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The Antenna Artist

By Kara Bounds Socol

The future of antenna technology

Only a few Texas A&M engineering faculty members specialize in electromagnetics and microwaves. For the past five years, Gregory Huff, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has been one of them. Unconventional in background and open-minded in approach, Huff may very well prove that a Texas A&M laboratory holds the future of antenna technologies.

Altering reality

With a ponytail stretching the length of his back, an educational background in fine arts and a résumé boasting a 10-year stint as a French chef, Huff clearly defies the engineer stereotype. But when he made the leap from the kitchen and art studio to the classroom and lab, Huff says, he didn't forsake his love of art but rather enriched it. In both art and engineering, he explains, "you have to start with a fresh canvas each time and paint your interpretation of the solution."

Huff's inspirations for "interpretive solutions" come in some pretty unusual forms, such as cuttlefish. By changing its skin color and texture, this bottom-dwelling cephalopod can go from completely camouflaged to totally obvious and back in fractions of a second.

"The idea," Huff explains, "is to use that concept to change the electromagnetic properties of spacesuits, aircraft and buildings so they can look differently to radar and other sources of electromagnetic waves."

Huff uses the analogy of a Maglite flashlight to explain this process. With a Maglite, the user can modify the way light comes out of it, altering such properties as color and number of light beams. In a similar vein, Huff and his colleagues are enabling antennas to change the way they transmit energy, making objects look different — or completely transparent — to radio waves.

By necessity, Huff says, size matters in electromagnetics, and most antennas are large structures compared with the rest of the electronics packages. They also are typically fixed and rigid, so bending or moving them changes their electromagnetic properties. One challenge for Huff and his fellow Texas A&M researchers, then, is to design antennas that can be flexible while still staying in tune, not dropping calls. They do this by displacing fluidic materials within them.

Huff and his colleagues are enabling antennas to change the way they transmit energy, making  objects look different — or completely transparent — to radio waves.

By developing different techniques to move microfluids around the inside of antennas, researchers can achieve many objectives. For example, they can integrate antennas onto the outside of a uniform worn by a soldier, enabling her to maintain reliable radio contact while in motion. Or, like a cuttlefish, they can use the fluidics to mimic, camouflage or deceive.

The electromagnetic future

Huff and his colleagues aren't typically concerned with end products but rather with the pursuit of "enabling technologies" that will support the development of highly functional devices 10 or 15 years down the road. His group's ideas for potential uses of smartphones, for instance, range from guiding unpiloted aerial vehicles (UAVs) to acting as cognitive radios, gathering data from many unseen sources. Huff is likewise developing "hives" out of small UAVs that can collectively perform the function of a large antenna array without its drawbacks.

Huff is quick to note the contributions of his colleagues not only at other institutions but also across academic disciplines.

"Everything we do is fundamentally multidisciplinary work," he says.

Antenna Artist: Huff and students discuss reconfigurable antenna

A passion that shows

During Huff's brief career at Texas A&M, some of his field's most revered institutions have repeatedly singled him out.

He has received two of the most coveted awards for teaching and research: the National Science Foundation's CAREER Award and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the Army Research Office and U.S. Department of Defense. Other recognitions include a Young Scientist Award at the General Assemblies of L'Union Radio-Scientifique Internationale and an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Donald G. Dudley Jr. Undergraduate Teaching Award.

Huff says that key to being an effective educator is investing the same kind of enthusiasm, creativity and devotion into your teaching and research that you would dedicate to creating a work of art.

"Not everyone can — or wants to be — a great artist," he says. "If you don't love your art, no one will. Your passion shows up in what you do."

Dr. Gregory Huff
Dr. Gregory Huff
Assistant Professor
Electrical & Computer Engineering