Breakthrough 6G antenna could lead to high-speed communications and holograms

Human Hologram of people, crowd 3d illustration
A new programmable antenna is the world's first to work with a 6G signal in the 60 GHz millimeter-wave (mmWave) band. (Image credit: Design_Cells via Shutterstock)

A new programmable antenna could pave the way for a new generation of 6G devices, smart city-type applications and 3D holograms, scientists claim.

Researchers have created a dynamic metasurface antenna (DMA) that could be controlled by a digitally coded miniature processor that is technically, a high-speed field programmable gate array (FPGA) — a type of reconfigurable circuit integrated onto a chip. 

This prototype, which is about the size of a matchbox, is the world’s first to work with a 6G signal in the 60 GHz millimeter-wave (mmWave) band — reserved for industrial, scientific and medical applications. The findings are detailed in a new study accepted for publication in the near future in the journal IEEE Open Journal of Antennas and Propagation.

The most advanced mobile communications standard today is 5G. This network was first established in 2018 before becoming widespread in 2019. Today, almost every new smartphone can connect to 5G networks in the U.S. and globally. 

6G — which could be a thousand times faster than 5G — is next in line, with the technical specifications still being decided, alongside the infrastructure and components needed to make this network a reality. The final specifications for 6G are expected in 2028, with commercial rollout likely to follow in the early 2030s, according to the trade body GSMA

Related: Breakthrough photonic chip could power 6G devices

“Our high-frequency intelligent and highly adaptive antenna design could be one of the technological foundation stones of the next generation of mmWave reconfigurable antennas,” said lead author of the research, Masood Ur Rehman, senior lecturer in autonomous systems and connectivity at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, in a statement.

One of the prototype antenna’s key features is beamforming. This focuses the direction of the 6G signal precisely to the target device, which increases reliability and speed while reducing power demands. This process happens in nanoseconds. Here, the researchers used "metamaterial" elements designed to resonate at around 60.5 GHz that can be fine-tuned without the need for complex circuitry. 

"The programmable beam control and beam-shaping of the DMA could help in fine-grained mmWave holographic imaging as well as next-generation near-field communication, beam focusing, and wireless power transfer," said Ur Rehman.

In the study, the researchers said this device could have a major impact in communication, sensing and imaging.

One of the main challenges for 6G is that it is difficult to obtain a signal inside a building. This new antenna could support large-scale 60GHz indoor Internet of Things (IoT) networks that encompass high transmission rates and massive data throughput” the scientists said in their report. In tests, the prototype reduced energy consumption by 88% and data collisions by 24%, compared to omnidirectional antennas.

Sensing via 6G also raises interesting possibilities. This uses the properties of radio waves to detect objects in real-time, with potential applications including tracking patients in a hospital or determining the path of an autonomous car. Using this captured data might also lead to the creation of 3D holographic models showing the movement of people and objects in the local area, the scientists said.

Ur-Rehman said his team is just at the start of the journey, and plans to improve the design so that the antenna offers greater flexibility and more versatile performance. Eventually, Ur Rehman sees it as a key component in 6G-enabled IoT and smart city environments.

Tim Danton

Tim Danton is a journalist and editor who has been covering technology and innovation since 1999. He is currently the editor-in-chief of PC Pro, one of the U.K.'s leading technology magazines, and is the author of a computing history book called The Computers That Made Britain. He is currently working on a follow-up book that covers the very earliest computers, including The ENIAC. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, Which? and The Sunday Times. He lives in Buckinghamshire, U.K.