World's First Single-Chip mmWave Digital Beamforming System Developed at the University of Michigan

Capable of forming beams in four directions at once, the single-chip mmWave system is an order of magnitude more efficient than rivals.

Researchers at the University of Michigan have announced the world's first single-chip millimeter-wave (mmWave) digital beamforming chip, which they are hoping will open up new possibilities for high-frequency 5G communication across vehicle-to-vehicle, autonomous driving, satellite internet, and national defense scenarios.

Beamforming, in which radio signals are "pointed" in a particular direction in order to improve signal quality transmission distance, isn't a new concept — but present beamforming approaches are analogue. The work of Professor Michael Flynn and team, by contrast, is based on digital beamforming — allowing, they claim, expansion to a considerably larger scale, improved accuracy and flexibility, and the generation of multiple simultaneous beams.

"With analog beamforming, you can only listen to one thing at a time," says Flynn. "But there are a number of new applications where you want to listen to multiple things at the same time, and switch quickly between them."

To prove the concept, Flynn's group built a digital beamforming chip operating at 28GHz with 16 antennas integrated into a single circuit — the first of its kind, the researchers note. While rival digital beamforming systems exist, the single-chip approach has led to claimed order of magnitude improvement in power draw and footprint — and the device can form up to four beams simultaneously in any direction.

Flynn states the chip, which represents over seven years of student work, could find a use in drone-based communication systems for disaster recovery, satellite-based internet, vehicle-to-vehicle communications for autonomous driving, and even future smartphones.

The team's work was presented at the 2020 IEEE Symposium on Radio Frequency Integrated Circuits, but has not yet been made publicly available. More information can be found on the University of Michigan website.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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