Flexible AM tiles promise scalable 5G infrastructure

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US engineers have developed an additive manufacturing method for building scalable, flexible arrays of tiles that can deliver 5G+ communications.

Georgia Tech

The researchers, from Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering, say these ‘smart skins’ have the potential to enable intelligence on nearly any surface or object. Their work saw them fabricate a proof-of-concept, flexible 5x5cm tile array and wrap it around a 3.5cm radius curvature. Each tile includes an antenna subarray and an integrated, beamforming integrated circuit on an underlying tiling layer to create a smart skin that can seamlessly interconnect the tiles into very large antenna arrays and massive multiple-input multiple-outputs (MIMOs) — the practice of housing two or more antennas within a single wireless device. The work is published in Scientific Reports.

“Typically, there are a lot of smaller wireless network systems working together, but they are not scalable. With the current techniques, you can’t increase, decrease, or direct bandwidth, especially for very large areas,” said Manos Tentzeris, Ken Byers Professor in Flexible Electronics at Georgia’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Being able to utilise and scale this novel tile-based approach makes this possible.”

Researchers said tile-based array architectures on rigid surfaces with single antenna elements have been researched before, but do not include the modularity, additive manufacturability, or flexible implementation of this design. The proposed modular tile approach means tiles of identical sizes can be manufactured in large quantities and are easily replaceable, reducing the cost of customisation and repairs.

“The shape and features of each tile scale can be singular and can accommodate different frequency bands and power levels,” said Tentzeris. “One could have communications capabilities, another sensing capabilities, and another could be an energy harvester tile for solar, thermal, or ambient RF energy. The application of the tile framework is not limited to communications.”

Other use cases the team intends to explore include IoT, virtual reality and smart manufacturing/Industry 4.0. The next steps will involve testing the approach outside the lab on large, real-world structures, with the researchers also working on fabrication of larger, fully inkjet-printed tile arrays.