Real-time Reconfigurable Metasurfaces

I have written several blog posts about how the hardware concepts of reconfigurable reflectarrays and metasurfaces are gaining interest in the wireless communication community, for example, to create a new type of full-duplex transparent relays. The technology is also known as reconfigurable intelligent surfaces and intelligent reflecting surfaces.

In my latest magazine paper, I identified real-time reconfigurability as the key technical research challenge: we need fast algorithms for over-the-air channel estimation that can handle large surfaces and complex propagation environments. In other words, we need hardware that can be reconfigured and algorithms to find the right configuration.

The literature contains several theoretical algorithms but it is a very different thing to demonstrate real-time reconfigurability in lab experiments. I was therefore impressed when finding the following video from the team of Dr. Mohsen Khalily at the University of Surrey:

The video shows how a metasurface is used to reflect a signal from a transmitter to a receiver. In the second half of the video, they move the receiver out of the reflected beam from the metasurface and then press a button to reconfigure the surface to change the direction of the beam.

I asked Dr. Khalily to tell me more about the setup:

“The metasurface consists of several conductive printed patches (scatterers), and the size of each scatterer is a small proportion of the wavelength of the operating frequency. The macroscopic effect of these scatterers defines a specific surface impedance and by controlling this surface impedance, the reflected wave from the metasurface sheet can be manipulated. Each individual scatterer or a cluster of them can be tuned in such a way that the whole surface can reconstruct radio waves with desired characteristics without emitting any additional waves.”

The surface shown in the video contains 2490 patches that are printed on a copper ground plane. The patches are made of a new micro-dispersed ceramic PTFE composite and designed to support a wide range of phase variations along with a low reflection loss for signals in the 3.5 GHz band. The design of the surface was the main challenge according to Dr. Khalily:

Fabrication was very difficult due to the size of the surface, so we had to divide the surface into six tiles then attach them together. Our surface material has a higher dielectric constant than the traditional PTFE copper-clad laminates to meet the design and manufacturing of circuit miniaturization. This material also possesses high thermal conductivity, which gives an added advantage for heat dissipation of the apparatus.”

The transmitter and receiver were in the far-field of the metasurface in the considered experimental setup. Since there is an unobstructed line-of-sight path, it was sufficient to estimate the angular difference between the receiver and the main reflection angle, and then adjust the surface impedance to compensate for the difference. When this was properly done, the metasurface improved the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) by almost 15 dB. I cannot judge how close this number is to the theoretical maximum. In the considered in-room setup with highly directional horn antennas at the transmitter and receiver, it might be enough that the reflected beam points in roughly the right direction to achieve a great SNR gain. I’m looking forward to learning more about this experiment when there is a technical paper that describes it.

This is not the first experiment of this kind, but I think it constitutes the state-of-the-art when it comes to bringing the concept of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces from theory to practice.

Episode 5: Millimeter Wave Communication

We have now released the fifth episode of the podcast Wireless Future, with the following abstract:

What happened to millimeter wave communications? It is often described as synonymous with 5G, but barely any of the brand new 5G networks make use of it. In this episode, Erik G. Larsson and Emil Björnson discuss the basic properties of millimeter waves, whether it is the long sought “holy grail” in wireless communications, and where the technology stands today. To learn more, they recommend the articles “Antenna Count for Massive MIMO: 1.9 GHz versus 60 GHz” and “Massive MIMO in Sub-6 GHz and mmWave: Physical, Practical, and Use-Case Differences.

You can watch the video podcast on YouTube:

You can listen to the audio-only podcast at the following places:

Who is Who in Massive MIMO?

I taught a course on complex networks this fall, and one component of the course is a hands-on session where students use the SNAP C++ and Python libraries for graph analysis, and Gephi for visualization. One available dataset is DBLP, a large publication database in computer science, that actually includes a lot of electrical engineering as well.

In a small experiment I filtered DBLP for papers with both “massive” and “MIMO” in the title, and analyzed the resulting co-author graph. There are 17200 papers and some 6000 authors.  There is a large connected component, with over 400 additional much smaller connected components!

Then I looked more closely at authors who have written at least 20 papers. Each node is an author, its size is proportional to his/her number of “massive MIMO papers”, and its color represents identified communities. Edge thicknesses represent the number of co-authored papers.  Some long-standing collaborators, former students, and other friends stand out.  (Click on the figure to enlarge it.)

To remind readers of the obvious, prolificacy is not the same as impact, even though they are often correlated. Also, the study is not entirely rigorous. For one thing, it trusts that DBLP properly distinguishes authors with the same name (consider e.g., “Li Li”) and I do not know how well it really does that. Second, in a random inspection all papers I had filtered out dealt with “massive MIMO” as we know it. However, theoretically, the search criterion would also catch papers on, say, MIMO control theory for a massive power plant.  Also, the filtering does miss some papers written before the “massive MIMO” term was established, perhaps most importantly Thomas Marzetta’s seminal paper on “unlimited antennas”.  Third, the analysis is limited to publications covered by DBLP, which also means, conversely, that there is no specific quality threshold for the publication venues. Anyone interested in learning more, drop me a note. 

