New Antenna Tech Could Make Your Phone Signal Ridiculously Strong

Caroline Delbert
Photo credit: coffeekai - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

Scientists at MIT want to blanket your next-generation smartphone in a material made of antennas. Their goal is to turn the idea of 5G into as efficient a reality as possible. The team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory will present its new material, which is called RFocus, at a conference later this month.

RFocus is emblematic of a general shift in development of wireless technology and devices. Instead of just covering the Earth with a sporadic arrangement of huge antennas, engineers also want a more homogeneous network of smaller antennas to keep signals consistent and high powered. The idea is to turn “multiple input multiple output,” or MIMO, into massive MIMO. But what does MIMO really mean and do?

Let’s say you have an entire cellular data network in your city, but there’s just one transmitter and one receiver. Suddenly your network is like having a single landline phone for an entire apartment building, with a clear bottleneck point that prevents information from traveling for everyone but the one person using the phone at a time.

Photo credit: Jason Dorfman/CSAIL

The MIMO standard changed how this data was sent by adding multiple transmitters and receiving antennas, both to individual locations and as a principle across entire cellular networks. By spreading the burden using an idea called multipath propagation, wireless data networks could emulate distributed computing, multipath processing, or even just city highways with added lanes. All these systems let traffic transmit more than one packet or car at a time, reducing congestion and increasing efficiency.

In 2007, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) introduced a standard for massive MIMO in wireless networks. Since then, massive MIMO design principles have grown more and more important. To be “massive,” a network must have many antennas in what’s called a rich scattering environment. The overall goal is both to keep increasing data speeds by increasing the efficiency of what is sent over the air and to make longer and longer uptimes for the rapidly increasing number of users.

The team working on RFocus at MIT is using extremely low-cost antennas to multiply how efficiently surfaces and devices are networking. In their statement, they specifically mention an inventory environment with hundreds of “smart” machines working in tandem, where a traditional wifi signal can get saturated and diluted to near zero.

To outfit a warehouse like this with signal repeaters or boosters could cost a fortune. Instead, thousands of tiny antennas that cost a few pennies apiece can focus and magnify the existing signal. The researchers say their smart surface can increase signal strength by a factor of 10, which could mean life or death for the low signal requirements of a warehouse full of smart machinery. Being able to wirelessly ping inventory totals and other data without special network equipment could save companies a ton of money and overhead.

The warehouse use-case is compelling, but it could be dwarfed by use of this RFocus smart material in 5G devices. Magnifying a weak signal in a warehouse is important, but magnifying a powerful, cutting-edge signal by a factor of 10 could make the difference for impactful and efficient use of 5G. Nobody cares how big the milkshake gets if they still have to drink it through a narrow straw.

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