Kenneth Tong grew up in Hong Kong learning to be a carpenter, not a copywriter. “I wanted to call it the Voda-brella,” he says twirling a golf umbrella that will soon be fitted with an in-built antenna and recharge socket, so that festival-goers can boost signal strength, and power their phones, in every muddy field across the UK this summer.
The Voda-brella – since renamed as the Vodafone Booster Brolly – uses a clever combination of high gain antenna and low power signal repeater to catch radio waves from a Vodafone transmitter, before dispersing a very low intensity signal, creating a small “signal shower”, just above users’ heads. It connects their phones to the network, and even boosts the signal of other Vodafone customers around them.
Perched high above London in a bird’s nest office that’s reachable only by a series of confusing corridors and twisting staircases, Dr Tong is a lecturer in antennas and microwave technology at University College London. He loves “the beauty of electro magnetic waves” and his other projects involve creating mobile phone antennas that improve performance when phones are held in different positions, automatically aligning with multi-directional signals to give the best quality call.
“Electro magnetic waves are always analogue,” he tells us. “They cover everything, but they’re not easy to control. If you can manipulate them and control them – then you really have something.” Tong bristles with youthful enthusiasm – not a bit like the stereotypical mad scientist you might expect to invent a Booster Brolly. Scribbling his designs and calculations for the Booster Brolly on a whiteboard, his team of PhD students have spent weeks helping search for solutions to improve it, brainstorming tactics for increasing performance, and painstakingly stitching each solar panel onto every umbrella canopy by hand. That’s when they’re not designing other ground breaking projects, like a contactless ECG machine that can take heart measurements from patients with severe burns.
With only a month and half to develop a fully working prototype from the initial concept, Dr Tong’s team has been experimenting late into the night with different materials, technologies and design. The solar panels that line the Vodafone Booster Brolly’s surface are vital for powering the phone re-charger inside, but even after Dr Tong sourced flexible non-silicon versions from China, it proved difficult to actually attach them to the umbrella:
“We tried everything and tested all kinds of high tech adhesives,” he says. “We even tried Super Glue, but that cracked and fell off.”
The result is a hand-sewn canopy, stitched together with a dozen two volt panels powering a battery that can either charge a mobile, or operate a torch to help find your tent at night. And woe betide any young researcher who believes they’re better off studying than stitching; turning academic knowledge into practical projects is at the heart of what Dr Tong does. “My father was a carpenter and I used to go along with him when he worked. He was always looking at projects and thinking, how can I make this work, how can I fit this in here – how can I build this? It’s in my blood.”
He applies the same principles to antenna science. He was already designing an umbrella that boosted signal strength, when we asked him to combine that knowledge with a festival-friendly device that also powers up mobiles. A high gain antenna fits into the umbrella spike on top and feeds into a second antenna “smaller than a little finger” inserted into the pole underneath the canopy.
Every antenna needs a base plate, Dr Tong says, or it’s just a wire, but the positioning of it within the Booster Brolly needed careful consideration. When he talked to his students about how to incorporate the base plate they suggested using the umbrella branches holding up the canopy. The result was a set of struts that look the same as a regular umbrella, but have been replaced with aluminium rods for better conductivity.
All of the action really happens in the handle, which hides a booster circuit, a USB-charging circuit, a switch to turn on the signal booster, and a torch. That’s a lot to pack into a small space, but Tong holds up the booster circuit to show how it can be done – the circuit is about the same size as a postage stamp. There’s also a brass phone holder fitted into the carbon fibre pole to add mechanical strength, and a clasp to give you somewhere to hook up your mobile while you’re on the go, meaning you can wield your phone-and-brolly combo with just one hand.
And all of this in an umbrella that weighs about 800g – the same as a loaf of bread.
Dr Tong is more than pleased with the result, but he’s already pointing to diagrams on his whiteboard and clicking on computer simulations to show how the Vodafone Booster Brolly could be refined: using only a single canopy with fully integrated solar panels, changing the brass holder for an aluminium one to make it lighter, improving the switch – and even building an app so that you can control the brolly from your phone.
This is perhaps the first umbrella ever to be designed by a team of top scientists, but you wouldn’t know it at first glance. “We’ve put in all of this technology,” Tong says, “but its not heavy, its not big – and it looks good. In fact, it’s a bit of a James Bond umbrella – you can’t tell what it does from the outside.”
The Vodafone Booster Brolly has been developed in conjunction with Vodafone VIP which is giving Vodafone customers access to great experiences at some of the biggest festivals this summer. Find out more at Vodafone VIP.