Globecom Tutorial on Cell-free Massive MIMO

I am giving a tutorial on “Beyond Massive MIMO: User-Centric Cell-Free Massive MIMO” at Globecom 2020, together with my colleagues Luca Sanguinetti and Özlem Tuğfe Demir. It is a prerecorded 3-hour tutorial that can be viewed online at any time during the conference and there will be a live Q/A session on December 11 where we are available for questions.

The tutorial is based on our upcoming book on the topic: Foundations on User-Centric Cell-free Massive MIMO.

Until December 11 (the last day of the tutorial), we are offering a free preprint of the book, which can be downloaded by creating an account at the NOW publishers’ website. By doing so, I think you will also get notified when the final version of the book is available early next year, so you can gain access to the final PDF and an offer to buy printed copies.

If you download the book and have any feedback that we can take into account when preparing the final version, we will highly appreciate to receive it! Please email me your feedback by December 15. You find the address in the PDF.

The abstract of the tutorial is as follows:

Massive MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output) is no longer a promising concept for cellular networks-in 2019 5G it became a reality, with 64-antenna fully digital base stations being commercially deployed in many countries. However, this is not the final destination in a world where ubiquitous wireless access is in demand by an increasing population. It is, therefore, time for MIMO and mmWave communication researchers to consider new multi-antenna technologies that might lay the foundations for beyond 5G networks. In particular, we need to focus on improving the uniformity of the service quality.

Suppose all the base station antennas are distributed over the coverage area instead of co-located in arrays at a few elevated locations, so that the mobile terminals are surrounded by antennas instead of having a few base stations surrounded by mobile terminals. How can we operate such a network? The ideal solution is to let each mobile terminal be served by coherent joint transmission and reception from all the antennas that can make a non-negligible impact on their performance. That effectively leads to a user-centric post-cellular network architecture, called “User-Centric Cell-Free Massive MIMO”. Recent papers have developed innovative signal processing and radio resource allocation algorithms to make this new technology possible, and the industry has taken steps towards implementation. Substantial performance gains compared to small-cell networks (where each distributed antenna operates autonomously) and cellular Massive MIMO have been demonstrated in numerical studies, particularly, when it comes to the uniformity of the achievable data rates over the coverage area.

Episode 4: Is Wireless Technology Secure?

We have now released the fourth episode of the podcast Wireless Future, with the following abstract:

We are creating a society that is increasingly reliant on access to wireless connectivity. In Sweden, you can barely pay for parking without a mobile phone. Will this wireless future have a negative impact on the security of our data and privacy? In this episode, Emil Björnson and Erik G. Larsson discuss security threats to wireless technology, including eavesdropping, jamming, and spoofing. What impact can these illegitimate techniques have on our lives and what do we need to be aware of?

You can watch the video podcast on YouTube:

You can listen to the audio-only podcast at the following places:

Cracking the Pilot Contamination Nut

When T. Marzetta introduced the Massive MIMO concept in his seminal article from 2010, he concluded that “the phenomenon of pilot contamination impose[s] fundamental limitations on what can be achieved with a noncooperative cellular multiuser MIMO system.”

More precisely, he showed that the channel capacity under i.i.d. Rayleigh fading converges to a finite limit as the number of base stations goes to infinity.  The value of this limit is determined by the interference level in the channel estimation phase. There are hundreds of papers on IEEEXplore that deals with the pilot contamination issue, trying to push the limit upwards or achieve higher performance for a given number of antennas. Various advanced mitigation methods have been developed to cure the symptoms of pilot contamination.

But was pilot contamination really a fundamental limitation to start with? In 2018, we published a paper called “Massive MIMO Has Unlimited Capacity” where we showed that there is an unexpectedly simple solution to the problem. You don’t need a sledgehammer to “crack the pilot contamination nut“, but the right combination of state-of-the-art tools will do. While I have written about this in previous blog posts and briefly mentioned it in videos, I have finally recorded a comprehensive lecture on the topic. It is 82 minutes long and was given online by invitation from Hacettepe University, Turkey. No previous knowledge on the topic is required. I hope you will enjoy it in small or big doses!

Episode 3: Reconfigurable Intelligent Surfaces

We have now released the third episode of the podcast Wireless Future, with the following abstract:

The research towards 6G has already been initiated. One of the most hyped concepts in the research community is “reconfigurable intelligent surfaces”, which can be utilized to create smart walls that capture wireless signals and reflect them towards the user device. In this episode, Erik G. Larsson and Emil Björnson discuss the prospects and limitations of this new technology. Is it the next big thing in wireless? To learn more, they recommend their new overview article “Reconfigurable Intelligent Surfaces: Three Myths and Two Critical Questions”, to appear in IEEE Communications Magazine, which can be downloaded at

You can watch the video podcast on YouTube:

You can listen to the audio-only podcast at the following places:

News – commentary – mythbusting