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Antenna (radio)

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Most simply, an antenna is an electronic component designed to send or receive radio waves.

More specifically, an antenna is an arrangement of conductors designed to radiate (transmit) an electromagnetic field in response to an applied alternating electromotive force (EMF) and the associated alternating electric current.

Alternatively, if an antenna is placed into an electromagnetic field, that field will induce an alternating current upon the antenna. See radio frequency induction.



There are two fundamental types of antennas. The first couples to the electric field of an electromagnetic wave. It's usually a length of wire in which an electric charge moves back and forth. The second couples to the magnetic field of an electromagnetic wave. It is usually a coil or loop of wire forming an electromagnet.

By adding additional conducting rods or coils (called elements) and varying their length, spacing and orientation, an antenna with specific desired properties can be created, such as a Yagi antenna. Typically, antennas are designed to operate in a relatively narrow frequency range. The design criteria for receiving and transmitting antennas differ slightly, but generally an antenna can receive and transmit equally as well. This property is called reciprocity.

The vast majority of antennas are simple vertical rods a quarter of a wavelength long. Such antennas are simple in construction, usually inexpensive, and both radiate in and receive from all horizontal directions (omnidirectional). One limitation of this antenna is that it does not radiate or receive in the direction in which the rod points. This region is called the antenna blind cone or null.

Antennas have practical use for the transmission and reception of radio frequency signals (radio, TV, etc.) which can pass through (nonconducting) walls at the speed of light over great distances.

Antenna Effectiveness

There are several critical parameters that affect an antenna's performance and can be adjusted during the design process. These are resonant frequency, impedance, gain, aperture or radiation pattern, polarization, efficiency and bandwidth. Transmit antennas may also have a maximum power rating, and receive antennas differ in their noise rejection properties.

Resonant frequency

The resonant frequency is related to the electrical length of the antenna. This is usually the physical length of the wire multiplied by the ratio of the speed of wave propagation in the wire. Typically an antenna is tuned for a specific frequency, and is effective for a range of frequencies usually centered on that resonant frequency. However, the other properties of the antenna (especially radiation pattern and impedance) change with frequency, so the antenna's resonant frequency may merely be close to the center frequency of these other more important properties.

Antennas can be made resonant on harmonic frequencies and with lengths that are fractions of the target frequency. Some antenna designs have multiple resonant frequencies, and some are relatively effective over a very broad range of frequencies.


Impedance is similar to refractive index in optics. As the electric wave travels through the different parts of the antenna system (radio, feed line , antenna, free space) it may encounter differences in impedance. At each interface, some fraction of the wave's energy will reflect back to the source, forming a standing wave in the feed line. The ratio of maximum power to minimum power in the wave can be measured and is called the standing wave ratio (SWR). A SWR of 1:1 is ideal. A SWR of 1.5:1 is considered to be marginally acceptable in low power applications where power loss is more critical, although an SWR as high as 6:1 may still be usable with the right equipment. Minimizing impedance differences at each interface will reduce SWR and maximize power transfer through each part of the antenna system.

Complex impedance of an antenna is related to the electrical length of the antenna at the wavelength in use. The impedance of an antenna can be matched to the feed line and radio by adjusting the impedance of the feed line, using the feed line as an impedance transformer. More commonly, the impedance is adjusted at the load (see below) with an antenna tuner, a balun, a matching transformer, matching networks composed of inductors and capacitors, or matching sections such as the gamma match.


Gain, aperture, and radiation pattern are tightly linked. Gain is measured by comparing an antenna to a model antenna, typically the isotropic antenna which radiates equally in all directions. Often a dipole is also used as a practical reference as the isotropic source cannot be realised in practice, but it has 2.1 dB gain over an isotropic source. Most practical antennas radiate more than the isotropic antenna in some directions and less in others. Gain is inherently directional; the gain of an antenna is usually measured in the direction which it radiates best. Gain is one dimensional.

Aperture is the shape of the "beam" cross section in the direction of highest gain, and is two dimensional. (Sometimes aperture is expressed as a radius of the circle that approximates this cross section or the angle of the cone.)

