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NTC Project: F05-AE13

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Reinforcement fabrics with electronic transmission capabilities


Project Team:
Leader: Gwynedd Thomas, Auburn University, Polymer and Fiber Engineering
Graduate student: Houmin Li, Auburn University, Polymer and Fiber Engineering

Goals of the research project:


Our research team is devising a new electronic transmission capable fabric within which
antennae and electronic transmission capabilities are embedded. As a primary first step in
testing this new concept, we will investigate the electronic and mechanical characteristics of
fabricated textile structures containing electronic transmission and reception materials within
load bearing fibrous foundation devices.
Our project is laying the research groundwork to construct antennas using nonwoven geotextiles
with embedded metallic or other wave carrying fibers. These fabrics are intended to become an
internal, integral part of the nation’s infrastructure. Geotextile antennas will be flexible and
easily conform to natural and manmade surfaces such as exterior building surfaces (e.g. roofs,
bridges) and even trees. Each application is considerably less vulnerable to damage and probably
much less expensive than the current, highly vulnerable and costly cell towers. In particular,
geotextiles used in roads are especially well protected by the asphalt pavement above. Since
geotextiles are already used in many roadways (the installation technology is well-established),
the new antenna would serve dual purposes – road reinforcement/waterproofing and cell phone
(or other) antenna. The proposed fabric-based conformal antenna will enhance the usefulness
and reliability of our communication infrastructure, which now is exceedingly vulnerable to
vandalism, terrorism and natural disasters.

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Introduction – A new concept for convenience and communications protection


Imagine a world in which you are always in cell phone range of an antenna and there is never
any lost coverage. Imagine riding on an interstate and picking up ESPN or the Weather Channel
on a TV in the back seat of a car or SUV. Imagine having a system that will track your vehicle
and others around you and take emergency measures to avoid collisions or reroute you when
long traffic jams lie ahead. This is a world that can be possible if there is an infrastructure of
communications transmissions built into the very roads, streets and buildings of our cities and
counties of the nation (Figure 1.).

Figure 1. Communications antennae can be built into roads and building foundations using fiber
based structural materials

One of the most prevalent complaints of modern technology consumers is sporadic coverage of
cell phone reception and insufficiently reliable service from their carriers. The common and
nearly universal use of geotextile liners to create road- and highway beds may offer the unique
possibility of integrating a continuous network antenna into the textile structure so that roadbed
reinforcements become dual purpose in their applications.

As the present US textile industry moves away from traditional markets there is still a deep
knowledge base of materials and practices from which we can fabricate materials into more
sophisticated technical items rather than into simple consumer goods. Because of the industry’s
increasing vulnerability to lower labor cost producers in traditional markets, new products with
new knowledge bases can be pursued by expanded upon old knowledge to enter new markets –
those that have never used textile goods.

Cellular communications in the present day


Modern wireless and personal communications systems (cell phones) use several conventional
means to increase call capacity including: low-power transmitters and small coverage areas or
cells, frequency reuse, handoff, central control, and cell splitting.

Each cell requires a tower, antenna and transceiver equipment. Figure 2. shows a typical cell
tower antenna array and raydome (fiberglass cover).

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Cell Tower Antenna Array

Patch Antenna
Element

Raydome
Transmission Line
Feed and
Matching
Structure

Figure 2. Current cell phone antenna detail

This antenna is fragile and can be easily rendered inoperable by natural catastrophes, weathering,
vandalism and perhaps a deliberate act of war. Any of these events – from a tornado to a terrorist
with a high powered rifle - could easily destroy the antenna and eliminate cellular phone service
within a 25 km radius of the cell tower. Removal of communications causes serious problems in
emergency situations.

Our multidisciplinary project is creating improvements in antennas so that they are much less
susceptible to destruction. This will be accomplished by embedding them in the infrastructure of
roads, foundations, roofs and retaining walls.

This project will construct antennas using nonwoven geotextiles with embedded metallic or other
wave carrying fibers. The geotextiles are being designed to be an internal, integral part of the
nation’s infrastructure. Geotextile antennas will be flexible and easily conform to natural and
manmade surfaces such as, exterior building surfaces (e.g. roofs, bridges), and even trees. Each
application is considerably less vulnerable than the current, highly vulnerable cell towers. In fact,
the level of redundancy expected in the new antennas will make them very difficult to
immobilize. In particular, geotextiles used in roads are especially well protected by the asphalt
pavement above. Since geotextiles are already used in many roadways (the installation
technology is well-established), the new antenna would serve dual purposes – road
reinforcement/waterproofing and cell phone (or other) antenna.

The proposed fabric-based conformal antenna will enhance the usefulness of, and protect our
communication infrastructure, which now is exceedingly vulnerable to terrorism and natural
disasters.

Modern cellular systems in the United States operate at a frequency of approximately 2 GHz
(2x109 Hz). Resonant length antennas are most efficient for these frequency ranges. The lengths
of these antennas are approximately half the wavelength they are expected to receive. Based on
the above half-wavelength criterion, individual cellular antennas should be approximately 7.5 cm
long. To improve the “gain”, groups of resonant length antennas are used. For example, the cell
tower antenna shown above uses six antenna elements to improve gain over what could be
achieved with a single resonant patch.

