Digital Twins, Physical Twins and CubeSats: The Story of RadioBro
Michael Alba posted on November 09, 2018 |
How the Becnel brothers began their aerospace electronics company.
Eric (left) and Mark (right) Becnel of RadioBro Corporation. (Image courtesy of Siemens.)
Eric (left) and Mark (right) Becnel of RadioBro Corporation. (Image courtesy of Siemens.)

In 2011, the Becnel brothers were hard at work at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). Besides pursuing their masters of science degrees in aerospace engineering, Eric and Mark Becnel were both helping to lead the university’s Space Hardware Club, a student group dedicated to building and launching a cube satellite (so-called for its small 10x10x10cm form factor). Eric Becnel was the team lead, while his twin brother Mark served as the project manager. Their hard work payed off (or rather, took off): in 2013, the Space Hardware Club flew its very own satellite, the ChargerSat 1, into orbit.

The Becnel’s work with the Space Hardware Clubgave them the satisfaction of a successful mission, but it also gave them something else: a business idea.

“We found that there was a need for reliable components for small spacecraft,” Mark Becnel explained. “Our designs were good enough, but the manufacturing processes were not. And so we matched our design capability with our local manufacturing capability around Huntsville, and we found ourselves a business plan.” 

In 2014 that business plan became RadioBro Corporation. The company began with a desire to address the need for reliable, NASA-grade electronics for small spacecraft. Joined by their brother Daniel, the Becnels opened up shop just minutes from their former campus at UAH.

From MiniSatCom to Cyclone

The MiniSatCom, RadioBro’s first commercial spacecraft product. (Image courtesy of RadioBro.)
The MiniSatCom, RadioBro’s first commercial spacecraft product. (Image courtesy of RadioBro.)

The first product RadioBro developed was a spacecraft transceiver dubbed the MiniSatCom. The transceiver operates in the ultra high frequency (UHF) band to send signals to and from small spacecraft.

“Using amateur or experimental radio, you can text message your CubeSat back and forth,” Mark Becnel said. “It’s a highly configurable miniature radio. And it's very small, very low power, but it's enough to talk to space and back on a very small spacecraft.”

According to Becnel, the MiniSatCom is currently integrated on five spacecraft across four continents, though each of them are still awaiting launch (space takes time, as those of us eagerly awaiting a manned Mars mission are all too aware).

Since the MiniSatCom, RadioBro has expanded its product portfolio to include aerospace power controllers, fuel exciters, GPS loggers and more. The company’s latest product, Cyclone for Aerospace, brings the Internet of Things (IoT) to the skies. Cyclone is a plug-and-play component that gathers aircraft sensor data, enabling users to visualize airplane performance and functionality in realtime.

The Cyclone node brings the IoT to aerospace. (Image courtesy of RadioBro.)
The Cyclone node brings the IoT to aerospace. (Image courtesy of RadioBro.)

A Corridor to the CubeSat Club

To this day, the Becnels haven’t forgotten their roots at the UAH Space Hardware Club. In fact, RadioBro wouldn’t be the same company without those early beginnings. The company has taken an active mentorship role with the university’s Space Hardware Club, offering not just its guidance, but its MiniSatCom as well. And the Space Hardware Club offers RadioBro something in return: a steady stream of talent.

“From the beginning of our company, we've leveraged young inventors that are still in school as interns,” Mark Becnel said. “Having a corridor of these very smart people that have not been corrupted by industry has been very enabling for our team.”

In industry, Becnel elaborates, engineers are often put on hold while awaiting approval from higher-ups. This “hurry up and wait” atmosphere is anathema to engineers eager to push a project forward. Fortunately, the opposite approach can be found in the quick and innovative nature of student groups like the UAH Space Hardware Club. Thus, from the outset of their company, the Becnels wanted RadioBro to emulate the fast-paced environment of their former club.

The characteristics students learn and develop working on a CubeSat team are to create in a way that is responsive, iterative, low cost and very fast,” Becnel explained. “Those were the big stressors for us in founding RadioBro. Being able to design things in hours and days instead of weeks and months. We still maintain that capability, and our relationship with the CubeSat team definitely amplifies that and sustains it.” 

In a testament to that relationship, over half of RadioBro’s engineering team is composed of UAH alumni.

A Startup Surprise

One of the Becnel’s first expenses when they started RadioBro was a license of Solid Edge, the company’s design software of choice. It wasn’t an arbitrary selection. Mark Becnel taught a class on Solid Edge while attending UAH, and the Space Hardware Club used the software to design its space hardware. By working with Solid Edge at RadioBro, the company uses software that is already familiar to its students-turned-employees.

Using Solid Edge also gave the Becnels flexibility when they were managing their startup.

“We got used to using the subscriptions,” MarkBecnel recalled. “Any time we needed more advanced features, we would just pay for a month of the more expensive Solid Edge, and then we would let it relax. Or if we had interns, we would buy them each a subscription, so the rest of the company could still operate while they had their licenses just for the summertime. So,Solid Edge by far was the most cost-effective design tool with the power of every feature you need in the industry.”

But perhaps the biggest reason RadioBro prefers Solid Edge is because of the Becnel’s experience with digital twins back in their CubeSat days. Their former club undertook a completely in-house design and manufacturing process that demanded the right software tools.

“We really did the entire life cycle of the digital twin with [Solid Edge],” Mark explained. “This was before everyone was on the digital twin trend. But we designed everything in 3D because the tolerances were so high, the precision requirements were so high, [and] we had to use that type of strategy. Of course, we use the same strategy to do the small spacecraft requirements while we're building all the products at RadioBro. So, the same very high precision requirements survive in our products today.”

Mark (left) and Eric (right) Becnel on stage at Siemens Industry Analyst Conference 2017. (Image courtesy of RadioBro.)
Mark (left) and Eric (right) Becnel on stage at Siemens Industry Analyst Conference 2017. (Image courtesy of RadioBro.)

In 2017, the Becnel’s got an unexpected surprise: Siemens, the developer of Solid Edge, reached out to offer RadioBro a place in its Solid Edge for Startups program. As a member of the program, RadioBro receives access to Solid Edge Premium at no cost.Eliminating the need to budget for software subscriptions was a welcome financial break for the young company.

“We joined [Solid Edge for Startups] just over a year ago,” Becnel said. “It’s a fascinating program. It allows for people that are doing commercial activity to not be worried about using the real software up-front.”

A year later, RadioBro has maintained a close working relationship with Siemens and the Solid Edge team.

“We have such a good support relationship with them here,” Becnel continued. “They have a Solid Edge community user group, and through that we've gotten a lot of mentorship directly from Solid Edge. And at least part of the software is written here in Huntsville, so we are in very close proximity to the design team at Solid Edge.”

Siemens has sponsored this post. They have had no editorial input to this post. All opinions are mine. — Michael Alba

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