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Antenna Camouflage Makes Technology Without Intrusion Possible

By Charlie Roper and Robert Renfro

Solar Communications International and Steelhead Metal and Fab bring a unique and lasting partnership to the wireless concealment industry. Their 20-year collaboration is driven by deep experience in the science of RF-transparent technology and engineered steel design and fabrication.

The “Twisted Tower” is RF transparent on all four sides.

Whether you seek to deploy macro cells or a series of small cells, you face similar challenges, for the most part. For example, with rooftop installations, self-supporting clock towers or pine tree monopoles, the problems you must overcome share similar fundamental characteristics. When you select a design and fabrication provider that has shown an ability to satisfy a broad range of stakeholders, you improve your potential to resolve whatever occasional contrary interests there may be on the road to a successful finished product.

If you are working with a site acquisition firm representing a wireless carrier or a vertical real estate company, you need to find common ground with a jurisdiction about placing antennas in a collectively agreeable location. Over the years, the actual number of players involved in this kind of debate has grown significantly, especially for concealed antenna sites.

The typical team that works with carriers and vertical real estate companies on a concealed rooftop or tree installation includes the general contractor, the network of subcontractors, the site acquisition firm, the engineering firm, the architectural firm, the building owner, the jurisdiction, the RF-transparent concealment design and fabrication team, and the engineered steel design and fabrication team.

It makes sense that the service providers would want to offer the best technologies and coverage in the most highly populated areas. As a result, concealment technology in the last five to 10 years has focused more on urban areas, which have more people in a more concentrated area.

The products you need to deploy have become more sophisticated, and the work that vendors perform to fabricate these components requires more specialized talent than ever before. For example, drafting teams need to have certain design capabilities to be able to provide concept drawings to a potential client.

Responding to the need for urban antenna concealment designs, Solar Communications International (SCI) and Steelhead Metal & Fab combine RF-transparent technology and engineered steel components to provide options and solutions,whether they stand alone on anchor bolts or they mount on a rooftop platform. (SCI has applied to register RFTransparent as a trademark for RF-transparent wireless infrastructure products.)

One example of a concealment widely used during the past 10 years or more is the pine tree monopole. For the most part, the pine tree is well received in markets, for several good reasons: The pine is a tall and majestic-looking tree; it maintains its branches and needles year-round; and it blends well with other pine trees in a forest setting.

Nevertheless, the pine tree monopole came with some problems. For one, pine trees come to a point at the top. The pointed top reveals antennas and distorts the natural look of the tree. For another, pine trees are not at home in urban or high-traffic public areas. Efforts to add matching leaf-colored socks over the antennas provided additional, although marginal, concealment. But this step did not address the problem of the antennas being in full view or the distortion to the natural shape of the tree.

The Monoeuc eucalyptus tree, or EUC, hides antennas, RRUs, radios, ancillary equipment at the top better than faux trees, because of its wider profile.

On the other hand, if you use a tree that looks more at home in an urban area and that has a broad top, you advance your concealment project in an appealing way. The eucalyptus is an example of such a tree.
The Monoeuc eucalyptus tree (SCI calls it the EUC) offers breakthrough technology for antenna concealment designed blend in with the surroundings in both urban and rural environments (see the line drawing and photo at left). The eucalyptus fits well in a professional campus setting and in suburban and rural settings. Not only does the EUC hide antennas better, but it also covers quite well remote radio units, radios and ancillary equipment deployed at the top of the tree. The design opens a wide range of new applications for using a tree in a metropolitan setting or a rural scenic surrounding such as a winery or a corporate campus.

The Monoeuc eucalyptus has been so well-received by Southern California jurisdictions that carriers and their network of site acquisition teams and general contractors approached SCI and Steelhead to provide regionally modified versions of color, barking and leaf shapes, such as oaks, broadleaf, elms, cypress and others varietals. These aesthetic options to the original design took a popular design in Southern California and gave it a national footprint. This simple patented design, which features a tree wider at the top than at its base, made it easier and more effective to hide antennas in a multitude of locations.
The three-trunk eucalyptus designs represent a change in the structural concept previously used for pines and palms. Stacking poles would not work. The trunks needed pick points to balance the limb during installation on the site. The structural engineers, the SCI in-house design team and the Steelhead prototyping team solved the problem of how to properly locate these pick points.

Together, SCI and Steelhead engineers made prototypes of several models many times over in a shared effort to deliver a flexible and uniquely intrinsic value for the carriers and the installers. This value of structural integrity and ease of installation would not have been possible had they not worked together as a team to meet their clients’ needs after they saw the concept design on paper.

The eucalyptus assembles easily in the field. It takes less than three hours to erect. The EUC design allows room for multiple carriers on a single structure with truly hidden antenna arrays that blend well into the local character of the community.

The Water Tank

Some wireless communications sites use faux water towers to hide their antennas.

The standard faux water tank represents another solution for antenna concealment structures.
The choices the team made for the RF-transparent water tank focused on quick installation, low crane time and minimal field installation crews. The engineered steel frame sits perfectly as a cradle for the RF-transparent water tank. Many water tanks made by SCI and Steelhead include signage on the outer surface displaying the community’s name, a university campus, stadiums and businesses such as wineries that require prominence and elegance. Meanwhile, the tanks have space for high-bandwidthtransmit and receive capabilities and a flexible design that accommodates equipment change-outs as antenna hardware evolves.

Jurisdictions approve structures they like if they meet all local engineering codes. Local communities accept concealment structures for sites if aesthetic requirements are respected. Many contractors have commented that the package they receive on-site from SCI and Steelhead makes erecting the water tank easy.

Carriers and vertical real estate companies have deployed more than 200 EUCs and more than 100 RF-transparent water tanks. It is not unusual to see a EUC triple-trunk design or an RF-transparent water tank in high-traffic corporate, recreational or educational settings.

Urban Art and Furniture

In most applications, antenna concealment is meant to blend in so well that it is simply not noticed. Some examples of other applications are a bell tower, church steeple or a faux elevator shaft. These structures are usually perfectly matched to an existing façade or landscape by in-house artists.
For other installations, however, blending in may mean standing out. In these cases, the installation may be considered to be urbanart or urban furniture. In Photo 1, the aptly named Twisted Tower not only requires an RF-transparent face on all sides, but also it requires engineered steel framing that which does not interfere with the RF transparency. The RF-transparent steel structure also needs to meet local code requirements. It has to offer long-term operational use. The Twisted Tower design allows for future antenna change-outs without requiring additional conditional use permits.
Otherstructures that fall into the dual-use category include lighting, parks, malls, bus stops, train stations, message boards, clocks and, in some cases, local artists’ murals.

New Technologies

Carriers and vertical real estate companies have SCI and Steelhead working on options for new concealment technologies for low-frequency (4G) and high-frequency (5G) wireless communications, along with small cells. This work requires continued development, testing and verification of standards at frequencies such as 28 GHz and 39 GHz. The materials involved not only need to meet RF standards, but also structural and fire code requirements. To continue this progress, SCI and Steelhead are researching technologies such as coatings being used. Their engineering group meets regularly with carrier and real estate customers to explore where their challenges are. Site visits help the companies to understand what types of concealment, other than the popular street lamps, can help place antennas within the limited distance required for performance with the user devices.

The two companies’ teams have learned how to bring the structural disciplines found in engineered steel design to the design and science of RF-transparent concepts. With so many factors to be considered in choosing a design and making it work, concealment projects require a common language to find consensus among decision-makers. The sooner they begin working with the full team, the better the projects comes together.

Steelhead and SCI have been partners and sister companies in the concealment market from their beginnings. Along the way, they learned the value of that partnership. Their products reflect a single-source focus that brings together custom structural engineering knowledge and creative concealment design with the science of RF-transparent polymer structures that are deployed to provide concealment for rich wireless access in every corner of the working and living environment without visual intrusion.

Charlie Roper is CEO of Steelhead Metal and Fab. His email address [email protected] Robert Renfro is CEO of Solar Communications International. His email address is [email protected]