Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems
For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?
Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.
Reconfigurable intelligent surfaces could play a big role in the coming integration of wireless and satellite networks.
That’s important, because as we move to higher frequencies, the propagation characteristics become more “hostile” to the signal. The wireless channel varies constantly depending on surrounding objects. At 5G and 6G frequencies, the wavelength is vanishingly small compared to the size of buildings, vehicles, hills, trees, and rain. Lower-frequency waves diffract around or through such obstacles, but higher-frequency signals are absorbed, reflected, or scattered. Basically, at these frequencies, the line-of-sight signal is about all you can count on.
Such problems help explain why the topic of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces (RIS) is one of the hottest in wireless research. The hype is justified. A landslide of R&D activity and results has gathered momentum over the last several years, set in motion by the development of the first digitally controlled metamaterials almost 10 years ago.
RIS prototypes are showing great promise at scores of laboratories around the world. And yet one of the first major projects, the European-funded Visorsurf, began just five years ago and ran until 2020. The first public demonstrations of the technology occurred in late 2018, by NTT Docomo in Japan and Metawave, of Carlsbad, Calif.
Today, hundreds of researchers in Europe, Asia, and the United States are working on applying RIS to produce programmable and smart wireless environments. Vendors such as Huawei, Ericsson, NEC, Nokia, Samsung, and ZTE are working alone or in collaboration with universities. And major network operators, such as NTT Docomo, Orange, China Mobile, China Telecom, and BT are all carrying out substantial RIS trials or have plans to do so. This work has repeatedly demonstrated the ability of RIS to greatly strengthen signals in the most problematic bands of 5G and 6G.
How reconfigurable intelligent surfaces strengthen a wireless signal
To understand how RIS improves a signal, consider the electromagnetic environment. Traditional cellular networks consist of scattered base stations that are deployed on masts or towers, and on top of buildings and utility poles in urban areas. Objects in the path of a signal can block it, a problem that becomes especially bad at 5G’s higher frequencies, such as the millimeter-wave bands between 24.25 and 52.6 gigahertz. And it will only get worse if communication companies go ahead with plans to exploit subterahertz bands, between 90 and 300 GHz, in 6G networks. Here’s why. With 4G and similar lower-frequency bands, reflections from surfaces can actually strengthen the received signal, as reflected signals combine. However, as we move higher in frequencies, such multipath effects become much weaker or disappear entirely. The reason is that surfaces that appear smooth to a longer-wavelength signal are relatively rough to a shorter-wavelength signal. So rather than reflecting off such a surface, the signal simply scatters. [READ MORE]