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To ensure resonant operation the antenna length must be reduced by the square root of the
dielectric constant of the material on which the antenna is placed (e.g. the patch antenna
elements in Fig. 2).

Achievements and progress to date


It is the goal of our project to embed antennas in roadbeds. To determine whether or not this
goal is possible, there were two immediate issues that needed to be addressed. The first was
whether or not it is possible to transmit from a buried antenna through asphalt to an above
ground receiver. The second issue was whether or not antennas could be built using roadbed
material that would be comparable to conventional antennas. Over the course of the past three
years, we have shown that it is possible to transmit through asphalt without suffering enormous
amounts of power loss, and that microstrip patch antennas can be constructed using roadbed
material as the dielectric substrate that perform as well as conventionally built patch antennas.
The past year of research work has been devoted to actually crafting the structure and production
methodology of embedding transmission media into a geosynthetic reinforcement material that
can serve the intended dual roles we envision.

Constraints and opportunities: Civil Engineering


The requirements for the material to serve simultaneously as a roadbed and antenna involve
some of the requirements for engineering trade-off. Normally asphalt on major roadways ranges
from 5 to 6.5 cm thick. Any antenna planted below it would have to be capable of receiving and
transmitting signals of the appropriate wavelengths through this thickness of asphalt. It is more
reasonable at an early stage to examine implantation of reinforcing and signal carrying fabrics
for road resurfacing overlays. Such overlays are approximately 2.5 cm thick and are applied
much more frequently than new roads are built.

The potential of self actuated power sources in these structures is well within feasibility and such
self-powered structures might include such well known concepts as pieso-electric, pressure
activated and solar conversion sources. The normal compression of asphalt under load is only 2
– 5 mm, so self-actuating, electrical generation materials must also fall within this restriction.

Constraints and opportunities: Polymer and Fiber Engineering


High-dielectric constant materials, including some geotextile materials, could be used to reduce
the overall physical size of the antenna or antenna array. To be effective antennas, the geotextiles
would have electrically conductive parts that were close to the resonant length. A novel
manufacturing technique is being pursued to achieve this.

Constraints and opportunities: Electrical Engineering


The fundamental antenna design principles above can be satisfied using metallic laden geotextile
materials. Metallic threads (or thread bundles) of resonant length and spacing between bundle
centers must also be on the order of a wavelength or less to avoid grating lobes (radiation in
undesirable directions).

Signal Transmission Through Asphalt


In spring 2006, two experiments were conducted to determine the effects of burying an antenna
under asphalt. In the first experiment (Fig. 3), we placed an antenna in the ground and measured

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the strength of the signal received by an identical antenna 50 feet away. We then covered the
transmitting antenna with a slab of asphalt and measured the received signal strength.

Figure 3. Field test configurations for a buried antenna a) uncovered and b) covered with an
asphalt slab

The power loss was then calculated as the difference in received signal strength from the covered
and uncovered cases. Our measurements resulted in a power loss of 4 dB, which is quite
minimal. Though we were happy with such a small power loss, we felt the experiment was not
accurate enough since the antenna was only covered by a slab of asphalt as opposed to an actual
road. We therefore decided to conduct another test—this time burying the antenna under an
asphalt test track.
At the site, a hole to bury the antenna in was cut out of the asphalt and a trench was dug from the
hole to the edge, allowing easier access to the buried antenna with the necessary measuring
equipment (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Asphalt hole and trench (aerial view)

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The received signal level was measured 40 feet away first with the transmitting antenna
uncovered at ground level and then with it covered with the asphalt plug. With the transmitting
antenna uncovered at ground level, the received signal level was -65.5 dBm. The antenna was
then placed in the hole and covered with the plug from the hole (Fig. 5). The trench was also
plugged with asphalt to cover the cable that ran from the source to the transmitting antenna. The
received signal level when the antenna was covered by the asphalt was -73.5 dBm. Thus,
burying the antenna in asphalt resulted in an 8 dB loss.

Figure 5. Transmitting antenna buried under asphalt at test track

We concluded that the 8 dB power loss attributed to the asphalt was not significant enough to
cause a concern. Antennas buried under asphalt can therefore transmit effectively to an above
ground receiver.

Antennas Built With Roadbed Material


After showing it was possible to transmit through asphalt, the rest of the year was spent resolving
the issue of building antennas out of roadbed material and testing them. Early in the summer, a
large section of woven polypropylene fabric was acquired. Several microstrip patch antennas
were designed and built using this fabric as the dielectric substrate and copper tape as the
radiating element and ground plane conductors. In order to determine whether these antennas
performed as well as conventional patch antennas, their VSWR (voltage standing wave ratio) and
radiation patterns were measured. One antenna (Fig. 6) was designed to operate at 2.8 GHz and
was analyzed thoroughly.

