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Making way for 5G and beyond

It seems like everyone has been talking about the arrival of 5G. 

Researchers and companies are optimistic about how the technology may shape our future, and with good reason. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) forecasts that mobile data will continue to grow exponentially until 2030, with usage in a decade predicted to be eighty times what it is now.

With these kinds of figures, there is a great opportunity for the UK to lead the way in the rollout of 5G. However, to do so will require overcoming the fundamental challenge of extending high-capacity, resilient wireless signal coverage everywhere across the country.

That’s no small task, but it’s certainly one that’s worthwhile. Dr Gabriele Gradoni is confident that 5G technology can form the backbone of our digital future and admits that the potential is “thrilling”.

Dr Gradoni’s research spans the faculties of Science and Engineering (he works with both mathematical scientists in the Wave Modelling Research Theme led by Professor Gregor Tanner, and with electrical engineers in the George Green Institute for Electromagnetics Research led by Professor Ana Vukovic).

This intersection has allowed Dr Gradoni to apply chaos theory – more familiar in the realm of classical mechanics – to an unprecedented degree in the mathematical modelling of electromagnetic waves and their behaviour.

This approach allows Dr Gradoni to look at wireless networks holistically, with engineers taking into account the physical environment through which the waves are travelling, as well as the effect of devices, such as the antennas within base stations and mobile phones, on manipulating and exchanging the waves.

"There is much more we can achieve in the future through wave control by using reconfigurable wireless mobile networks."
Dr Gabriele Gradoni

Thanks to the predictive algorithms developed in Nottingham, Dr Gradoni is able to model how electromagnetic waves will interact with their surroundings, and he is therefore able to predict how they will behave in complex environments such as cities and other urban areas. Once he knows how the waves will behave, he can start to control the flow of electromagnetic energy through these complex areas to improve network optimisation.

Through research into the control of these complex waves, Dr Gradoni and his partners have already achieved tangible results. His work with Telecom Italia has led to the company making sustainable wireless power policies for 5G, limiting human exposure to the waves in indoor environments like houses and factories, in line with Italian government guidelines.

Dr Gradoni is now focusing his attention on the UK. As a Royal Society Industry Fellow with BT, hosted by the Maxwell Centre, University of Cambridge, he is helping the telecoms giant with the rollout of its 5G network and making decisions on future technologies to evolve the nationwide network towards the planning of 6G. His modelling of electromagnetic wave behaviour is helping them to make key decisions on the number and type of antennas to use across the UK, allowing for the creation of a high capacity, resilient network. A New Horizons Grant, awarded in January 2021 by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in recognition of adventurous and transformative ideas, will further support Dr Gradoni’s wave modelling research and the building of potential partnerships with the telecommunications and defence industries.

For Dr Gradoni, though, this is just the beginning. “There is much more we can achieve in the future through wave control by using reconfigurable wireless networks”, he explains. “Not only can we continue to reduce human exposure to electromagnetic waves in critical environments like hospitals and schools, we can also extend the penetration of mobile networks to areas they have never reached before, like underground tunnels. That means you would be able to access your mobile network on your commute, among many other uses.”

In the future, the technology might also be used in applications like smart manufacturing, where autonomous robots communicate wirelessly. The University of Nottingham will touch on this appealing concept in a new EU Horizon2020 RIA ICT52 project due to start on January 2021, for which Dr Gradoni is the PI for the UK. “It may not be too long”, he suggests, “before some of the things we witness in science fiction may become reality.”

Author

Dr Gabriele Gradoni is an Associate Professor in Applied Mathematics and Electromagnetism in the School of Mathematical Sciences and the Department of Electrical and Electronics Engineering.

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