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UW Crest with engineering background
August 30, 2022

ECE faculty are integral to IARPA project to improve electrically small antennas

Written By: Staff


McFarland-Bascom Professor Nader Behdad and Jean van Bladel Associate Professor Daniel Ludois in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are part of a multi-year research effort to significantly boost the performance of electrically small antennas (ESAs) — or antennas that are much smaller than the wavelength of signals they send and receive. The project is funded by Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), the research and development arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Nader Behdad
Nader Behdad

For most people, the antennas in their car radio, mobile phone and other everyday consumer devices are not something they think about. They’re primarily concerned with the performance — or lack-there-of — of their devices. Needless to say, when the performance of a personal electronic device lags or is interrupted, it can at a minimum be annoying and, perhaps, even dangerous if one can’t reach a first responder or receive emergency assistance.

While antenna performance can pose a challenge for everyday consumers, it’s also a concern for the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). In an attempt to address this issue, IARPA launched an ambitious program named Effective Quantitative Antenna Limits for Performance (EQuAL-P) which focuses on improving the performance of electrically small antennas — antennas that are significantly smaller than their wavelength of operation — by employing active and/or time varying solutions.

Daniel Ludois
Daniel Ludois

Of particular interest to the IC are antenna bandwidth (i.e., the range of radio frequencies over which the antenna can operate correctly) and radiation efficiency (i.e., the ratio of the power radiated by the antenna to the power fed to the antenna). These parameters are important because in some transmit and receive applications, the electrical size of an antenna may limit its ability to operate at multiple frequencies, to handle wideband signals without distortion, and/or to support higher data rates.

If successful, EQuAL-P will enable the IC to better meet mission objectives that require electrically small antennas through several advancements. Improvements include: smaller size, higher data rates of transmission/reception, broader bandwidths, and lower radio frequencies of operation, reduced power consumption, and increased sensitivity. All items that will also improve the performance of a gamut of consumer products.

“There is constant pressure on antenna engineers to improve the performance of electrically small antennas, even as they contend with barriers presented by the fundamental laws of physics,” says EQuAL-P Program Manager, Dr. Paul Kolb. “EQuAL-P won’t seek to break these laws but will work to completely rethink how electrically small antennas function and, eventually, help further IC mission priorities.”

EQuAL-P is a four-year effort that will give working teams the opportunity to initially explore potentially more speculative solutions while requiring them to deliver operational prototypes towards the end of the program.

During the first 18 months, the teams will focus on determining the viability proposed approaches to improve antenna performance. During the next 15 months, the teams will develop a functional antenna prototype capable of achieving four-times improvement in the effective bandwidth and efficiency. During the final 12 months, the teams will target a ten-times improvement.

The teams selected to work on EQuAL-P represent a cross-section of companies and universities with deep experience in antenna technology. They include: Boeing Communications and Sensing Technology (Seattle, WA); HRL Laboratories, LLC (Malibu, CA); North Carolina State University (Raleigh, NC); The Pennsylvania State University (State College, PA); Raytheon BBN Technologies (Cambridge, MA); SRI International (Ann Arbor, MI); University of Wisconsin – Madison, WI; and The Regents of the University of California, Los Angeles, CA.

The work of the teams listed above will be tested and evaluated by government groups from: the Air Force Research Laboratory (Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH); the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific (San Diego, CA); and the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (Point Mugu, CA).

“This is a really hard, complex problem we’re aiming to tackle, but one that’s critical for IC mission success” Dr. Kolb commented. “The incredible and experienced organizations we have working on this problem makes me confident we’ll find a solution that meets and possibly exceeds expectations.”

A version of this press release was originally published by IARPA.