This new device can take mobile communications beyond 5G

3 Jun 2022

Image: University of Birmingham

A new antenna device developed in the UK can provide continuous ‘wide-angle’ beam steering for the next generation of comms.

While 5G networks are still in their nascent stage, getting deployed at scale slowly across the world, a team of researchers at the University of Birmingham has invented a new ‘beam-steering’ technology that may very well usher in the next generation of mobile communications.

Experimental results presented today (3 June) at a radio science conference demonstrate that the new beam-steering antenna can increase the efficiency of data transmission and open up a whole new range of frequencies currently inaccessible to existing technology.

5G currently uses slow, mechanically-steered antennas to achieve high data transfer efficiency in the millimetre wave spectrum.

Designed at the University of Birmingham’s School of Engineering, the new device can provide continuous ‘wide-angle’ beam steering, allowing it to track a moving mobile phone user in the same way that a satellite dish turns to track a moving object, but at significantly higher speeds.

How is it better?

Around the size of an iPhone, the antenna is made from a metamaterial, which is a material engineered to have special properties not found in naturally occurring materials. This metamaterial is made from a metal sheet with an array of regularly spaced holes that are micrometres in diameter.

An actuator controls the height of a cavity within the metamaterial, executing micrometre movements. According to its position, the antenna can thus control the deflection of the beam of a radio wave. This essentially concentrates the beam into a highly directive signal, redirecting this energy as desired, while also increasing the efficiency of transmission.

Dr James Churm, one of the developers of the antenna, explained that while the beam-steering technology has been built for use in 5G, current models show that it may be capable of 94pc efficiency at 300Ghz – taking mobile communications far ahead of 5G speeds.

“The technology can also be adapted for use in vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure, vehicular radar, and satellite communications, making it good for next-generation use in automotive, radar, space and defence applications,” added Churm.

Moreover, the team said that the new technology does not require the complex and inefficient feeding networks required for commonly deployed antenna systems, instead using a “low-complexity system” that improves performance and is simple to fabricate.

“The simplicity of the design and the low cost of the elements are advantageous for early adoption by industry, and the compact electronics configuration make it easy to deploy where there are space constraints,” said Churm.

Churm co-developed the device along with his colleagues Dr Muhammad Rabbani and Prof Alexandros Feresidis. The team is now developing and testing prototypes at higher frequencies and in applications that take it beyond 5G mobile communications.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic