An antenna (or aerial) is a transducer that transmits or receives electromagnetic waves. In other words, antennas convert electromagnetic radiation into electric current, or vice versa. Antennas generally deal in the transmission and reception of radio waves, and are a necessary part of all radio equipment. Antennas are used in systems such as radio and television broadcasting, point-to-point radio communication, wireless LAN, cell phones, radar, and spacecraft communication. Antennas are most commonly employed in air or outer space, but can also be operated under water or even through soil and rock at certain frequencies for short distances.
Physically, an antenna is an arrangement of one or more conductors, usually called elements in this context. In transmission, an alternating current is created in the elements by applying a voltage at the antenna terminals, causing the elements to radiate an electromagnetic field. In reception, the inverse occurs: an electromagnetic field from another source induces an alternating current in the elements and a corresponding voltage at the antenna's terminals. Some receiving antennas (such as parabolic and horn types) incorporate shaped reflective surfaces to collect the radio waves striking them and direct or focus them onto the actual conductive elements.
Some of the first rudimentary antennas were built in 1888 by Heinrich Hertz (1857–1894) in his pioneering experiments to prove the existence of electromagnetic waves predicted by the theory of James Clerk Maxwell. Hertz placed the emitter dipole in the focal point of a parabolic reflector. He published his work and installation drawings in Annalen der Physik und Chemie (vol. 36, 1889).
The words antenna (plural: antennas) and aerial are used interchangeably; but usually a rigid metallic structure is termed an antenna and a wire format is called an aerial. In the United Kingdom and other British English speaking areas the term aerial is more common, even for rigid types. The noun aerial is occasionally written with a diaeresis mark—aërial—in recognition of the original spelling of the adjective aërial from which the noun is derived.
The origin of the word antenna relative to wireless apparatus is attributed to Guglielmo Marconi. In 1895, while testing early radio apparatuses in the Swiss Alps at Salvan, Switzerland in the Mont Blanc region, Marconi experimented with early wireless equipment. A 2.5 meter long pole, along which was carried a wire, was used as a radiating and receiving aerial element. In Italian a tent pole is known as l'antenna centrale, and the pole with a wire alongside it used as an aerial was simply called l'antenna. Until then wireless radiating transmitting and receiving elements were known simply as aerials or terminals. Marconi's use of the word antenna (Italian for pole) would become a popular term for what today is uniformly known as the antenna.
A Hertzian or half-wave dipole antenna is a set of terminals that does not require the presence of a ground for its operation. A Marconi, Tesla, or quarter-wave monopole antenna is grounded. A loaded antenna is an active antenna having an elongated portion of appreciable electrical length and having additional inductance or capacitance directly in series or shunt with the elongated portion so as to modify the standing wave pattern existing along the portion or to change the effective electrical length of the portion. An antenna grounding structure is a structure for establishing a reference potential level for operating the active antenna. It can be any structure closely associated with (or acting as) the ground which is connected to the terminal of the signal receiver or source opposing the active antenna terminal.
In colloquial usage, the word antenna may refer broadly to an entire assembly including support structure, enclosure (if any), etc. in addition to the purely functional components.
Antennas have practical uses for the transmission and reception of radio frequency signals such as radio and television. In air, those signals travel very quickly and with a very low transmission loss. The signals are absorbed when moving through more conductive materials, such as concrete walls or rock. When encountering an interface, the waves are partially reflected and partially transmitted through.
A common antenna is a vertical rod 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.
There are two fundamental types of antenna directional patterns, which, with reference to a specific two dimensional plane (usually horizontal [parallel to the ground] or vertical [perpendicular to the ground]), are either:
In colloquial usage "omnidirectional" usually refers to all horizontal directions with reception above and below the antenna being reduced in favor of better reception (and thus range) near the horizon. A "directional" antenna usually refers to one focusing a narrow beam in a single specific direction such as a telescope or satellite dish, or, at least, focusing in a sector such as a 120° horizontal fan pattern in the case of a panel antenna at a cell site.
All antennas radiate some energy in all directions in free space but careful construction results in substantial transmission of energy in a preferred direction and negligible energy radiated in other directions. By adding additional elements (such as rods, loops or plates) and carefully arranging their length, spacing, and orientation, an antenna with desired directional properties can be created.
An antenna array is two or more simple antennas combined to produce a specific directional radiation pattern. In common usage an array is composed of active elements, such as a linear array of parallel dipoles fed as a "broadside array". A slightly different feed method could cause this same array of dipoles to radiate as an "end-fire array". Antenna arrays may be built up from any basic antenna type, such as dipoles, loops or slots.
The directionality of the array is due to the spatial relationships and the electrical feed relationships between individual antennas. Usually all of the elements are active (electrically fed) as in the log-periodic dipole array which offers modest gain and broad bandwidth and is traditionally used for television reception. Alternatively, a superficially similar dipole array, the Yagi-Uda Antenna (often abbreviated to "Yagi"), has only one active dipole element in a chain of parasitic dipole elements, and a very different performance with high gain over a narrow bandwidth.
An active element is electrically connected to the antenna terminals leading to the receiver or transmitter, as opposed to a parasitic element that modifies the antenna pattern without being connected directly. The active element(s) couple energy between the electromagnetic wave and the antenna terminals, thus any functioning antenna has at least one active element. A careful arrangement of parasitic elements, such as rods or coils, can improve the radiation pattern of the active element(s). Directors and reflectors are common parasitic elements.
An antenna lead-in is the medium, for example, a transmission line or feed line for conveying the signal energy between the signal source or receiver and the antenna. The antenna feed refers to the components between the antenna and an amplifier.
An antenna counterpoise is a structure of conductive material most closely associated with ground that may be insulated from or capacitively coupled to the natural ground. It aids in the function of the natural ground, particularly where variations (or limitations) of the characteristics of the natural ground interfere with its proper function. Such structures are usually connected to the terminal of a receiver or source opposite to the antenna terminal.
An antenna component is a portion of the antenna performing a distinct function and limited for use in an antenna, as for example, a reflector, director, or active antenna.
An electromagnetic wave refractor is a structure which is shaped or positioned to delay or accelerate transmitted electromagnetic waves, passing through such structure, an amount which varies over the wave front. The refractor alters the direction of propagation of the waves emitted from the structure with respect to the waves impinging on the structure. It can alternatively bring the wave to a focus or alter the wave front in other ways, such as to convert a spherical wave front to a planar wave front (or vice-versa). The velocity of the waves radiated have a component which is in the same direction (director) or in the opposite direction (reflector) as that of the velocity of the impinging wave.
A director is a parasitic element, usually a metallic conductive structure, which re-radiates into free space impinging electromagnetic radiation coming from or going to the active antenna, the velocity of the re-radiated wave having a component in the direction of the velocity of the impinging wave.
A reflector is a parasitic element, usually a metallic conductive structure (e.g., screen, rod or plate), which re-radiates back into free space impinging electromagnetic radiation coming from or going to the active antenna. The velocity of the returned wave has a component in a direction opposite to the direction of the velocity of the impinging wave. The reflector modifies the radiation of the active antenna.
An antenna coupling network is a passive network (which may be any combination of a resistive, inductive or capacitive circuit(s)) for transmitting the signal energy between the active antenna and a source (or receiver) of such signal energy.
It is a fundamental property of antennas that the characteristics of an antenna described in the next section, such as gain, radiation pattern, impedance, bandwidth, resonant frequency and polarization, are the same whether the antenna is transmitting or receiving. For example, the "receiving pattern" (sensitivity as a function of direction) of an antenna when used for reception is identical to the radiation pattern of the antenna when it is driven and functions as a radiator. This is a consequence of the reciprocity theorem of electromagnetics. Therefore in discussions of antenna properties no distinction is usually made between receiving and transmitting terminology, and the antenna can be viewed as either transmitting or receiving, whichever is more convenient.
A necessary condition for the above reciprocity property is that the materials in the antenna and transmission medium are linear and reciprocal. Reciprocal (or bilateral) means that the material has the same response to an electric or magnetic field, or a current, in one direction, as it has to the field or current in the opposite direction. Most materials used in antennas meet these conditions, but some microwave antennas use high-tech components such as isolators and circulators, made of nonreciprocal materials such as ferrite or garnet. These can be used to give the antenna a different behavior on receiving than it has on transmitting, which can be useful in applications like radar.