Beam steering is a technique for changing the direction of the main lobe of a radiation pattern. Beam steering in radio and radar systems can be accomplished by switching the antenna elements or changing the relative phases of the RF signals driving the elements. Because of the quasi-optic nature of 5G frequencies, beam steering has recently played a significant role in 5G communication. Beam steering is accomplished by varying the phase of the input signal on all radiating elements. The signal can be targeted at a specific receiver using phase shifting.
Researchers have revealed a new beam-steering antenna that improves data transmission efficiency and opens up frequencies for mobile communications that are currently unavailable to existing technologies. The technology has demonstrated significant improvements in data transmission efficiency at millimeter wave frequencies, particularly those identified for 5G (mmWave) and 6G, where high efficiency is currently only possible using slow, mechanically steered antenna solutions.
Birmingham scientists have revealed a new beam-steering antenna that improves data transmission efficiency for ‘beyond 5G’ – and opens up a range of frequencies for mobile communications that are currently unavailable to existing technologies.
Experiment results, presented today for the first time at the 3rd International Union of Radio Science Atlantic / Asia-Pacific Radio Science Meeting, show that the 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 faster speeds.
Despite the fact that we developed the technology for use in 5G, our current models indicate that our beam steering technology may be capable of 94 percent efficiency at 300 GHz. The technology can also be used in vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure, vehicular radar, and satellite communications, making it suitable for next-generation applications in automotive, radar, space, and defense.Dr. James Churm
The technology, developed by researchers from the University of Birmingham’s School of Engineering, has demonstrated vast improvements in data transmission efficiency at frequencies ranging across the millimetre wave spectrum, specifically those identified for 5G (mmWave) and 6G, where high efficiency is currently only achievable using slow, mechanically steered antenna solutions.
Prototypes of the beam-steering antenna at 26 GHz have demonstrated unprecedented data transmission efficiency for 5G mmWave applications. The device is fully compatible with existing 5G specifications used by mobile communication networks. Furthermore, the new technology does not require the complex and inefficient feeding networks required for commonly deployed antenna systems, instead employing a low complexity system that improves performance and is simple to fabricate.
Dr. James Churm, Dr. Muhammad Rabbani, and Professor Alexandros Feresidis, Head of the Metamaterials Engineering Laboratory, developed the beam-steering antenna as a solution for fixed, base station antenna, for which current technology shows reduced efficiency at higher frequencies, limiting the use of these frequencies for long-distance transmission.
The technology, which is about the size of an iPhone, employs a metamaterial*, which is a metal sheet with an array of micrometre-sized holes that are regularly spaced. An actuator controls the height of a cavity within the metamaterial, delivering micrometre movements, and, depending on its position, the antenna controls the deflection of the team of a radio wave – effectively ‘concentrating’ the beam into a highly directive signal, and then’redirecting this energy as desired’ – while also increasing transmission efficiency.
The team is now developing and testing prototypes at higher frequencies and in applications that go beyond 5G mobile communications.
Dr. Churm added: “Despite the fact that we developed the technology for use in 5G, our current models indicate that our beam steering technology may be capable of 94 percent efficiency at 300 GHz. The technology can also be used in vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure, vehicular radar, and satellite communications, making it suitable for next-generation applications in automotive, radar, space, and defense.”
The University of Birmingham Enterprise has filed a patent application for this next-generation beam-steering antenna technology and is looking for industry partners for collaboration, product development, and licensing.
The efficiency and other aspects of the underpinning technology have been subjected to the peer review process, published in respected journals, and presented at academic conferences.
Dr. Churm continued: “We are currently assembling a body of work for publication and presentation that will demonstrate a level of efficiency never before reported for radio wave transmission at these challenging frequencies. The design’s simplicity and low cost of the elements are advantageous for early industry adoption, and the compact electronics configuration makes it easy to deploy where space is limited. We are confident that the beam-steering antenna is suitable for a variety of 5G and 6G applications, as well as satellite and Internet of Things applications.”
[Note: Metamaterials are materials that have been engineered to have unique properties not found in naturally occurring materials. These properties can include the manipulation of electromagnetic waves by blocking, absorbing, enhancing, or bending waves.]