Beam-steering radio technology could help autonomous cars finally hit the road

This innovation could fundamentally change how we move around a city.

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A slow mobile internet connection can become a major bane in our ever-more connected world. Don’t the internet gods know you need to play that game right now? Can’t they see you are trying to work on your commute? Thanks to a new radio wave-steering technology, your connection problems could go away for good.

Here’s why your phone slows down on the move: You use more data when you move around and use your phone to watch online videos, play a game, or download apps. Ultimately, your ability to get online depends on your ability to send and receive strong-enough mobile communication signals, and for that, you need antennas to beam out radio waves strong enough to reach your device.

Currently, service providers try to meet high demand by beaming signals to users at higher frequencies, James Churm, an engineering professor at the University of Birmingham, explains to Inverse. But higher frequencies come with another issue: Higher attenuation, or a reduction in the signal strength.

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“If an antenna were to broadcast data in every direction, the signal strength would be negligible by the time it gets to a user’s phone,” Churm says.

“To counteract this problem, highly directional beams of radio waves are used to send signals in one direction only.”

But Churm and his team have another way of getting around the problem efficiently. Their innovation on classic radio antennas could hasten both the Internet of Things and a new era of mobile communication that matters for communication in space and on Earth — 6G.

Ultimately, their device could make self-driving and autonomous vehicle technology a reality by providing cars and other forms of transportation with robust-enough internet signals to enable functions like making complex decisions based on ever-changing traffic conditions.

“The antenna adjusts itself to follow the user.”

What’s new — Churm and his colleagues designed a new antenna that increases data transmission efficiency and opens up new frequencies for mobile communications. The antenna uses so-called “beam-steering” technology — the antenna can control the deflection of a radio wave which concentrates the beam and increases transmission efficiency. Moreover, it can follow a user around as efficiently as a satellite.

They presented the technology at the International Union of Radio Science meeting on June 3, 2022.

“This technology can be used to enable 5G systems on the base station side of things and will benefit 6G when that rolls around in the next few years,” Churm says.

“There are application areas in the Internet of Things, enabling interconnectivity of automated industrial systems as well as in the household,” he adds.

“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,” Churm previously said in a statement on the research.

Speeding Up Data

The new beam steering device is housed inside a gadget about the size of an iPhone. Inside is a metamaterial, a unique material engineered to interact with waves in specific ways that is made from a metal sheet with an array of tiny holes.

The new antenna.

University of Birmingham

“Our solution is not only much more efficient at emitting radio waves, but it also requires a much less complex control system which should go toward making the systems more affordable and ubiquitous,” Churm says.

The new 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.

The new beam steering gadget could be part of the solution to current data limitations. However, as the user moves around, they could move out of the antenna’s line of sight, as the antenna’s beam is deliberately narrow.

But Churm and his team thought of that: “The antenna adjusts itself to follow the user using beam steering techniques so that service can be maintained on the move,” he says.

“Beam steering also allows the antenna to switch between several users over a short period of time, as the base station’s data rate will be significantly more than a user’s device is capable of receiving.”

The researchers said their device is now compatible with the 5G specifications used by mobile communications networks.

Beam Me Up

5G has enabled faster-than-ever mobile communication, but 6G could go one further — and even into space.

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Beam-steering helps improve wireless speed for everyday users of cellular technologies, Swarun Kumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, explains to Inverse.

Unlike communication over wires like Ethernet cable, where communication at any point is between two devices, the wireless medium is shared — meaning that every device using the same wireless service could, in principle, “speak to” and “hear” every other device.

“In the cellular context, this means that when base stations communicate, all phones could, in principle, hear their signals,” Kumar says.

“This makes it hard for different pairs of devices to communicate simultaneously because they would essentially interfere, i.e. ‘talk over each other.’”

WiFi, 4G, and 5G technologies already use beam-steering to optimize speeds. One common approach is using “dishes” (similar to satellite TV dishes) that directly focus on signals along the dish’s points. But individual antenna elements become smaller and spaced closer as the signal frequency increases, making designing them challenging.

“Imagine that in the entire restaurant, only one person is allowed to talk at a time. Beam-steering allows for parallel wireless ‘conversations.’”

“The team from Birmingham developed a directional design at high frequencies (the so-called mmWave frequencies) that are increasingly deployed for 5G and beyond,” Kumar says.

“A key innovation in their approach appears to be their effective use of smart materials to ensure that the overall form factor of the antenna is small while ensuring high performance.”

Kumar likens beam steering to a busy restaurant where many people are talking. Technically, everyone can hear each other, but people at different tables can still have meaningful conversations. That’s because humans can focus on conversations from a specific direction.

“Beam-steering is a similar idea — focusing the direction of a wireless signal towards the intended recipient,” Kumar says.

“Think of them as wireless equivalents of horn speakers that direct wireless energy in a specific direction. The ‘steerability’ of the beam allows the transmitter — say a cellular base station — to quickly ‘steer’ the direction of transmission based on where the cellular phone is located.”

“This approach works both for transmissions and receptions — the tower could also similarly receive signals by focussing reception along the direction of any given cellphone.”

Just as focusing on sounds in a restaurant can help you understand conversations, beam steering can assist with cellular communications, Kumar says. By focusing on specific directions, signals sent to and received from the user are more robust, meaning faster communication and faster speeds for users. Also, beam-steering allows many parallel conversations between multiple pairs of users without interference.

“The alternative would have been to take turns — one device at a time — which is substantially slower,” Kumar adds.

“Imagine that in the entire restaurant, only one person is allowed to talk at a time. Beam-steering allows for parallel wireless ‘conversations’ that lead to a substantial speed-up for everyone involved.”

On the horizon...

For mobile networks, beam steering could allow increased data speeds and reliability, Eric Black, the chief technology officer of Pivotal Commware, tells Inverse. Pivotal Commware supplies telecommunications equipment.

Autonomous cars are a technology that feels within grasp.

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The technique could also improve phone battery life because less power is required to transmit and receive signals.

“The exact benefit experienced depends on the underlying system design,” Black says.

“Carriers will build their networks on combinations of these differentiators. Some will opt for enhanced data rate and better power consumption, while others might focus on enhanced range and coverage.”

Adil Kidwai, the head of product management for the internet technology company EdgeQ tells Inverse that beam steering could be helpful for extremely high data throughput applications, particularly indoor 5G network mobility applications that require high data bandwidths.

For example, beam steering can be used for military applications where one needs to channel high burst, high bandwidth data in a very short time or distance, Kidwai says.

For you and I, beam steering could be used for virtual reality headsets for the metaverse, where a smooth, immersive experience requires high bandwidth data transmission at extremely low latency, Kidwai says.

Another potential application, Churm says, is to make autonomous and self-driving vehicle technology more efficient and ultimately safer for passengers.

Their beam-steering device and its technology could herald “next-generation automobile communications and radar,” he says, “enabling vehicles to communicate with each other along with their surroundings to enable context-based decision making for autonomous vehicles.”

HORIZONS is a newsletter on the innovations and ideas of today that will shape the world of tomorrow. This is an adapted version of the June 23 edition. Forecast the future by signing up for free.

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