Researchers in the US have developed a new, additively manufactured, tile-based approach to build scalable arrays of 5G+ compatible ‘smart skins’.
According to Gartner research, 5G+ (5G/Beyond 5G) is the fastest growing segment and the only significant investment growth opportunity in the wireless network infrastructure market. Currently, 5G+ technologies rely on large antenna arrays, usually bulky and available in limited sizes, making them difficult to transport and expensive to customize.
Now researchers at Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering claim to have developed a flexible solution to the problem. Their 5G+-compatible smart skins have the potential to enable intelligence on almost any surface or object, researchers say.
Published in Scientific Reportstheir research describes the approach that is reportedly not only more scalable and adaptable than current practices, but shows no performance degradation when bent or scaled to a very large number of tiles.
“Normally, many smaller wireless network systems work together, but they are not scalable. With current techniques, you can’t increase, decrease or target bandwidth, especially for very large areas,” said Manos Tentzeris, Ken Byers Professor of Flexible Electronics in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “By being able to leverage and scale this new tile-based approach, this is possible.”
Tentzeris said his team’s modular application, equipped with 5G+ capabilities, has the potential for immediate, large-scale impact as the telecommunications industry continues to rapidly transition to standards for faster, higher capacity, and lower latency communications.
The new approach involves assembling additively manufactured tiles onto a single, flexible underlying layer. This allows tile arrays to be attached to a wide variety of surfaces. The architecture also makes it possible to deploy very large 5G+ phased/electronically controllable antenna array networks on-the-fly, the team said.
In fact, according to Tentzeris, attaching a tile array to an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is an opportunity to increase broadband capacity in low-coverage areas.
Researchers said they fabricated a 5x5cm proof-of-concept, flexible tile array and wrapped it around a 3.5cm radius curvature. Each tile contains an antenna sub-array and an integrated beam-forming integrated circuit on an underlying tile layer to create a smart skin that can seamlessly connect the tiles into very large antenna arrays and massive multiple-input multiple-outputs (MIMOs) – the practice of housing two or more antennas within a single wireless device.
Tile-based array architectures on rigid surfaces with single antenna elements have been previously explored, but do not include the modularity, additive manufacturability or flexible implementation of this design, the Georgia Tech team explained.
The proposed modular tiling approach means tiles of identical dimensions can be manufactured in large quantities and easily replaced, reducing the cost of customization and repairs.
“The shape and characteristics of each tile shell can be singular and can contain different frequency bands and power levels,” Tentzeris says. “One could have communication capabilities, another sensing capabilities, and another could be an energy harvesting tile for solar, thermal or environmental RF energy. The application of the tile framework is not limited to communications.”
Internet of Things, virtual reality and smart manufacturing/Industry 4.0 are additional application areas that the team plans to explore. The next steps are testing the approach outside the lab on large, real-world structures. The team is currently working on the fabrication of larger, fully inkjet-printed tile arrays (256+ elements).
“The mass scalability of the tile architecture makes the applications extremely diverse and almost ubiquitous,” says Tentzeris. “From structures the size of dams and buildings, to machines or cars, to individual wearables for health monitoring.
“We’re moving in a direction where everything is covered in a kind of wireless, compliant smart skin that includes electronically controllable antenna arrays of widely varying sizes that allow for effective monitoring.”