Radio waves, including those used by satellite systems, can be distorted by the ionosphere, which is a part of the Earth’s upper atmosphere. These effects can cause errors in satellite data communications and positioning errors in satellite navigation systems such as GPS and Galileo.

To help make these satellite systems and other terrestrial radio systems more reliable, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and the Royal Academy of Engineering have appointed a new Research Chair in Space Environment and Radio Engineering at the University of Birmingham. Professor Matthew Angling will work to develop more accurate models of the ionosphere in order to better predict its effects on radio waves.

“The ionosphere is a region of the upper atmosphere that is partially composed of ionised gases that are called plasma,” says Professor Angling. “Below a certain frequency, radio waves launched from the Earth, can be reflected by the ionosphere and return to the ground; it is this effect that allowed inter-continental transmissions like the first radio telegraph.

“At higher frequencies, radio signals can pass through the ionosphere from space to the ground or vice versa. In either case, the free electrons in the plasma affect the propagation of the radio wave and can introduce signal delay and distortion.”

The ionosphere, which extends approximately from an altitude of 90 km to 1600 km, is highly dynamic. The ionisation is largely produced by solar radiation, but its detailed structure is also influenced by the Earth’s magnetic field and by the solar wind.

Under normal solar conditions, the ionosphere can vary enough to cause significant problems to high precision applications such as surveying and off-shore drilling. However, under extreme conditions, the ionospheric disturbance may be great enough to cause problems to commercial satnav systems.

Professor Angling will create more reliable, physics-based, data assimilation ionospheric models that will allow ionospheric forecasts to be made over hundreds of square kilometres and over longer periods of time.

He says: “Being able to accurately forecast the behaviour of the ionosphere even three to six hours ahead will be a significant improvement in current capability. It would give operators of affected systems enough time to quantify the disruption and to adjust their systems to minimise the effects.”

To collect measurements for his forecasting and modelling work, Professor Angling will also develop new instrumentation to be launched in a cubesat. This is a new type of small, low cost satellite.

Professor Ric Parker CBE FREng, Chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Research and Secondment Committee, says:

”The Academy is always eager to invest in world-class research with real societal impact like Professor Angling’s and this chair shows the continuing attention to the issue of space weather, as demonstrated by our 2013 report Extreme space weather: impacts on engineered systems and infrastructure.

“Through our Research Chairs, designed and co-funded with an industrial or government partner, the Academy not only supports advances in the field of engineering research, but also helps creating strategic partnerships between industry and the research community. These close collaborations are the key to the strong and steady flow of innovation we need to keep the UK ahead of its competitors.”

Professor Richard Williams OBE FREng, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Head of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Birmingham, said:

“The School of Electronic, Electrical and Systems Engineering has a long history of leading expertise in radio communications. This chair marks the establishment of further expansion of this work into areas of international importance in technology and global issues arising from the consequences of variable space weather. We are delighted to be working with partners DSTL in this strategic area.” 

Notes for Editors

  1. RAEng Research Chairs. Research Chairs are full-time professorial appointments, in any engineering-related subject. The Chair holder (the Incumbent) is expected to develop and lead a prestigious research group, the members of which will be encouraged to publish the results of their research as widely as possible to gain international recognition both for themselves and for the group in which they are based.
  1. Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK’s national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering.

    We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK’s role as a great place  to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK’s world-class research base to underpin innovation.

    We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook.We have four strategic challenges: Drive faster and more balanced economic growth; foster better education and skills; lead the profession; promote engineering at the heart of society.
  1. The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) maximises the impact of science and technology (S&T) for the defence and security of the UK, supplying sensitive and specialist S&T services for the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and wider government.Dstl is a trading fund of the MOD, run along commercial lines.

    It is one of the principal government organisations dedicated to S&T in the defence and security field, with three main sites at Porton Down, near Salisbury, Portsdown West, near Portsmouth, and Fort Halstead, near Sevenoaks.

    Dstl works with a wide range of partners and suppliers in industry, in academia and overseas. Around 60% of MOD’s Science and Technology Programme is delivered by these external partners and suppliers.
  1. University of Birmingham: The University of Birmingham is a truly vibrant, global community and an internationally-renowned institution. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than four thousand international students from nearly 150 different countries.

    The University is home to more than 28,000 students. With more than 7,500 postgraduate students from across the world, Birmingham is one of the most popular universities for postgraduate study in the UK.

For more information please contact:

Giorgio De Faveri at the Royal Academy of Engineering
T: 020 7766 0655
E: Giorgio De Faveri