Designed for future communications networks such as 6G, the patch antenna was developed by electrical engineers at Pennsylvania State University.
Reconfigurable antennas that can tune properties such as frequency and radiation beams in real-time will be integral to future communication networks such as 6G, the researchers said. Many current reconfigurable antenna designs can fall short, however – they stop working in high or low temperatures, have power limitations or require regular servicing.
To address these limitations, the team combined electromagnets with a compliant mechanism. “Compliant mechanisms are engineering designs that incorporate elements of the materials themselves to create motion when force is applied, instead of traditional rigid body mechanisms that require hinges for motion,” said Galestan Mackertich-Sengerdy, corresponding author of a paper on the work. “Compliant mechanism-enabled objects are engineered to bend repeatedly in a certain direction and to withstand harsh environments.”
When applied to a reconfigurable antenna, the compliant mechanism-enabled arms bend in a predictable way, which in turn changes its operating frequencies without the use of hinges or bearings.
“Just like a chameleon triggers the tiny bumps on its skin to move, which changes its colour, a reconfigurable antenna can change its frequency from low to high and back, just by configuring its mechanical properties, enabled by the compliant mechanism,” said co-author Sawyer Campbell.
The compliant mechanism-enabled designs supersede existing ‘origami’ design technologies, the researchers claimed, which are reconfigurable but do not have the same advantages in robustness, long term reliability and high-power handling capability.
“Origami antenna designs are known for their compact folding and storage capabilities that can then be deployed later on in the application,” said Mackertich-Sengerdy. “But once these origami folded structures are deployed, they usually need a complex stiffening structure, so that they don’t warp or bend. If not carefully designed, these types of devices would suffer environmental and operational lifetime limitations in the field.”
The team designed a circular, iris-shaped patch antenna prototype using commercial electromagnetic simulation software. They then 3D printed it and tested it for fatigue failures, as well as frequency and radiation pattern fidelity in Penn State’s anechoic chamber, a room insulated with electromagnetic wave-absorbing material that prevents signals from interfering with antenna testing.
Though the prototype – designed to target a specific frequency for demonstration – is only slightly larger than a human palm, the technology could be shrunk down to the integrated circuit level for higher frequencies, or increased in size for lower frequency applications, the team said.
“The paper introduces compliant mechanisms as a new design paradigm for the entire electromagnetics community, and we anticipate it growing,” said co-author Douglas Werner. “It could be the branching off point for an entirely new field of designs with exciting applications we haven’t dreamed of yet.”
The work was published in Nature Communications.
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