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Line-of-sight propagation

Line-of-sight propagation refers to electro-magnetic radiation including light emissions traveling in a straight line. The rays or waves are diffracted, refracted, reflected, or absorbed by atmosphere and obstructions with material and generally cannot travel over the horizon or behind obstacles.

Especially radio signals, like all electromagnetic radiation including light emissions, travel in straight lines. At low frequencies (below approximately 2 MHz or so) these signals travel as ground waves, which follow the Earth's curvature due to diffraction with the layers of atmosphere. This enables AM radio signals in low-noise environments to be received well after the transmitting antenna has dropped below the horizon. Additionally, frequencies between approximately 1 and 30 MHz, can be reflected by the F1/F2 Layer, thus giving radio transmissions in this range a potentially global reach (see shortwave radio), again along multiply deflected straight lines. The effects of multiple diffraction or reflection lead to macroscopically "quasi-curved paths".

However, at higher frequencies and in lower levels of the atmosphere, neither of these effects apply. Thus any obstruction between the transmitting antenna and the receiving antenna will block the signal, just like the light that the eye may sense. Therefore, as the ability to visual sight a transmitting antenna (with regards to the limitations of the eye's resolution) roughly corresponds with the ability to receive a signal from it, the propagation characteristic of high-frequency radio is called "line-of-sight". The farthest possible point of propagation is referred to as the "radio horizon".

In practice, the propagation characteristics of these radio waves vary substantially depending on the exact frequency and the strength of the transmitted signal (a function of both the transmitter and the antenna characteristics). Broadcast FM radio, at comparatively low freqencies of around 100 MHz using immensely-powerful transmitters, easily propagates through buildings and forests.

Line of sight propagation as a prerequisite for radio distance measurements

Travel time of radio waves between transmitters and receivers can be measured disregarding the type of propagation. But, generally, travel time only then represents the distance between transmitter and receiver, when line of sight propagation is the basis for the measurement. This applies as well to RADAR, to Real Time Locating and to LIDAR.

This rules: Travel time measurements for determining the distance between pairs of transmitters and receivers generally require line of sight propagation for proper results. Whereas the desire to have just any type of propagation to enable communication may suffice, this does never coincide with the requirement to have strictly line of sight at least temporarily as the means to obtain properly measured distances. However, the travel time measurement may be always biased by multi-path propagation including line of sight propagation as well as non line of sight propagation in any random share. A qualified system for measuring the distance between transmitters and receivers must take this phenomenon into account. Thus filtering signals traveling along various paths makes the approach either operationally sound or just tediously irritating.

Impairments to line-of-sight propagation

Low-powered microwave transmitters can be foiled by a few tree branches, or even heavy rain or snow.

If a direct visual fix cannot be taken, it is important to take into account the curvature of the Earth when calculating line-of-sight from maps.

The presence of objects not in the direct visual line of sight can interfere with radio transmission. This is caused by diffraction effects: for the best propagation, a volume known as the first Fresnel zone should be kept free of obstructions.

Reflected radiation from the ground plane also acts to cancel out the direct signal. This effect, combined with the free-space r-2 propagation loss to a r-4 propagation loss. This effect can be reduced by raising either or both antennas further from the ground: the reduction in loss achieved is known as height gain.

Mobile Phones

Although the frequencies used by cell phones are in the line-of-sight range, they still function in cities. This is made possible by a combination of the following effects:

  • r−4 propagation over the rooftop landscape
  • diffraction into the "street canyon" below
  • multipath reflection along the street
  • diffraction through windows, and attenuated passage through walls, into the building
  • reflection, diffraction, and attenuated passage through internal walls, floors and ceilings within the building

The combination of all these effects makes the cellphone propagation environment highly complex, with multipath effects and extensive Rayleigh fading. For cellphone services these problems are tackled using:

  • rooftop or hilltop positioning of base stations
  • many base stations (a phone can typically see six at any given time)
  • rapid handoff between base stations (roaming)
  • extensive error correction and detection in the radio link
  • sufficient operation of cellphone in tunnels when supported by slit cable antennas
  • local repeaters inside complex vehicles or buildings

Other conditions may physically disrupt the connection surprisingly without prior notice:

  • local failure when using the cellphone in buildings of concrete with steel reinforcement
  • temporal failure inside metal constructions as elevator cabins, trains, cars, ships

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