PARIS — Twin brothers Mark and Eric Becnel built their first mini-satellite while attending the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Now 27, they operate a company that has developed communications radios for small spacecraft and a data logging kit for aircraft testing that will be on exhibit at the Paris Air Show.
“We plan to stay on the cutting edge of developing new small spacecraft components,” says Mark, who is president of Madison-based RadioBro Corp. “And we have a found a massive need to make aviation testing easier and faster.”
Mark and Eric launched RadioBro in March 2014 and had a prototype of their MiniSatCom transceiver by June. They quickly put it into production, and they’ve already sold the powerful, lightweight spacecraft radios to customers in places as far away as Taiwan and Romania.
This week, the brothers have traveled to Paris for the world’s premiere air show because a customer is deploying RadioBro’s newest product, an instrumentation system called Cyclone that records real-time data from an aircraft test flight.
“Eric and Mark Becnel and their company, RadioBro, represent the next generation of nimble, young aerospace entrepreneurs that our community has a tradition of growing,” said Mike Ward, senior vice president, government and public affairs, at the Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville/Madison County. “It’s an exciting time for their company as they gain international exposure with their aviation certification test kit and their small sat and CubeSat capabilities.”
Mark said RadioBro began development of Cyclone last November after it identified an aviation customer in need of a data-acquisition system to support FAA-certification, a necessary step to verify a plane is engineered properly and safe to operate. The device, first flown in January, is leaving prototype stage now and going into a production version.
“We’re honing in on all the small details to make it a product line,” he said. “We’re excited about that.”
DESIGNING A MINI-SATELLITE
Mark said the launch of RadioBro has gotten a boost from its location in tech-savvy north Alabama. The firm is based at Madison’s STI Electronics, a company that specializes in microelectronics assembly and acts as the startup’s production partner. Formed in 1982, STI has been around longer than the Becnel twins.
“To pair with a company like STI with all of its heritage is making us a very competitive team,” Mark said. “With that, we’re able to get some incredible work done really quickly. We can move through designs and get them into production and on an assembly line faster than any other company in our position as a startup.”
RadioBro now has nine employees, many of them from UAH’s Space Hardware Club, a student organization that builds and launches rockets and high-altitude balloons.
In fact, UAH has acted as a key support system for the Becnels’ efforts. The twins hold master’s degrees in aerospace engineering from the school, and they were deeply involved in the Space Hardware Club on campus. Mark calls the club a “fantastic training platform to build very talented engineers with hardware experience before they graduate.”
Eric led the club’s team that developed ChargerSat-1, a 4-inch, one-kilogram satellite that lifted off on a U.S. Air Force rocket in November 2013. The team received assistance from partners in Huntsville’s space exploration community, including Marshall Space Flight Center, where testing was done. ChargerSat-1 was among a number of mini-satellites that hitched a ride on that rocket as part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative.
Unfortunately, ChargerSat-1, like several of the small sats on the flight, was never heard from again, its fate unknown. But the experience was a valuable one for the Becnal brothers.
“As part of the business of getting a free flight, you also accept the risk of not getting to space,” Mark said. “That’s OK, we had plenty of time to get a business out of it.”
Significantly, the project showed them the opportunities present in developing affordable communications radios for small satellites, providing them with what they see as a solid commercial foundation for their venture.
“Every spacecraft has a radio, but the available options for commercial availability were either too expensive or took too long to get,” Mark said. “It just wasn’t an attractive answer, so we built on our own while we were at UAH. From that, we decided that we should approach the design again, and this time, go for a commercial opportunity with it. So we started RadioBro.”
Plus, interest in low-cost miniaturized satellites is rising around the globe, because they are making getting to space affordable.
“Now, because these small spacecraft, almost any country can go to space. It costs almost nothing to go,” Mark said. “If you have a budget of a quarter-million dollars without any other special needs, you can go to space within a year. That’s kind of remarkable.”
The chamber’s Ward said the RadioBro venture fits in nicely with the Huntsville area’s heritage of innovation.
“Our community has a rich history of developing and promoting aerospace pioneers, beginning with Dr. (Wernher) von Braun and continuing today with many large and small aerospace companies and executives,” Ward said. “We’re glad that Mark and Eric will help keep that tradition alive.”