If future mobile phones are to take advantage of the enormous speeds on the 5G network, antennas need to be much more advanced than they are today. With a major investment from Innovation Fund Denmark, a new collaboration between AAU and tech firms Intel and Wispry will develop the world's best mobile antennas inspired by radar technology.
In five to seven years, the speed of the mobile network will be a good 200 times faster than it is today. In split seconds you will be able to download and transfer data that today takes many minutes to transport through the air. But if we’re going to get something out of the high speed, it requires a proper connection between the signal and the mobile phone, and the antenna is the telephone’s weak point.
Today, virtually all mobile phones have built-in antennas that point out in all directions to pick up a signal. According to Gert Frølund Pedersen, Professor at Aalborg University’s Department of Electronic Systems, this means that the best of modern mobile phones “only” lose about 90 percent of the signal that is in the air. If the speed is to be increased, antenna technology needs to be better, he says.
The solution is to have more directional antennas pointing directly at the transmitter, the same way as in satellite communications where a dish is pointing straight up at a satellite and can pick up a signal that is 10,000 times weaker than what is picked up by a mobile phone. "If you know what direction the signal is coming from, you have a huge advantage," says Gert Frølund Pedersen.
Although you may know where the nearest transmission tower is, the obvious challenge is that mobile phones are rarely pointing in the same direction for long periods of time. So Gert Frølund Pedersen found inspiration in radar technology for a method that works. "In the same way that a radar antenna can see in all directions, the mobile phone must also continually scan for the strongest signal that it can lock on to," he explains.
According to Gert Frølund Pedersen, by having many antennas in the phone that each look in their own direction, you can solve the problem and capture a signal with more power. Today, there are usually two antennas built into modern 4G phones and standards have already been developed for four and eight antennas. But the number will increase significantly for the next generation, says Gert Frølund Pedersen.
"Whether 5G will have 16 or 64 antennas built in, we don’t know, but it will be of that order of magnitude. The more there are, the better. But they have to work together for a good signal in the right direction," he says. "The downside is that it costs, not only when it comes to technology, but also in terms of power consumption. And that’s something we need to look at."
Although Gert Frølund Pedersen and his team already have a good idea of how to solve the technological challenges, there is still a long way to a finished system that can be used in a mobile phone. The technical solution must go through a sea of different tests to simulate how the antenna works under various conditions - if it’s held in one way or another, if it’s located in a pocket, moving at different speeds, etc. But the aim is a technology that will be the new standard in tomorrow’s 5G phones.
This is where the composition of the consortium comes into the picture. Aalborg University is known for its leading research on antennas; Intel Mobile Communications Denmark is known for its knowledge of mobile systems; and Wispry Denmark bridges between the two worlds with its leading technology in digital tuning of high frequency circuits based on MEMS (Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems).
Denmark’s Minister of Higher Education and Science, Ulla Tørnæs, has this to say about the project:
"Knowledge and innovation are some of our strongest resources. This is what Denmark must live on. That is why it is also important that Innovation Fund Denmark supports projects that aim to make our everyday lives easier and can help to create Danish jobs. I look forward to following the project, and I’m looking forward to my phone in the future finding the best signal."
Innovation Fund Denmark investment: DKK 26.7 million
Total project budget: DKK 54.4 million
Duration of the project: 4 years
Project's official title: Range (Reconfigurable Arrays for Next Generation Efficiency)
Source: AAU news