Researchers at Rochester Institute of Technology are partnering with Syracuse-based PPC, a worldwide leader in connector technology, to greatly enhance the reliability of essential components used in telecommunications networks. Led by Robert Bowman, professor of electrical engineering, the RIT team is developing “smart” RF connectors that self diagnose potential problems and report them before they lead to service degradation or service failure.
“The continued development of faster and more reliable RF telecommunications systems, such as cellular networks, is dependant on the ability to enhance the performance of all components within the system,” notes Bowman. “Through the integration of smart-sensor technology into RF connectors, we can create system components that will alert telecommunications companies of potential problems before they become network failures.”
RF mating connectors bring together two sections of coaxial cable. The connector performs the dual purposes of mechanically holding the cables in place while electronically transferring the RF signal being sent from one cable to the other without a disruption of transmission. RF connectors used with the coaxial cables found on all cell towers are often exposed to severe environmental conditions and have been identified as one of the highest failure rate components in the system. RF connector failure and repair cause network interruptions and increased costs to service providers and customers.
The smart connectors being developed by the RIT team will monitor the “health” of the cable system and alert maintainers when a failure mode is detected. Common failure modes include connectors becoming loose or taking on moisture. The recovered sensing data will be used both to properly maintain the equipment and to develop a better understanding of the problems affecting the system, enhancing component redesign and upgrades.
All smart connector sensing elements and electronic signal conditioning components are mounted on a small plastic disc smaller than the size of a quarter. The small disc is inserted into the RF connector housing at the time of manufacture. The smart connector disc acts as a transparent insert into the RF connector by harvesting power from and communicating over the same cable it is monitoring without disturbing the normal RF signal.
“As cellular phones and wireless technologies become more ubiquitous, the costs of repairs and impacts of network downtimes will become more challenging to companies and communities,” says Dave Jackson, PPC’s vice president of engineering. “RIT’s research will enhance our continuing efforts to create telecommunications systems that are efficient, cost effective and reliable.”
The RIT team, which currently includes three graduate student researchers and a research associate, has filed for several patents for their technology. PPC will soon begin prototyping, with the goal of commercializing an initial version of the smart connector within the next two years.