IEEE Day 2017: Smart Antennas for IoT and 5G

IEEE Day celebrates the first time in history when engineers worldwide and IEEE members gathered to share their technical ideas in 1884. Events were held around the world by 846 IEEE Chapters this year. So, to celebrate, I attended a joint chapter meeting in at The Museum of Flight in Seattle with technical presentations focused on “Smart Antennas for IoT and 5G”. There were approximately 60 in attendance, so assuming this was the average attendance globally results in over 50,000 engineers celebrating IEEE Day worldwide!

The Seattle seminar featured three speakers that spanned theory, design, test, integration, and application of smart antennas. There was much discussion about the complexity and challenges of meeting the ambitious goals of 5G, which extend beyond mobile broadband data access. Some key objectives of 5G are to increase capacity, increase data rates, reduce latency, increase availability, and improve spectral and energy efficiency by 2020. A critical technology behind achieving these goals is beamforming antenna arrays, which were at the forefront of each presentation.

Anil Kumar from Boeing focused on the application of mmWave technology on aircraft. Test data was used to analyze EM radiation leakage through coated and uncoated aircraft windows. However, since existing regulations don’t consider the increased path loss associated with such high frequencies, the integration of 5G wireless applications may be restricted or delayed. Beyond this regulatory challenge, Anil discussed how multipath reflectors and absorbers will present significant challenges to successful integration inside the cabin. Although testing is always required for validation, designing the layout of the onboard transceivers may be impractical to optimize without an asymptotic EM simulation tool that can account for creeping waves, diffraction, and multi-bounce.

Considering the test and measurement perspective, Jari Vikstedt from ETS-Lindgren focused on the challenges of testing smart antenna systems. Smart or adaptive antenna systems will not likely perform the same in an anechoic chamber test as they would in real systems. Of particular difficulty, radiation null placement is just as critical as beam placement. This poses a difficult challenge to the number and location of probes in a test environment. Not only would a large number of probes become impractical, there is significant shadowing at mmWave frequencies which can negatively impact the measurement. Furthermore, compact ranges can significantly impact testing and line of sight measurements become particularly challenging. While not a purely test-oriented observation, this lead to considering the challenge of tower hand off. If a handset and tower use beamforming to maintain a link, if is difficult for an approaching tower to even sense the handset to negotiate the hand-off.

In contrast, if the handset was continuously scanning, the approaching tower could be sensed to negotiate the hand-off before the link is jeopardized.

The keynote speaker, who also traveled from Phoenix to Seattle, was ASU Professor Dr. Constantine Balanis. Dr. Balanis opened his presentation by making a distinction between conventional “dumb antennas” and “smart antennas”. In reality, there are no smart antennas, but instead smart antenna systems. This is a critical point from an engineering perspective since it highlights the complexity and challenge of designing modern communication systems. The focus of his presentation was using an adaptive system to steer null points in addition to the beam in an antenna array using a least mean square (LMS) algorithm. He began with a simple linear patch array with fixed uniform amplitude weights, since an analytic solution was practical and could be used to validate a simulation setup. However, once the simulation results were verified for confidence, designing a more complex array with weighted amplitudes accompanying the element phase shift was only practical through simulation. While beam steering will create a device centric system by targeting individual users on massive multiple input multiple output (MIMO) networks, null steering can improve efficiency by minimizing interference to other devices.

Whether spatial processing is truly the “last frontier in the battle for cellular system capacity”, 5G technology will most certainly usher in a new era of high capacity, high speed, efficient, and ubiquitous means of communication. If you would like to learn more about how PADT approaches antenna simulation, you can read about it here and contact us directly at info@padtinc.com.