Ending with impact: Shape-shifting antennas for wireless communications

What’s coming after 5G? Probably 6G (sixth generation wireless), but there are some big obstacles in the way. Wireless works on radio waves that are shuttled around by antennas, and as the technology progresses from one generation to the next antenna needs become more and more complex. 


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Abstract radio waves radiate from cellular communication towers

A typical 5G tower has 5-10 panels, each containing more than 200 antennas and for 6G there would need to be many thousands more – to the point where it may not be practically viable in most situations.

That’s because antennas work by sending and receiving electromagnetic radiation to and from the direction for which they’ve been tuned. Both the shape of the antenna and its beam direction are vital for performance, but if you want full coverage at high frequencies, the antennas need to be highly reconfigurable.

If antennas could change their own shape, direction and surface to receive and transmit anywhere, all the time, 6G and beyond would become viable, and the performance potential of every wireless device and world communication as we know it would be transformed. 

This is the focus of the SfTI research project Shape-shifting meta-surface reconfigurable antennas for better wireless communication. The project is one of a suite of new SfTI research projects that we’re funding to enable our major Spearhead research projects to ‘end with impact’. All National Science Challenges including SfTI will draw to a close in June 2024 and it’s vital that every drop of potential impact from our research is delivered. In a 2022 funding round, our Spearhead projects were invited to put forward ideas for research that has germinated out of their work of the past few years, and that with more time and investment could reap impactful rewards.

The shape-shifting antennae project is an ending with impact research project led by the Auckland University of Technology’s Professor Sarat Singamneni and Dr Yifan Lv and has grown out of the SfTI Spearhead project that focussed on 3D and 4D printing.

Image: Professor Sarat Singamneni

The idea of a material that can change its shape without being pushed, nudged, turned or externally controlled comes from 3D printing. It’s point-by-point processing methods allow control over a material’s composition and internal structures and even the embedding of external devices. Controlling these factors can give a material shape-changing attributes. 

“To take a simple example, we can change how porous a substance is, which will change how it reacts to moisture. Each kind of molecule will behave differently when moisture levels change, and we can put them together in such a way that the structure will spontaneously morph and change shape when humidity changes.

“We can do that with magnetic fields too. Imagine we create a model with wings, like a fly. We can embed magnetic material in the wings and make them flutter by changing the polarity of the magnetic fields,” Sarat says.

“As Einstein said, ‘the fourth dimension is time’, which is why these kinds of technologies are often called 4D printing – you have a 3D shape that changes over time.”

“As Einstein said, ‘the fourth dimension is time’, which is why these kinds of technologies are often called 4D printing – you have a 3D shape that changes over time.”

The team considered a range of real-world applications for these shape-shifting possibilities.

“You could have stents inside arteries that expand and contract in response to blood pressure. There’s also a lot of potential for the field of humanoid or soft robotics, where researchers want to build a human-looking robot that doesn’t need to have a little motor everywhere there’s a muscle to make it move, such as all the minute movements a face makes in a smile.”

Sarat and Yifan say the antenna project will focus on electromagnetism and the mixing of conductive and nonconductive materials to make the antennas move. 

The first stage goal is a prototype antenna to show a proof of concept to the New Zealand communication technologies industry who are already interested in the team’s work and are advising on practical aspects. 

Dr Yifan Lv

Image: Dr Yifan Lv

Yifan is an early-career researcher and will drive the project, with support from Sarat, the University of Auckland’s Dr Andrew Austin, GNS Ion Beam Material Scientist Dr Holger Fiedler, Global Lead for Mechanical Design at NAVICO Chris Hill, Global Hardware Development Manager at NAVICO Fabio Galli, Scion’s Dr Marie Joo Le Guen and University of Waikato’s Professor Kim Pickering.

The team are funded for $350,000 over 12 months. Read about all of our ending with impact projects.