Chinese researchers develop antenna for hypersonic missile communication

Data on high-speed tests is not available as of now.
Ameya Paleja
Hypersonic rocket stock image.
Hypersonic rocket stock image.

Alexyz3d/iStock 

Researchers at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China have tapped into the bandwidth used by Wi-Fi devices to communicate with hypersonic weapons, South China Morning Post reported.

Hypersonic weapons are the next frontier of warfare as these weapons travel at speeds exceeding Mach 5, five times the speed of sound. A hypersonic weapon developed by China can hit a moving aircraft carrier from a distance of 932 miles (1,500 km), evading existing air defense systems.

At these extreme speeds, though, the surface temperature of the weapon can exceed 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 °C), creating a sheath of hot plasma around it, leading to a radio blackout. This can create problems when communicating with the weapon, especially when a strike needs to be called out.

Communicating with hypersonic weapons

Last year, engineers with the Chinese military claimed that they had managed to penetrate the plasma barrier by using high-power transmitters. According to SCMP's report, the first of its kind in the world technology was successful in communicating with a missile traveling at Mach 20 by using frequencies in the range of 26 and 50 GHz.

While the development of such technology that can call off a strike is important, making it work requires the use of powerful and expensive instruments. In the past, hypersonic weapons research has been funded by the Chinese military. However, the Chinese government looks at hypersonic technology as a disruptive force that will have an impact on the civilian sector as well and has therefore opened up funding from the civilian sector as well.

Researchers from the School of Electronic Information and Electrical Engineering at Shanghai Jiao Tong University used the funding available for the development of 6G network communication for smartphones to communicate with the hypersonic missile instead.

How did the researchers do it?

The team created a soft, ultra-slim antenna that can be easily attached to the rear body of the weapon, away from the extreme heat areas around the missile's nose. In ground tests conducted, the researchers found that the antenna achieved "remarkable" performance at frequencies between 5.2 to 5.8 gigahertz. These are low frequencies usually used for 5G smartphones, high-speed Wi-Fi routers, and other internet-based devices and offer a low-cost alternative to communicate with the hypersonic weapon.

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Achieving the communication wasn't straightforward, though, since the lower frequencies also produced more noise over the missile's surface, leading to a drop in signal strength and quality.

To overcome the challenges, the team created a unique metamaterial that was added to the standard antenna. The metamaterial is a thin membrane made up of wires with mazelike gaps which help in trapping electromagnetic waves. Experiments conducted using the metamaterial showed that noise levels were significantly reduced.

The researchers are also confident that the low-frequency signals can be transformed by the antenna into a focused beam that can be directed straight ahead to overcome the blindspot in front of the missile. The low frequency can also help in increasing performance in areas such as target identification and positioning, the SCMP report added.

The research findings were published in the January edition of the Journal of Microwaves, a peer-reviewed publication of the Chinese Institute of Electronics. The publication, however, did not provide data from wind tunnel or test flights.