Radiation pattern is the three dimensional plot of the gain, but usually the two dimensional horizontal and vertical cross sections of the radiation pattern are considered. Antennas with high gain typically show side lobes in the radiation pattern. Side lobes are peaks in gain other than the main lobe (the "beam"). Side lobes have bad impact to the antenna quality whenever the system is being used to determine the direction of a signal, for example in RADAR systems.


Efficiency is the ratio of power actually radiated to the power put into the antenna terminals.A dummy load may have a SWR of 1:1 but an efficiency of 0, as it absorbs all power and radiates none, showing that SWR alone is not an effective measure of an antenna's efficiency. Radiation in an antenna is caused by radiation resistance which can only be measured as part of total resistance including loss resistance.


The bandwidth of an antenna is the range of frequencies over which it is effective, usually centered around the resonant frequency. The bandwidth of an antenna may be increased by several techniques, including using thicker wires, replacing wires with cages to simulate a thicker wire, tapering antenna components (like in a feed horn), and combining multiple antennas into a single assembly and allowing the natural impedance to select the correct antenna.

Of the parameters above, SWR is most easily measured. Impedance can be measured with specialized equipment, as it relates to the complex SWR. Measuring radiation pattern requires a sophisticated setup including significant clear space (enough to get into the antenna's far field) or an anechoic chamber designed for antenna measurements, careful study of experiment geometry, and specialised measurement equipment such as robots that rotates the antenna during the measurements. Bandwidth depends on the overall effectiveness of the antenna, so all of these parameters must be understood to understand bandwidth. However, typically bandwidth is measured by only looking at SWR, i.e., by finding the frequency range over which the SWR is less than a given value. Bandwidth over which an antenna exhibits a particular radiation pattern might also be considered.


The polarization of an antenna is the polarization of the signals it emits. The ionosphere changes the polarization of signals unpredictably, so for signals which will be reflected by the ionosphere, polarization is not crucial. However, for line-of-sight communications, it can make a tremendous difference in signal quality to have the transmitter and receiver using the same polarization. Polarizations commonly considered are linear, as in vertical, horizontal, and circular, which is divide into right-hand and left-hand circular.

Transmission and receiving

All of these parameters are expressed in terms of a transmission antenna, but are identically applicable to a receiving antenna. Impedance, however, is not applied in an obvious way; for impedance, the impedance at the load (where the power is consumed) is most critical. For a transmitting antenna, this is the antenna itself. For a receiving antenna, this is at the (radio) receiver rather than at the antenna.

Antennas used for transmission have a maximum power rating , beyond which heating, arcing or sparking may occur in the components, which may cause them to be damaged or destroyed. Raising this maximum power rating usually requires larger and heavier components, which may require larger and heavier supporting structures. Of course, this is only a concern for transmitting antennas; the power received by an antenna rarely exceeds the microwatt range.

If an antenna is to be used for reception at very low frequencies (below about ten megahertz), its noise rejection capabilities become important. At such frequencies, signals are reflected very effectively by the ionosphere; however, at these frequencies there are many forms of natural radio noise, including the noise produced by lightning. Successfully rejecting these forms of noise is an important antenna feature. For example, a small coil of wire with many turns is more able to reject such noise than a vertical antenna. However, the vertical will radiate much more effectively on transmit, where extraneous signals are not a concern.

Theoretical antenna types

  • A dielectric resonator is a variation on the conventional antenna in which an insulator with a large dielectric constant is used to modify the electromagnetic field. It is claimed that the dielectric contains the antenna's near field and therefore prevents it from interfering with other nearby antennas or circuits, making it suitable for miniature equipment such as mobile phones.
  • A feedhorn is an antenna system that handles the incoming waveform from the dish to the focal point. It usually comprises of a series of rings with decreasing radius in order to drive the signal to the polarizer .

Practical antenna models

There are many variations of antennas, but here are a few common models. More can be found in Category:Radio frequency antenna types.

