Skip to Content
Foldable, reconfigurable systems powering the next generation of antennas

Foldable, reconfigurable systems powering the next generation of antennas

In our wirelessly connected world, we swim in a sea we cannot see of electromagnetic waves transmitting voices, videos, photos, words, all kinds of data. Occasionally, at the mercy of unreliable Wi-Fi or terrible cellphone reception, it can feel like we’ve been washed ashore on some deserted island. Calls cut in and out. Virtual meetings become a garbled, robotic mess. Cue the overused phrases. Can you hear me now? You’re breaking up. Did I lose you? Followed by the inevitable response of lost connection. Silence.

October 11, 2023 at 9:00am

Stacked against other societal problems, a slow wireless connection may seem insignificant. Except it’s a little more complicated. A lot is at stake.

“This is really about addressing humanity’s greatest challenges,” Stavros Georgakopoulos says. Without a way to bypass delays and move data at lightning-fast speeds, society risks a period of stasis. Progress could stall across critically important areas – education, business, healthcare and medicine, remote sensing of the environment, space exploration, national security. This is unfathomable to Georgakopoulos. The FIU electrical engineer has spent 30 years developing new telecommunications technologies to keep our world moving forward.

What concerns him is our wireless communication systems. They are fast. Just not fast enough. “Big data has become a buzz word, but we’re at a point where there’s so much data to be transmitted and processed very quickly. How will we do it? We need more powerful wireless links to keep up.”

A faster future relies on what Georgakopoulos calls the “eyes and ears of the entire system” – antennas.

Without this critical component, there’d be no Wi-Fi, cellphone reception, Bluetooth, GPS, as well as television or radio. Data would remain trapped in the hardware of our devices, like digital messages in a bottle. At FIU’s Transforming Antennas Center (TAC), Georgakopoulos leads research into the invention and development of the next generation of foldable, deployable, reconfigurable systems that operate at higher frequencies. Higher frequency equals faster data speeds and larger bandwidth. For comparison, most smartphones operate at one to six gigahertz (GHz), while only the latest models can cover up to 39 GHz.

What about 50, 60, 70 or more GHz? Georgakopoulos and the TAC team are proving it’s possible. One of their antennas covers frequencies from 30 to 100 GHz. Unprecedented, considering there’s nothing quite like it in existence.

Paper crane, star, frog. Antenna?

antenna-2.jpgA three-dimensional helix, expanding and contracting like an accordion. A cube opening, flattening out. Georgakopoulos’ patented designs are about the farthest thing from rabbit ears on a television set or rooftop satellite dishes.

Equal parts elegant and powerful, they more closely resemble pieces of art. In a way, they are — taking inspiration from origami, Japan’s centuries-old artform where behind every bend or crease, complex mathematics and geometry turn a sheet of paper into a three-dimensional shape.

Origami is all about transformation. Antennas require transformation to change their function. Controlling the shape controls performance, Georgakopoulos explains. That’s why back in the day, adjusting an antenna up and down helped pick up a radio or TV station. Origami allows for the same thing, in a different way.

Made of various materials, including plastic films, textiles and flexible conductors, Georgaopoulos’ antennas are lightweight, surprisingly durable shapeshifters capable of doing the job of multiple antennas. Instead of lugging around several bulky antennas to transmit and receive messages, soldiers in the field or scientists on expeditions could carry just one. Like the helix design. It goes from 13 inches to a little over an inch and a half, or perfect backpack pocket-sized, when collapsed flat.

Packability is equally important for space communications. “Satellites in space must deploy large antennas to communicate down to earth. Once an antenna is in space, there’s plenty of space for it. That’s not the problem,” Georgakopoulos says. “It’s how do you get it there?”

Imagine trying to pack a tiny suitcase for a trip — to space. Foldable designs make great stowaway alternatives, able to hitch a ride on small satellites (CubeSats and NanoSats) during a launch. Once in orbit, they can unfold to a larger size. While his antennas haven’t made that trip yet, Georgakopoulos awaits the day. Until then, he and the TAC team make more antennas.

Surprises unfold

Georgakopoulos never set out to invent antennas. Today, he’s a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI), recognized for creating technology to impact the welfare of society. “It’s always so interesting how things happen,” he says.

Growing up in Greece, Georgakopoulos became interested in telecommunications at the University of Patras, before moving to the U.S. to join Constantine Balanis’ lab and earn his master’s degree and Ph.D. at Arizona State University (ASU). It was 1996. Wires ruled communication. Most people didn’t have a cellphone (and if they did, basically carried around a huge brick). Wi-Fi hadn’t even been invented yet. Telecommunications technology has dramatically changed since then. What hasn’t changed, Balanis points out, is the number of challenges facing antenna scientists and the creativity and imagination it takes to solve them.

