An 18-year-old prodigy is exploring the depths of space with radio

He hopes to develop a program that will enable youth to build and program microsatellites.
Deena Theresa
Dhruv Rebba obtained his ham radio license when he was just nine.Dhruv Rebba

If Dhruv Rebba had to live on an isolated island, he would bring a ham radio kit along.

"The island wouldn't have cellular connectivity, of course. A ham radio would be the best option to contact someone as it uses the ionosphere to communicate, instead of cellular towers. That's why we use it in natural disasters," he tells IE in a video interview.

Ham radio involves the use of a transmitter and receiver that enables two-way communication between broadcasters in the world. It is immensely useful as a disaster management tool when mobile phone networks are overloaded or wrecked during calamities.

When Rebba was nine, he received his ham radio technician license - becoming the youngest person of Indian origin, until then, to receive the same. That earned him a spot in the Limca Book of Records. The same year, he attained the General Class License.

"My dad has been a ham radio operator for the past 25 years. When I was in the third grade, I convinced him to take me along to this international ham radio convention called the Dayton Hamvention. I spotted some cool equipment and was instantly inspired to get a license authorized by the Federal Communications Commission," he says.

Rebba is now 18 and has several more credits to his name. 

For the love of radio

A senior specializing in Computer Science at Normal Community High School in Bloomington, Rebba firmly believes that getting into amateur radio was a stepping stone to various other fields. 

The space industry, for example.

In 2017, Rebba was part of the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) project. It involves amateur radio operators across the world speaking directly to astronauts/cosmonauts through their handheld, mobile, or home radio stations

"I found out about the program at the Hamvention and thought it would be interesting to get my school involved in the project. After three tries, we received the approval. As I have an amateur radio license, I was able to make the initial contact. Some 16 students were given the chance to ask 23 questions to astronaut Joseph M. Acaba on the International Space Station for Expedition 53/54," Rebba explains.

Two years later, in 2019, he was named Young Ham of the Year.

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A young Rebba
Ham radio has always fascinated Dhruv Rebba. Source: Dhruv Rebba

Tuning into what matters most

Besides being a ham radio operator, and a regular student actively involved in robotics, Rebba is also the CEO of Universal Help Foundation, an international non-profit dedicated to improving the quality of life for people all around the world.

"I'd visited my dad's village in India when I was in the eighth grade and noticed the gap in the standard of living. That's what prompted me to start Universal Help - to create an impact. I named the foundation Universal Help as I didn't want to confine it to environmental sustainability or disaster relief, instead bridge the gap and improve the quality of life for people," he tells me. 

Since its inception, Universal Help Foundation has digitized schools and provided supplies to 19 schools. Around 250 families received rations during the pandemic, and the foundation members helped in natural disaster relief when cyclone YAAS hit West Bengal.

"We shipped ham radio equipment from New Delhi to West Bengal for natural disaster communication. We've also created an isolation center for those severely affected by Covid-19. During the onset of the Delta variant, hospitals in India were overcrowded with patients. Our isolation center has 30 beds, that can be expanded to 100. We're also working on local projects here in Bloomington. Some of them include a sustainability project to increase access to recycling, and a compositing project with the Ecology Action Center," Rebba says.

His work for the underprivileged, and contribution to STEM helped him bag the 2022 4-H Youth In Action Award for STEM.

Plans that are out of this world

Rebba hopes to get further high up in space. 

"Currently, I'm the lead of a statewide program called 4-H in Space Mission Command. I have been working with Illinois 4-H, LASSI (Laboratory for Advanced Space Systems at Illinois), and the University of Illinois Dept. of Aerospace to develop a program that will enable youth to build and program microsatellites that will be launched into orbit Q32022," he says.

4-H in Space gives students around Illinois the opportunity to collect data directly from satellites in space. The project will potentially reach 10K+ Illinois youth during the first three years.

Rebba stresses that such a program is the first of its kind. "No classroom in the world has had direct access to a satellite in space, It's historic. We're working on it, and it should be ready within the next couple of years," he says.

Dhruv is also involved in designing an amateur radio system that will be placed on the Deep Space Lunar Gateway Space Station orbiting around the moon. The Gateway will play a crucial role in the Artemis missions. 

Meanwhile, the ham population is aging and fewer youngsters are drawn to it. According to the American Radio Relay League (ARRL, the national association for amateur radio), the average ARRL Member is 68 years old.

"There's an older tilt to the ham radio operator demographics because it was the cutting edge of technology, back then. Now we have cell phones and text messaging and the younger crowd doesn't see the everyday use of ham radio as important. But I think that we must look at the other aspects - such as its use in natural disasters and space communication. The potential is huge," Rebba adds. 

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