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Figure 6. A 2.8 GHz fabric patch antenna

It had a VSWR of 1.4 at 2.8 GHz (Fig. 7), which is an acceptable value (an ideal antenna has a
VSWR of 1).

Figure 7. VSWR of fabric patch antenna

The radiation pattern shows how well an antenna transmits in each direction, and is defined by
the geometry of the antenna. Consequently, we knew what type of pattern to expect from
antenna theory. However, when we first measured our fabric patch antenna, our results looked
nothing like the theoretical results we expected. We then had to assess the accuracy of our
pattern measurement equipment.
The radiation pattern shows how well an antenna transmits in each direction, and is defined by
the geometry of the antenna. Consequently, we knew what type of pattern to expect from
antenna theory. However, when the fabric patch antenna was first measured, the results looked
nothing like the theoretical results we expected. The accuracy of the pattern measurement
equipment was then called into question.
The radiation pattern was measured using the DAMS (Desktop Antenna Measurement System,
Fig. 8).

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Figure 8. Left: transmitting antenna and receiving antenna connected to turntable in anechoic
chamber, right: DC power supply, platform controller, digital multimeter, and computer

It is comprised of a turntable (to rotate the test antenna), a platform controller (which rotates the
turntable as dictated by the software), and software that reads and records the values from the
measurement device. Additionally, we use a power amplifier, an RF detector, a DC power
supply, a voltmeter, and a vector network analyzer (VNA) in conjunction with the DAMS. To
measure a radiation pattern, a constant wave is emitted from the transmitting antenna hooked up
to the VNA (acting as the source). The test (receiving) antenna is rotated 360o as the platform
controller turns the turntable. The power received is then amplified by the amplifier and
converted to a DC voltage by the RF detector. This voltage is measured every 10o by the
voltmeter and recorded and graphed by the DAMS software.
After taking apart the system and testing each component, we concluded that the RF detector was
the cause of our error. Initially we assumed that the detector had a linear response over its entire
range of input voltages. However, when we took measurements over the range, we discovered
that it is nonlinear from -50 to -25 dBm and linear from -25 to -10 dBm (Fig. 9).

Figure 9. RF detector characteristics: output voltage (mV) vs. input power (dBm)

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Steps were then taken to fix the error caused by this nonlinearity. We made some alterations in
our pattern measurement setup so that the detector would be operating mostly in its linear range.
Also, a code was written in Matlab to extract the real power values from the exported data to
generate an accurate radiation pattern. Once this error was accounted for, our measured data
(Fig. 10) closely resembled the theoretical patterns we were expecting.

Figure 10. Radiation patterns for 2.8 GHz fabric patch antenna

The results of the VSWR and radiation pattern measurement provide a strong case that antennas
can be constructed with roadbed material.

Fabric construction work


In FY 2008, we have so far purchased two sample making looms to create test prototypes of the
materials we intend to test. One of these looms is a very small desktop variety frame into which
we have woven a standard type of polypropylene tape basic material for the geosynthetic. This
design is interspersed with fine diameter, transmission capable copper or steel wire to simulate
an embedded antenna. These tests indicate that some strength reduction occurs warp-wise as a
result of the antenna wire weft and a strength increase occurs as a result of the weft-wise wire
inserts.
Present research is focused on the production of more representative types of fabrics of about
one meter width and with embedded wire antennae. The newest samples are being made on a
Louet David, 100-centimeter width, bench type hand loom onto which geotextile grade
polypropylene tapes are mounted for both warp and weft. Samples from this loom will be tested
for tensile characteristics and transmission characteristics.

Looking Forward
Knowing that we can build antennas out of roadbed material and that they can be buried under
asphalt, we can narrow our focus. We now have the task of finding the right type of antenna
(patch, dipole, etc.) to use, which will be determined by what radiation pattern characteristics are
desired as well as what can be most easily integrated into the roadbed fabric. To create a
network of antennas along the road, the radiation pattern would have to have a maximum

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directed along the road. And to avoid outside interference, the pattern should have a null (goes
to zero) in the direction perpendicular to the run of the road. A dipole antenna has this pattern
characteristic if it is placed perpendicular to the road (Fig. 11).

Figure 11. Dipoles placed perpendicular to the road are shown with their theoretical radiation
patterns

To integrate the antennas into the roadbed, dipoles are being woven into the fabric in the
perpendicular (weft) direction. Additionally, a system of feeding all of these antennas must be
devised, which will also be woven into the roadbed fabric.

Potential industrial involvement


Numerous companies compete for the US consumer communications market. All these
companies experience the same complaints from customers and the same reasons for equipment
failure. The major cellular carriers such as Verizon, T-Mobile, Cingular, Sprint, and others, have
all concentrated efforts and expense on building cellular towers in major cities and along
interstate highways. These companies will be consulted. Moreover, highways departments, and
the federal departments of Transportation, Communication and Homeland Security should also
be utilized as advisory sources.

Website and information


For further information and periodic updates, please see
http://www.ntcresearch.org/projectapp/?project=F05-AE13
http://www.eng.auburn.edu/department/te/ntc/2008/F05AE13.pdf

National Textile Center Annual Report: October 2009