Small Talk

Local boy Wayne Shiroma is building a reputation as a world-class innovator

January, 2004

Wayne Shiroma loves to put things into orbit. A professor of electrical engineering at UH-Manoa, Shiroma specializes in secure, high-frequency communications systems that could someday link nanosatellites to each other as they spin around the Earth. Fleets of these tiny metal birds, no bigger than a shoebox, could replace much larger satellites currently used for global communications and imaging tasks. “They are easier to build and cheaper to manufacture and launch. If one fails, others can pick up the slack,” says Shiroma.

For the past two years, Shiroma has worked with a team of 100 engineering undergraduates to design, build and launch their own nanosatellites sometime between late 2004 or early 2005. Aside from Shiroma, nine faculty members and five engineers from the community advise the team. The problem Shiroma and his students work on specifically is how to allow these satellites to exchange data without others intercepting their communications. Due to the diminutive nature of nanosats, communications systems not only need to be secure, but also must require little power and take up little space.

This year, Shiroma and his research group filed three patent applications that provide the underpinning of just such a system. Key among those is a patent for a secure self-steering antenna system. The system automatically steers a very directed stream of information from point A to point B without any knowledge of where those points are. That’s different than existing satellite communications systems, which tend to spray their signals in multiple directions. “The link is automatically maintained between the transmitter and the receiver,” explains Shiroma. Because the system works in high-frequency ranges, where signals are more quickly absorbed by the atmosphere, its output tends to have a shorter range and therefore runs less risk of interfering with other orbital communications. That characteristic could make Shiroma’s system ideal for other uses, such as cellular communications or tank-to-tank communications on a battlefield, where short-range signals are preferable.

Since he returned to Manoa, his undergraduate alma mater, in 1996, Shiroma has garnered more than $2 million in research grants from the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation and big defense contractors. A kamaaina who found a killer science job in Hawaii, Shiroma’s growing portfolio of patents could lead to big dollars for the University of Hawaii.

“Wayne’s research was ranked in the top 10 percent of the University Nanosat Program proposals, over many much larger U.S. universities,” says Jeff Ganley, of the Air Force Research Labs. Sometimes big things come in small packages.

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