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Thursday, June 22 2017 @ 12:32 pm EDT

Antennas, Designed by Darwin

NASA Space Placeby Patrick L. Barry

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Who in their right mind would design this bizarre-looking antenna? Actually, nobody did. It evolved.

Taking a cue from nature, NASA engineers used a kind of "artificial evolution" to find this design. The result may look odd, but it works very well.

"The evolutionary process improves the design of antennas, just as evolution in nature leads to fitter plants and animals," says Jason Lohn, leader of the Evolvable Systems Group at NASA's Ames Research Center.

The improvement comes from Darwin's idea of natural selection: only the fittest members of a generation survive to produce offspring. Over many generations, traits that hinder survival are weeded out, while beneficial traits become more common. "In the end," he says, "you have the design equivalent of a shark, honed over countless generations to be well adapted to its environment and tasks."

Evolutionary computation, as it's called, applies this principle to hardware design. It's particularly useful for tackling problems that are difficult to solve by hand--like the design of new antennas.

Designing a new antenna for NASA's Space Technology 5 (ST-5) mission was the challenge facing Lohn's group. ST-5 will explore how TV-sized "nano-satellites" can perform the tasks of much larger, conventional satellites at a cheaper cost. Antennas on these satellites must be smaller than usual, yet capable of doing everything that a bigger antenna can do.

The evolution of this bizarre-looking antenna happened inside a computer. Many random designs were tested in a computer simulation. The computer judged their performance against certain goals for the design: efficiency, a narrow or wide broadcast angle, frequency range, and so on.

As in nature, only the best performers were kept, and these served as parents of a new generation. To make the new generation, the traits of the best designs were randomly mixed by the computer to produce fresh, new designs—just as a father and mother's genes are mixed to make unique children. This new generation was again tested in the computer simulation, and the best designs became the parents of yet another generation.

This process was repeated thousands, millions of times, until it settled onto an optimal, shark-like design that wouldn't improve any further. With today's fast computers, millions of generations can be simulated in only a day or so.

The result: an excellent antenna with an odd shape no human would, or could, design.

For more about artificial evolution, see http://ic.arc.nasa.gov/story.php?sid=86&sec. For more about Space Technology 5, see http://nmp.nasa.gov/st5. For an animation that helps explain to kids how ST5’s antenna sends pictures through space, go to http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/st5xband/st5xband.shtml.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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