Like many people of my generation (particularly engineers), I often think that advanced technology must somehow be connected to space. I am especially prone to this mindset for things like multi-element phased array antennas. I recently chatted with the CEO of The Antenna Company who are specialists in this technology. David Favreau is extremely technically proficient but a down-to-earth engineer and a joy to speak with.
Dielectric resonator antenna
With a name like “The Antenna Company,” you would not be surprised that Favreau and his team are a highly sought resource for challenging antenna designs. But with current technology trends, what isn’t a challenging antenna design?
A main innovation engine for The Antenna Company is the dielectric resonator antenna, or DRA. The dielectric resonator acts as a lens for radio wave energy to help focus the energy where the RF designer needs it. It allows for more compact antenna designs as fewer conductive elements can be used to achieve an equivalent antenna gain.
The Antenna Company brands their custom designs under the product heading, “SuperShape” for their design methodology. With clever engineering, these antennas will not be apparent to any but the sleuthiest and thorough of teardown specialists. The team prides itself on reducing the extra footprint required to a minimum by building them into otherwise critical mechanical design parts, like laptop hinges. The flexibility of the DRA concept lends itself to such applications, but the engineering effort is made possible by the modeling tools developed at The Antenna Company.
This might seem like esoteric technology, and it’s true that very few people will fully appreciate it. But hey, as it’s been said, the RF guys are in charge. The Antenna Company is further proof of that. It was founded in 2013 by two antenna experts. One of the company’s two co-founders, Johan Gielis (pronounced hill-iss), developed a design model from the “Gielis Superformula” to allow more compact modeling of the dielectric resonator antennas. I suppose, then, it is logical to call these DRA “SuperShape.” All this translates into antenna better shoehorned into their customers’ existing physical designs.
The need for compact, efficient antennas is critical considering the proliferation of radios in products. Fitting more into smaller form factors is the obvious part of this. For the RF designer, the more pressing challenge is often the integration of many RF subsystems operating on adjacent frequency bands that must be fit into limited product volumes while maintaining inter- and intra-band isolation. Naturally, isolation is just one part of that challenge, since users expect each radio system to provide enough signal strength to provide a solid connection and high data throughput without interfering any other radio or sub-system.
The founders did not invent DRA, but The Antenna Company was the first to commercialize it. The first product was a point-to-point outdoor Wi-Fi antenna designed and built for Aruba Networks.
DRA for IoT
DRA technology is an area to watch as the increasing complexity and integration of multiple radio systems operating in close proximity raises the stakes. Enterprise networking, consumer broadband and IoT are just a few. Where form factor constraints meet the scaling up of MIMO arrays and multi-radio coexistence, the lensing phenomenon of the dielectric resonator antenna shines.
The DRA products are not expected to show up in the handset market, though. I asked Favreau about this, and he responded that the volume limitations just don’t lend themselves to this application, particularly thickness constraints. However, in RF modules for IoT, Favereau predicts the trend from ceramic chip antennas toward DRA as more RF connectivity is required to coexist on those platforms. It will also be a key for mesh network devices, again as more radio systems are crammed together.
WiFi6E + UWB array
As fascinating as the DRA concept is, the newest product from The Antenna Company is not a dielectric beam focused antenna array. Instead, the application is one requiring omni-directional radiation patterns to serve a large space. The new WiFi6E + UWB array product, does however, benefit from careful antenna design due to very aggressive specifications. This new antenna combines a series of antennas to create a tri-band indoor antenna for enterprise systems. The schematic showing the individual antenna element placement for the various bands gives a good impression of the RF design effort required for these products.
The new Wi-Fi 6E antenna array is built for access points. The design contains a total of 15 antennas. Company specifications suggest better then 45 dB isolation between Wi-Fi antenna pairs allowing concurrent operation in the 5 GHz band.
This antenna array includes an Ultra-Wide Band (UWB) option to enable Real-Time Location System (RTLS) services for access control, indoor navigation, asset tracking and contact tracing (in case you forgot about 2020 and the pandemic). The Antenna Company achieved more than 30 dB of isolation between WiFi and UWB antennas.
In Favreau’s words, “Wi-Fi 6E enables the capacity, speed and latency needed to support the shift in network usage for Enterprise and Industrial IoT markets. The addition of UWB gives our customers a scalable platform to offer new RTLS services.”
Each new radio standard offers users better bandwidth and better performance. The new Wi-Fi 6E continues on that promise. But new spectrum or new standards alone cannot deliver real world results. That will always depend on a good antenna.