MIT Makes a Smarter Surface to Handle 5G

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Research from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) team recently unveiled a new “smart surface” that could potentially have a massive impact on 5G. RFocus, a two-dimensional surface that uses thousands of antennas that either let the signal pass through or reflect it, is a software controller the team developed. The goal is to improve internet speeds using the external environment.

“The core goal here was to explore whether we can use elements in the environment and arrange them to direct the signal in a way that we can actually control,” says Balakrishnan, senior author on a new paper about RFocus. “If you want to have wireless devices that transmit at the lowest possible power, but give you a good signal, this seems to be one extremely promising way to do it.”

The way to do that is to turn MIMO into massive MIMO. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) introduced standards for massive MIMO in wireless networks back in 2007, concluding that to be “massive,” a network needs multiple antennas to increase the efficiency of cellular data traffic. Popular Mechanics reported that the CSAIL team shifted their focus from transmitters and receivers to the external environment as a means for amplifying the signal.

“The biggest challenge was determining how to configure the antennas to maximize signal strength without using any additional sensors, since the signals we measure are very weak,” said PhD student Venkat Arun, lead author of the new paper alongside Balakrishnan. “We ended up with a technique that is surprisingly robust.”

According to MIT News, early tests indicate that RFocus could improve signal efficiency by up to 10 times. The platform also boasts a cost-effective approach to massive MIMO since the antennas only cost a few cents. “The antennas are inexpensive because they don’t process the signal at all; they merely control how it is reflected.”

The CSAIL team will present their research at the USENIX Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation (NSDI) in Santa Clara, California next month.

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