5G networks are upon us and the next generation of mobile internet connectivity will use the millimetre wave frequency band. The use of high frequencies in the millimetre band will significantly enhance mobile data throughput in short-range applications but reduced power consumption for mobile devices is critical. To make millimetre wave-capable mobile devices a reality, it is vital to radically improve antenna technology and reduce the power consumption. EU funding of the SWARM project enabled Scottish-based firm Sofant to develop miniaturised steerable antenna technology that will enhance performance of mobile devices, 5G infrastructure and satellite communication ground terminals. The core technologies comprising this small antenna are a micro electromechanical system (MEMS) module designed for high radio frequencies (RF) and intelligent software created by Sofant. This is the first time that RF MEMS technology will prove itself at scale in wireless communications for beamforming antenna systems including 5G smartphones, mobile infrastructure and satellite communication applications. “We are pioneering an innovative approach that will enable our customers to see a tenfold improvement in the performance of their RF systems and a 70 % reduction of power consumption,” notes David Wither, CEO of Sofant. Simpler RF antenna designs reduce power drain RF phase shifters are critical components in high-frequency antenna systems. They are used to direct the radio signal or ‘beam’ from an antenna array by adjusting the phase of the input signal to each antenna element. Sofant’s RF MEMS device uses a variable capacitor to accomplish this function. This shift in capacitance changes the phase of the radio signal and steers the beam in the desired direction. “Steerable beam antennas can lock onto the strongest signal available at any given time. They not only extend of the radio signal, but also reduce power drain on the system,” explains Wither. Mobile infrastructure can also use RF MEMS for antenna beamforming: elements in an antenna array are phase shifted to steer a narrow beam for maximum performance. Given that Sofant’s MEMS are low-loss modules that have a 6 dB insertion loss advantage over conventional solutions, there is no need to integrate a power amplifier at each antenna element. “Sofant’s approach enables us to share one amplifier across several antenna elements – this does not only reduce the antenna array size and the complexity of the RF design, but also saves an enormous amount of power,” adds Wither. “What’s more, our RF MEMS technology enables a vast reduction in the amount of heat generated by the electronics in the antenna. This directly addresses a major concern when migrating wireless communication systems to higher frequencies.” Sofant’s low-loss RF MEMS phase shifter is not only limited to 5G cellular network towers and handheld devices. It can also be used in satellite communication ground terminals that communicate with satellite systems, which can be anywhere from 1 000 to 35 000 km in Space. EU funding boosts ambitious start-ups Proving innovative technologies at scale is often expensive and difficult for start-ups. Via the SWARM project, Sofant found the right partners to make a critical leap in the technology readiness level of its product. “European funding can greatly aid early-stage technology start-ups in innovative high-risk projects, acting as a complement to venture capital firms. If the EU budget is used wisely, innovative product ideas will be ready to face global market competition and maintain EU’s competitive edge,” concludes Wither.
SWARM, antenna, Sofant, RF MEMS, 5G, wireless communications, antenna array, mobile infrastructure, millimetre wave