cut short by a global pandemic.

Seniors are able to choose from among a variety of projects, but recent UA college graduate and team member Rachel Greenland said the Viasat proposal caught her attention immediately.

“I majored in engineering because I really want to help make change in the world for the good, and I thought engineering would be the best way to do that,” she said. “What drew me to this project was that it showed the most potential for helping other people. It was also really complex, and a lot more involved than a lot of the other senior design projects.”

Greenland not only got the satisfaction of working on a meaningful project, she also got a job offer. She’ll become a full-time Viasat employee in August, and may help see the solar-powered hotspot to completion.

“Due to COVID-19, we didn’t fully finish,” she said. “We weren’t able to complete rigorous testing after quarantine hit and we had to stay home. But overall, I’m happy with how it turned out.”

An illustration of what the final setup might look like.

Powerful concept

Although the hotspot could still undergo some changes, the prototype is relatively small, and can be configured to fit in a cargo truck bed for easy transportation and installation.

“The off-grid Community Internet Terminal is a powerful concept and the students did a great job of making the product standalone, ruggedized, portable and highly efficient – something that can withstand an outdoor environment while providing a wide area network of high-speed internet to a community in need,” said Sarah Shepis, a Viasat materials engineer and UA graduate who led the project. “They had incredible passion for this project, and the quality of their deliverables was above and beyond.”

Welborne, who’s also an Arizona graduate, called it the best senior design project with the highest quality of work in the five-year history of the Viasat-UA partnership.

Viasat is already searching for communities that could benefit from the off-grid hotspot. Viasat engineer Omar Alam, who also acted as an advisor on the project, said it could have possibilities far beyond the U.S.

“With the off-grid Community Internet terminal, we’ve laid the technological foundations for a product that will be used to support Viasat’s mission of providing internet anywhere,” he said. “We envision mass production of these terminals.”

Welborne agreed.

“Our Community Internet is already changing people’s lives,” he said. “When you make an off-grid capability to function with it, you’re able to impact so many more people.”