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New Antenna Uses Saltwater and Plastic to Steer Radio Beams

Liquid-based antennas offer unique advantages over metal ones

3 min read
Blue square cones line the walls and floor of a room. On a stand a metal disk lies horizontally. Twelve clear plastic tubes line the circumference, and one tube is in the center. Several of the tubes are filled with water.
The proposed antenna in an anechoic test chamber
Photo: Lei Xing

A new antenna that uses saltwater and plastic instead of metal to shape radio signals could make it easier to build networks that use VHF and UHF signals. 

Being able to focus the energy of a radio signal towards a given receiver means you can increase the range and efficiency of transmissions. If you know the location of the receiver, and are sure that it’s going to stay put, you can simply use an antenna that is shaped to emit energy mostly in one direction and point it. But if the receiver’s location is uncertain, or if it’s moving, or if you’d like to switch to a different receiver, then things get tricky. In this case, engineers often fall back on a technique called beam-steering or beamforming, and doing it at at a large scale is one of the key underlying mechanisms behind the rollout of 5G networks.

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How the FCC Settles Radio-Spectrum Turf Wars

Remember the 5G-airport controversy? Here’s how such disputes play out

11 min read
This photo shows a man in the basket of a cherry picker working on an antenna as an airliner passes overhead.

The airline and cellular-phone industries have been at loggerheads over the possibility that 5G transmissions from antennas such as this one, located at Los Angeles International Airport, could interfere with the radar altimeters used in aircraft.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
Blue

You’ve no doubt seen the scary headlines: Will 5G Cause Planes to Crash? They appeared late last year, after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration warned that new 5G services from AT&T and Verizon might interfere with the radar altimeters that airplane pilots rely on to land safely. Not true, said AT&T and Verizon, with the backing of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which had authorized 5G. The altimeters are safe, they maintained. Air travelers didn’t know what to believe.

Another recent FCC decision had also created a controversy about public safety: okaying Wi-Fi devices in a 6-gigahertz frequency band long used by point-to-point microwave systems to carry safety-critical data. The microwave operators predicted that the Wi-Fi devices would disrupt their systems; the Wi-Fi interests insisted they would not. (As an attorney, I represented a microwave-industry group in the ensuing legal dispute.)

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