The release of the next-gen 5G network is just around the corner. But to realize the enormous potential of the upgraded network, an overhaul of the infrastructure is still required. A new Eindhoven-based startup Maxwaves believes its solution can pick up the slack and beam high-frequency signals over longer distances.
There are still several unknowns about the highly anticipated arrival of 5G. As 5G is expected to move to higher frequencies for enhanced data rates, the questions become: how far can the signals travel? What effect will weather have on propagation? And perhaps most importantly, what’s the much-needed infrastructure overhaul going to cost? Ronis Maximidis, of Eindhoven-based startup Maxwaves, believes he has a cost-efficient, low-power solution, thanks to the development of devices with several small antennas (pixels) at the focal plane of a reflector – known as a focal-plane array (FPA). The technology was developed by fellow-student and contributor Ali Al-Rawi during his PhD studies at Eindhoven University of Technology.
The Maxwaves solution is a new antenna system that combines a high-gain reflector and a small sub-reflector positioned around the focal point. At the center of the larger reflector sits a constellation of small antennas that enable power spreading across the elements of the FPA, resulting in enhanced beam-steering capabilities. “This configuration lets us place all the electronics behind the reflector and use it as a heat sink. Millimeter-wave electronics are highly inefficient and generate a lot of heat, by using adaptive power control we can reduce the wasted system power, which helps in terms of sustainability,” explains Maxwaves CEO Maximidis.
“Another main feature of our product is its capability to combine and focus the radio frequency energy in the air, also known as spatial power combining. If more power is needed, we activate more of the small antennas in the focal plane. That way we can increase the effective isotropic radiated power – the EIRP, which measures the radio frequency power in the air. That’s a real point of distinction.”
Low cost, low power
Other conventional systems, like classical antenna arrays, can achieve similar beam-steering capabilities, however, those systems utilize hundreds, or even thousands, of active antenna elements. This results in high power consumption and subsequently higher cost. Maxwaves opted for a more economical approach. “At high frequencies, high-power amplifiers are costly and inefficient,” says Al-Rawi. “Because of that, we chose to use low-power, silicon-based amplifiers, which are lower in cost.”
Another difference from traditional, reflector-based, systems is that the Maxwaves solution is electronically controlled and requires no special tooling, scopes or lasers when being installed. “There’s nothing too difficult or sophisticated in the deployment of Maxwaves’ solution,” comments Al-Rawi. “It’s as simple as pointing the transmitter in the direction of the receiver and then electronically manipulating the FPA based on the measurement readings. This makes it relatively simple to find the optimal point of connection and is much more accurate than trying to achieve the same connections mechanically.”
According to the Maxwaves founder, one of the standout features of the system is its resilience to and effectiveness in bad weather – a big hurdle for any 5G network solution to overcome. Because 4G uses low-frequency channels, the signals can travel further and are more resistant to inclement weather. But as the next generation network moves toward the higher, millimeter-wave frequencies, the distance that the signal can transmit is a real concern. Adding environmental factors, like bad weather, will only complicate the equation and further diminish the propagation.
“Rain and wind can really attenuate the signal in a significant manner. When using high-gain reflective antennas, that’s always going to be an issue,” explains Maximidis. “We developed our focal-plane-array-fed antenna with automated alignment capabilities. This provides the system with the capacity to conduct limited scanning, allowing it to automatically counteract the wind’s twist-and-sway effect on antenna masts. Furthermore, our ability to adjust the power output means we can compensate for the adverse effects of rain, making the Maxwaves solution a viable option even in poor environmental conditions.”
Recently, Maxwaves took to the rooftops of the TUE campus to put its prototype to the test. Looking to validate its technology, Maximidis’ team placed a transmitter and receiver on the top of the Vertigo and Flux buildings, on opposite ends of the campus, and successfully linked the two using its electronically controlled beam-steering method. “These tests show that our FPA offers enhanced beam-steering capabilities for point-to-point links at longer distances,” boasts the CEO. “Typical market solutions can go about 5 km in ideal conditions. When the high-frequency waves are restricted, they shift back to the lower bands, but that significantly restricts the bandwidth. With our technology, we believe we can double that and hit 10 km, while still offering the 10 Gb/s speeds – in all weather.”