As the world is still in the midst of rolling out 5G wireless technology to guide our telecommunications, scientists are already looking toward the next generation of mobile system technology: 6G. There are currently a number of ideas in the works, but a bold new proposal from the University of Massachusetts Amherst is arguing that humans could be used as mobile antennas to help the system become more efficient.
For context, 5G technology uses radio waves to encode and carry information. It’s able to carry up to 10 times more information than its predecessor, 4G, by using higher frequencies of radio waves that are able to handle more bandwidth.
One theory is that 6G could achieve even higher bandwidths and transmit more information by using Visible Light Communication (VLC). Instead of radio waves, information can be transmitted by LEDs that rapidly flash on and off in the blink of an eye.
“VLC is quite simple and interesting. Instead of using radio signals to send information wirelessly, it uses the light from LEDs that can turn on and off, up to one million times per second,” Jie Xiong, professor of information and computer sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explained in a statement.
“Anything with a camera, like our smartphones, tablets or laptops, could be the receiver,” Xiong added.
It’s an interesting idea, but one problem is that this method of communication involves a lot of “leakage” in the form of radio waves called RF signals. This means the technology isn’t very efficient, as a significant amount of energy is blurted into the environment and lost.
In a new paper, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst looked at ways that the leaked RF signals could be captured and harnessed for another purpose. After experimenting with a bunch of different designs, they settled on a copper coil that could be attached to different objects, including walls, phones, and laptops, as well as objects made out of plastic, cardboard, wood, and steel.
To their surprise, they found that one of the most effective ways to capture the leakage was through a simple coil of copper wire worn as a bracelet on the upper forearm of a person. The device costs less than 50 cents to make, but the researchers said it could capture enough power to support many sensors, such as on-body health monitoring sensors.
“Ultimately, we want to be able to harvest waste energy from all sorts of sources in order to power future technology,” added Xiong.
Of course, all of this is strictly theoretical for now. It’s also worth considering how people might feel about becoming a leaky signal antenna for 6G technology, especially when you consider the wild conspiracy theories that surround 5G.
The new paper was presented at The 20th ACM Conference on Embedded Networked Sensor Systems (SenSys 2022), and can be read in full here.