A new piece of research could offer welcome news for smartphone users struggling with poor signals, slow downloads, and short battery life.
Researchers at the Radio Science and Engineering Department at Finland's Aalto University have developed a digital antenna design that is expected to improve reception, data-transfer speed, and power consumption.
Currently, smartphones have multiple antennas that each work with one or several frequencies dedicated to specific smartphone applications, such as cellular reception, GPS, and Bluetooth.
The new method is set to change this approach by combining several small antenna elements together as a single aerial, which can be controlled digitally to operate at any frequency.
"While currently we may have around seven antennas in a phone, if this new technique is used, we can reduce the amount to maybe two, because we're able to adjust [them] to any frequency we want," Ville Viikari, professor of radio engineering at Aalto University, Helsinki, tells ZDNet.
Viikari compares this approach to a guitar where a single open string could digitally be made to produce a different note. When one compact antenna can be used for multiple frequencies, it frees up space for the likes of larger touchscreens, thanks to smaller bezels, without sacrificing the phone's performance.
"There is a current trend to make touchscreens as large as possible, but they can't quite reach from the top to bottom because that is where the antennas are located," Viikari says.
"Antennas are constantly left with less space in current phones, although at the same time they are needed more as they have to work with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth [and other applications]."
Until now Aalto researchers say antenna technologies have either allowed for obtaining a broad frequency range or high efficiency, but not for both at the same time.
As the frequency range used by smartphones is constantly increased, their radiation efficiency has fallen and led to shorter transmission ranges.
But the new digital method promises to give the antenna greater bandwidth, which results in better radiation efficiency and the 100 to 1,000 times faster data transfer speeds set as an objective for the next-generation of 5G smartphones.
This design is also expected to improve battery life, but there are no concrete estimates of how much yet.
The bad news is it could still take a few years before these digital antennas are available for commercial devices. The research paper, published in the IEEE Antennas and Wireless Propagation Letters journal, is based on simulations, and while Aalto scientists have carried out some unpublished practical tests, their work is far from finished.
"We can say the antenna definitely works, but it needs a different kind of an integrated chip attached to it," Viikari explains.
"[Research is needed] particularly on this integrated chip, and the best way to execute a radio for this kind of an antenna, since current radio chips have been designed for standard antennas."
Next, the researchers will continue testing the digital antenna in cooperation with Chinese telecoms giants Huawei, which has an R&D centre in Finland. Viikari is hopeful the results will be seen in commercial use soon.
"Fifth-generation [5G] devices are estimated to launch in 2020. I don't think it's impossible for [the antenna] to be ready then, if someone puts in major investment now. But it is a challenging schedule," Viikari concludes.
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