I recently had the pleasure of hosting a panel at the virtual IEEE International Microwave Symposium to discuss RF and microwave design challenges and emerging trends across several markets, including aerospace and defense, instrumentation and wireless communications.
The panel comprised three of my Analog Devices colleagues: Bryan Goldstein, Vice President, Aerospace and Defense; Nitin Sharma, General Manager, Wireless Systems Group; and Randy Oltman, Marketing Director, Instrumentation. During the panel discussion, my colleagues shared their insights on how to effectively address the most important RF communications challenges facing customers today and in the future.
Aerospace and Defense--In relating the biggest RF technology challenges facing the aerospace and defense industry, Bryan observed that they are in a race to keep ahead of military adversaries, whose threats are growing ever-more sophisticated. This requires we deliver much higher performance and help customers accelerate their time to market, he said.
At the same time, however, customers are struggling with an aging workforce that is creating a critical shortage of experienced RF and microwave engineers. ADI has responded by developing our own system-level understanding and by supplementing our semiconductor know-how with expertise in areas such as radar, electronic warfare and communications systems. In many cases, Bryan said, ADI has become an extension of our customers’ design teams. By helping them develop complete, system-level solutions from concept to prototyping, we minimize risk and shorten development cycles by enabling them to rapidly design and manufacture complete modular subsystems. Essentially, we’re taking some of the burden off our customers’ hands so they can focus at the system level on what really differentiates them.
Instrumentation—From the instrumentation perspective, Randy shared that wider bandwidths and new frequency bands are continuing to pressure test and measurement gear makers to keep ahead of customer requirements.
Equipment manufacturers, for example, are seeing the adoption of millimeter wave 5G to 50 GHz and beyond, coupled with bandwidth exceeding 1 GHz. In the case of WiFi 6E, bandwidth is increasing to 320 MHz while frequencies are being extended to 7.125 GHz due to availability of new unlicensed spectrum in the 6 GHz band in the United States. These represent big disruptions for customers in terms of the new instrumentation and test equipment they need to deploy.
This spills into other markets, too, like automotive, where Randy and his team have seen deployment of 70-GHz and 80-GHz radar systems and the adoption of 5GHz chirp bandwidths to improve radar resolution. That’s another big change agent for general-purpose test equipment and presents a challenge as we try to ratchet up bandwidth while maintaining instrument fidelity.
Randy also said we are addressing test and measurement bottlenecks at the system level by trying to anticipate challenges just as our customers – and their customers – would. This system-level approach allows ADI to take a leadership position in instrumentation through targeted instrument-grade reference designs and the development of components that enable instrument-grade performance for next- generation applications. These reference designs and instrument-aware components help solve our customers’ biggest challenges more quickly, he added.
Wireless Communications—Nitin addressed customer challenges from the wireless communications perspective, observing that wireless networks continue to be driven by consumers’ insatiable appetite for data and constant connectivity.
As we support the bandwidth, size, power, and weight requirements of new 5G networks, ADI is also overcoming new hurdles related to massive MIMO systems, where the number of antenna elements is growing exponentially from four and eight antennas to as many as 64. The sum total of this is that increasing frequencies and bandwidth are not only squeezing designers to manage system cost, power and size, it’s also making frequency planning and RF requirements a lot tougher to meet.
To tackle these challenges, ADI is employing three approaches. The first is to create new software-defined bandwidth- and frequency-scalable platforms that reduce the number of product variants that our customers need to design in order to reduce system cost and complexity and improve time to market.
The second tactic, according to Nitin, is to build more signal processing algorithms into our products that optimize cost and power at the system level. And finally, ADI is providing complete multiple signal chain solutions from the antenna all the way to bits for both our sub-6GHz and millimeter wave applications.
What’s Trending in RF and Microwave Applications?
Having identified RF engineering resource constraints, increasing frequencies and bandwidth, and compressed design cycles as major challenges, I asked each of the panelists to share the trends they believe will prove the most disruptive to their respective industries in the coming years.
Aerospace and Defense—Bryan opened by remarking that deep application-level understanding is becoming an indispensable strength. Not only are customers coming to expect that ADI engineers serve as an extension of their design teams, they are now even asking us to invest with them to help get their products to market more quickly. All of this is in keeping with ADI’s long-term strategy to “move up the stack,” and is requiring us to evolve our business beyond mission-critical semiconductors in order to supply the whole product in the form of modules and subsystems.
One area where this is evident is phased array antenna. According to Bryan, ADI is developing phased array technology for many different sensing applications, from radar and electronic warfare to communications systems, and for different platforms, including land, sea, air and space, all of which have their own different sets of quality and reliability specifications.
And ADI’s approach, by intent, is to develop commercial products that historically have been designed by a handful of government prime contractors. This entails having a complete RF signal chain from the front-end through the high-speed converter and all the power that surrounds it, starting with a roadmap of industry-leading, high-speed converters and Zero-IF transceivers.
Wireless Communications—From a communications perspective, Nitin commented that the 5G wave is crashing over us like no other wireless protocol before it. While 4G took several years to reshape the cellular market, 5G is deploying much faster. As an example, China this year alone is expected to deploy more than 600,000 5G base stations, while South Korea will bring more than 100,000 online.
Our early insight into 5G allowed us to anticipate the evolving design environment by creating software-defined platforms and high-performance RF front-end solutions that our customers could rapidly design and bring to market. This approach to design and support enabled one carrier in Asia to very quickly develop and commercialize the world’s first 5G massive MIMO bay station using our technology.
As 5G adoption continues around the world, it will not only disrupt technology innovation, it has the potential to set new business models into motion. This will be particularly exciting, Nitin noted, once the global 5G infrastructure is large, robust and sophisticated enough to trigger the convergence of markets, such as industrial and automotive, or consumer and healthcare.
Instrumentation—Randy referenced the maxim that within ADI “instrumentation leads the way” given how early his group must prepare customers to test and measure the latest technologies. To that end, and well before 5G becomes the dominant wireless standard, Randy said his team is already getting ready for the launch of 6G. While a decade or more in the future, the technical issues associated with 6G are being fully examined today, including how to support operating frequencies of more than 100 GHz. What 100-GHz components are available today, he asked. What might ADI develop? In order to get enough scale and performance, the answer to those question might look very different than for equipment below 50 GHz.
A second disruptive trend relates to millimeter wave production tests and the fact that we anticipate certain semiconductor devices will have antennas embedded into the package – especially for mobile phones. In today’s high-volume cellular space, relatively few, if any, semiconductor components are subjected to over-the-air tests. In the future, however, millions of semiconductors will be packaged with millimeter wave antennas, so how do you develop fast, accurate and cost-effective testing? This introduces a complex, multi-faceted problem that will challenge today’s test methodology, Randy said.
The insights my colleagues shared during this enlightening panel session reinforced for me how well-positioned ADI to capitalize on so many impactful technology trends. Thanks to our long-term commitment to supporting our customers, thinking and designing ahead of their needs and focusing on the core technologies that allow us to remain a leader in our field, I’m confident we’ll be catch the next wave of disruption and ride it high.
Watch the full panel discussion at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVrnEabHXqc