The Antenna Springs Forward

Ah, the first of April - the first official day of spring for me. It's the start of the second quarter of the year, the weather is getting warmer (although really slowly this year here in New England), and innovation sprouts anew.

I refer, of course, here to the most significant development in antenna technology that I've ever seen. I've noted in the past that antennas are analogous to the tires on a car - the only part of the machine that actually touches the medium upon which it operates. If you're a driving enthusiast, like I sort of am (I live in new England, after all), you know that changing your tires to a set more appropriate to your vehicle and style of driving can make all the difference.

Such it is with antennas. But, unlike tires, the theory of operation of modern antennas includes math complex enough to baffle even some PhDs, and, regardless, it's often easier to just try something to see if it works, as I learned back in the summer of 1972. I'd just taken my first college computer science class, and was visiting a microwave company (Farinon Microwave; they no longer exist; acquired by Harris in 1980) to inquire about the possibility of perhaps writing microwave simulation code as a summer job (yes, I've always been into wireless). I met with a senior microwave engineer, who eyed me rather sternly, admonishing "zat is much too complex; it is easier to just get a piece of brass und a file..." He meant, BTW, the kind of file you use on brass; it took me a second to make that connection. Since then I've always had the deepest of respect for German microwave engineers. He was also kind enough to introduce me to someone at Farinon who did in fact have a summer slot available. She asked if I knew how to "run a buffer". Another pause to think; I'd only written a half-dozen programs at that point. I/O buffer? Ring buffer? No, she corrected, a floor buffer. So much for programming that summer.

Anyway, most antennas are still just pieces of cleverly-crafted metal, although some have active components. All have various directionality and gain characteristics, and all represent compromises. But I recently saw a new design that has no drawbacks at all, save one that I'll get to shortly. It has amazing (>50 dB) gain on both transmit and receive from 100 MHz. to 100 GHz. It can be electronically steered, with the beam width dynamically adjusted in .05-degree steps, from, well, .05 degree to completely omnidirectional. It's under development now at Advanced Propagation Research (no Web site yet), and it's currently known as the Integration-Line First-Order Offset-Localized System antenna. Funny name, that... And all the result of a happy accident in a kitchen one day, involving a blender, tequila, lime, and triple sec. Oh, yes, and ice. Lots of ice. And a little salt.

Just one little drawback at present - ILFOOLS exists only as a prototype, and some size reduction work remains to be done (see photo). The prototype consumes so much power that small cities nearby go dark during testing. Maybe that Shrink-o-Ray thing from Fantastic Voyage would help here; such must have been invented by now. By the way, if you look carefully, you can see the legendary inventor, Dr. Joachim Dinkledorfer, and his assistant, Sigmund, in the photo at the lower left. Dr. Dinkledorfer told me this all started with the above blender; there's little doubt about that. Regardless, a stunning achievement, especially if you're anywhere near it while it's operating. More on this as it develops - perhaps by next April first.

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