Beam-steering antenna enables 6G speeds on 5G equipment

A “beam-steering” antenna has been developed that increases the efficiency of data transmission, allowing speeds beyond those achievable with current 5G technologies.

Experimental results show 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 with significantly enhanced speeds. 

Devised by University of Birmingham researchers, the technology 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.  

For 5G mmWave applications, prototypes of the beam-steering antenna at 26GHz are said to have shown unprecedented data transmission efficiency.  

The device is fully compatible with existing 5G specifications that are currently used by mobile communications networks and does not require the complex and inefficient feeding networks required for commonly deployed antenna systems, instead using a low-complexity system which improves performance and is simple to fabricate.

The beam-steering antenna was developed as a solution for fixed, base station antennas, for which current technology shows reduced efficiency at higher frequencies, limiting the use of these frequencies for long-distance transmission.

Around the size of a smartphone, the technology uses a material 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, delivering micrometre movements, and, according to its position, the antenna will control the deflection of the beam of a radio wave – effectively concentrating the beam into a highly directive signal, and then “redirecting this energy as desired” – whilst also increasing the efficiency of transmission.  

The team is now developing and testing prototypes at higher frequencies and in applications that take it beyond 5G mobile communications.

Researcher Dr James Churm said: “Although we developed the technology for use in 5G, our current models show that our beam-steering technology may be capable of 94 per cent efficiency at 300GHz. 

“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.

“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. 

“We are confident that the beam-steering antenna is good for a wide range of 5G and 6G applications, as well as satellite and the Internet of Things.”

In November, it was revealed that researchers from Japan and Finland were already working on developing technologies and standards that will be deployed in upcoming 6G networks.

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