Innovative communication antenna takes flight

New patch antennas make an autonomous future possible

August 09, 2018 in Technology

Most communications antennas on small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) look like a pencil, sticking out from the fuselage. Now thanks to a collaboration between Boeing Research & Technology and the University of Victoria, antennas may one day be a thin interchangeable patch that can work on many surfaces.

During a successful flight test, Boeing-made antennas were attached to the inside of a UAV built by the University of Victoria, Canada. The antenna outperformed traditional antennas, demonstrating the ability to send flight control, telemetry, and video to ground systems throughout the flight.

The extremely thin copper antenna is as thick as a strand of hair and measures 2.5 inches by 1.4 inches.

“These flexible antennas were fabricated using both advanced manufacturing additive and subtractive techniques similar to 3D printing. This technology, which has internet-of-things (IoT) properties, can be extended to other applications such as flexible hybrid electronics for inventory tracking and scanning and remote sensing and condition monitoring during factory operations,” said Corey Thacker, principal investigator in BR&T Systems, Support & Analytics. “This is innovative because it reduces the installation complexity and wiring within the aircraft which in turn lowers cost and increases Boeing’s adaptability of this technology for Boeing’s new and existing products.”

Current UAVs have their frequencies determined by the mission they are designed for, such as surveillance and search. The antennas used now are tuned for frequencies that will complete those missions; the test antennas are light, removable, and can be applied to several different surfaces like plastic, composite and fiberglass. This means that the antenna can be interchangeable. For customers, this will make their UAV fleets more versatile and capable of completing many different missions.

“Boeing and University of Victoria have been conducting joint research for several years,” said Raj Talwar, BR&T Canada Technology Manager. “Their capabilities in UAV-related technologies are crucial for Boeing to tap into as we explore the future of autonomy for aerospace.”

In late 2018, the University of Victoria will fly a new Boeing antenna designed to operate on both conductive and non-conductive surfaces. This antenna will operate at a higher frequency and used for flight avoidance radar.