“Our role as mentors at the graduate level is to engage and guide the students, however the students are the ones who do the work, develop their skills, advance their knowledge and technology. Stavros did all the above and at a very high level,” says Balanis, now regents professor emeritus. “I’m most proud what he’s contributed since he graduated from my group at ASU. His accomplishments at FIU, especially related to the new antenna designs and technology, are novel and pioneering, evidenced by publications in international journals, presentations at international conferences and continued support by the sponsors of his research.”

After graduating from ASU, Georgakopoulos worked in industry for six years before bringing his expertise  to FIU in 2007. At the time, there was little antenna research. There was certainly no lab. Students didn’t have simulation software, critical to creating complicated new designs. Now, there’s all of this and more. Georgakopoulos got an opportunity to delve deeper into origami techniques with a National Science Foundation Emerging Frontier in Research and Innovation (ERFI) grant, co-funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR). What unfolded: the foldable, deployable antennas. And with the support of the Florida congressional delegation, Georgakopoulos has been able to launch an entire hub for antenna research.

Georgakopoulos’ antenna research has been awarded
+$15 million in federal funding.

Where antennas are made

From a distance, it could be mistaken for a giant monster mouth ringed with multiple rows of sharp teeth. Although somewhat intimidating, this is FIU’s Antenna Measurement System. It’s one example of TAC’s state-of-the-art technology that about 60 researchers — including FIU undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral students, along with collaborators from Georgia Institute of Technology, Cornell and Brigham Young University — use to design, build, measure and test new antenna designs.

This one-stop shop was Georgakopoulos’ vision. It would’ve remained one without two grants from AFOSR, totaling close to $10 million.

“What has kept the U.S. a leader is an innovative spirit. Technology and research are a major part of that. But if you don’t have the people, the next generation, who will do it?” Georgakopoulos asks. “A big part of what we do at TAC is prepare innovators and problem solvers who can continue pioneering new technologies in academia, industry and government.”

Yousuf Shafiq, a three-time FIU alumnus, is one of those innovators and problem solvers. After graduating with his master’s degree in electrical engineering, he worked in the aerospace industry for several years. Then, returned to FIU for his Ph.D. Shortly after, TAC opened its doors. Shafiq describes it as a place brimming with unbridled creative freedom. Experimentation, the norm. Conversations, a spark for new ideas or to overcome technical problems. The result — more innovation, patents and published scientific journal articles.

“FIU and TAC provided me with the foundation to be successful,” says Shafiq, who now works at the Naval Surface Warfare Center. “When facing a problem, I often find myself thinking how Dr. Georgakopoulos would approach it. I’m confident, just as I did, many future generations of students will be successful through his guidance.”

For Georgakopoulos, this is the goal. What students accomplish after they graduate is what will have cascading impacts. “Think of it: Over the course of their careers, how many problems will they solve? How many new technologies will they develop to change the world?” Georgakopoulos asks. “It’s hard to measure. But it has significant impact.”

A new level

When Georgakopoulos and the team first started applying origami techniques to antennas, they did it for many reasons. Packability and reconfigurability, of course. Function was also a primary objective.

“We really wanted to see if it could give enhanced performance. It’s been so exciting to prove it can,” Georgakopoulos says.

This has set the stage for what’s next. The goal is to radically upgrade the frequencies on the reconfigurable designs with the addition of ultra-wideband systems. It’s like giving the antennas better eyes to see with and better ears to hear with.

Downloading huge files? A breeze with ultra-wideband systems. And that’s just the beginning. Higher frequency means faster speeds and superfine resolution images. This will enhance environmental technology and remote sensing tools, which use satellites to watch over changing oceans, air quality, forests, climate, hurricanes and more. Provide a better glimpse of faraway planets and the cosmos for space exploration. Revolutionize healthcare in ways that perhaps sound like science fiction — like robotic surgery, where an expert surgeon could operate on a patient in another country without worrying about getting a degraded image or a lag in connection threatening a life. And even open the door to new medical imaging technology — without the use of radiation.

“All of this can be achieved with ultra- wideband high frequency systems we’re working on now,” Georgakopoulos says.

Now more than ever, the future seems unbearably close, within reach. There’s certainly challenges ahead. They’ve always been there. And sometimes, as Georgakopoulos knows, that’s the best part.

“It’s not a secret we eat, live and breathe our research. We wake up thinking about it. Go to bed and get an idea and then can’t sleep. We’re passionate. We love what we do. When I look back at my career, that’s what I’ll see – the problems solved, success we shared and the impact it all had.”