  • The dipole antenna is simply two wires pointed in opposite directions arranged either horizontally or vertically. Variations of the dipole include the folded dipole and the whip antenna which is really just half of a dipole using a ground plane as the image of the second half. The dipole antenna is usually a multiple of a half wavelength long. For this reason, the dipole antenna is sometimes referred to as the half-wave antennna. Generally, the dipole is considered to be omnidirectional in the plane perpendicular to the axis of the antenna, but it has deeps nulls in the directions of the axis. The popular J-pole antenna is a variation of the half dipole with a built in quarter wave transmission line impedance matching section.
  • The yagi antenna is a directional variation of the dipole with parasitic elements added with functionality similar to adding a reflector and lenses (directors) to focus a filament lightbulb.
  • The groundplane antenna takes the form of a driven vertical element 1/4 wave long in the center of a grounded plane 1/2 wave in diameter. The ground plane can take the form of the natural Earth surface, or a network of wires and ground rods, or a solid metal sheet, or four wires arranged as two crossed dipoles and centrally connected to ground.
  • The (large) loop antenna is similar to a dipole, except that the ends of the dipole are connected to form a circle, triangle (delta loop antenna ) or square. Typically a loop is a multiple of a half or full wavelength in circumference. A circular loop gets higher gain (about 10%), as gain of this antenna is directly proportional to the area enclosed by the loop, but circles can be hard to support in a flexible wire, making squares and triangles much more popular. Large loop antennas are more immune to localized noise partly due to lack of a need for a groundplane. The large loop has its strongest signal in the plane of the loop, and nulls in the axis perpendicular to the plane of the loop.
  • The small loop antenna, also called the magnetic loop antenna is less than a wavelength in circumference. (Typically less than 1/10 for a receiving loop, less than 1/4 for a transmitting loop.) Unlike nearly all other antennas in this list, this antenna detects the magnetic field of the wave instead of the electric field. As such, it is less sensitive to near field electric noise when properly shielded. The receiving aperture can be greatly increased by bringing the loop into resonance with a tuning capacitor. Due to the small size of the loop, the radiation pattern is 90 degrees from that of the large loop. The radiation pattern is perpendicular to the plane of the loop, with sharp nulls in the plane of the loop.
  • The electrically short antenna is far less than 1/4 wavelength in length. Unlike nearly all other antennas in this list, this antenna detects the electric field of the wave instead of the electromagnetic field. Its receiving aperture can be greatly increased by increasing the voltage; by adding an inductor or resonator tuned to resonance with the signals of interest. Electrically short antennas are typically used where operating wavelength is large and space is limited, e.g. for mobile transceivers operating at long wavelengths.
  • The microstrip antenna consists of a patch of metalization on a ground plane. These are low profile, light weight antennas, most suitable for aerospace and mobile applications. Because of their low power handling capability, these antennas can be used in low-power transmitting and receiving applications. Microstrip antennas are the most commonly used antennas in mobile communications , satellite links, W-LAN and so on because circuit functions can be directly integrated to the microstrip antenna to form compact tranceivers and spatial power combiners.
  • The quad antenna is an array of square loops that vary in size. The quad is related to the loop in exactly the same way the yagi is related to the dipole. Typically, the quad needs fewer elements to get the same gain as a yagi. Variations of the quad include the delta loop antenna which uses a triangle instead of a square, requiring fewer supports for large wavelength antennas.
  • The random wire antenna is a dipole, except that it is folded any way most convenient for the space available. Folding will reduce effectiveness and make theoretical analysis extremely difficult. (The added length helps more than the folding typically hurts.) Typically, a random wire antenna will also require an antenna tuner, as it might have a random impedance that varies nonlinearly with frequency.
  • The Beverage antenna is a form of directional long-wire antenna which uses a resistive termination at one end and feed from the other.
  • The helical antenna is a directional antenna suited for receiving signals that are either circular polarized or randomly polarized. These are usually used with satellites, and are frequently used for the driven element on a dish.
  • The Phased array antenna is a group of independently fed active elements in which the relative phases of the respective signals feeding the elements are varied in such a way that the effective radiation pattern of the array is reinforced in a desired direction and suppressed in undesired directions. In plain language, this is a directional antenna that can be aimed without moving any parts.
  • Synthetic aperture radar uses a series of observations separated in time and space to simulate a very large antenna. More generally, interferometry allows the combining of signals from several radio receivers or a single moving receiver.

See also

External links

Last updated: 06-02-2005 00:08:44
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