Mobile Communications Beyond 5G With New “Beam-Steering” Technology

Scientists from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom have developed a novel beam-steering antenna that improves data transmission efficiency and opens up frequencies for mobile communications that are currently unavailable to existing technology.

In telecoms, 5G is the successor to 4G as the fifth-generation technological standard for broadband cellular networks. It offers substantially quicker download rates, with a peak speed of 10 gigabits per second. It also has larger bandwidth, allowing it to connect to a wider range of devices.

Researchers have developed beam-steering technology for fixed base station antennas used by cellular networks, which offers remarkable data transmission efficiency for 5G mmWave applications.

Researchers from Birmingham have presented a novel beam-steering antenna that improves data transmission efficiency for 'beyond 5G' – and opens up a spectrum of frequencies for mobile communications that are now unavailable to existing technology.

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, according to experimental results presented today for the first time at the 3rd International Union of Radio Science Atlantic / Asia-Pacific Radio Science Meeting.

The technology, developed by researchers at the University of Birmingham's School of Engineering, has shown significant gains in data transmission efficiency at frequencies across the millimeter wave spectrum, particularly those identified for 5G (mmWave) and 6G, where high efficiency is currently only possible with slow, mechanically steered antenna solutions.

Prototypes of the beam-steering antenna at 26 GHz have demonstrated remarkable data transmission efficiency for 5G mmWave applications.

The gadget is backwards compatible with current 5G requirements used by mobile communication networks. Furthermore, the new technique eliminates the need for the complicated and inefficient feeding networks that are prevalent in antenna systems, instead opting for a low-complexity system that enhances performance while being simple to build.

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 antennas, which currently have lower efficiency at higher frequencies, limiting their use for long-distance transmission.

The technology, which is around the size of an iPhone, is based on a metamaterial, which is a metal sheet with a grid of micrometer-sized holes. Metamaterials are materials that have been designed to have unique qualities that aren't present in natural materials. These qualities can include the blocking, absorbing, amplifying, or bending of electromagnetic waves. An actuator controls the height of a cavity within the metamaterial, micrometer movements, and, depending on its position, the antenna controls the deflection of a radio wave's team – effectively 'concentrating' the beam into a highly directive signal and then'redirecting this energy as desired' – while also increasing transmission efficiency.

The team is currently working on prototypes that will work at higher frequencies and in applications that will go beyond 5G mobile communications.

“Although we developed the technology for use in 5G, our current models show that our beam steering technology may be capable of 94% efficiency at 300 GHz. 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 defense applications," Dr. Churm said.

University of Birmingham Enterprise has filed a patent application for this next-generation beam-steering antenna technology and is seeking industry partners for collaboration, product development or 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.

“We are assembling a further body of work for publication and presentation that will demonstrate a level of efficiency that has not yet been reported for transmission of radio waves at these challenging frequencies. 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," Dr Churm continued.