Vijay Balakrishna , Senior Director of Research, Infrastructure and Defense, Qorvo
MPD: Millimeter wave frequencies will be used for cellular communications for the first time in 5G. What challenges and opportunities does this present for the microwave industry?
Every time the bar is raised, there is an opportunity to develop technologies and grow our markets long term. The advent of 5G benefits the user by offering faster transmission of data, so we look at what this means on the cellular and infrastructure side. We know 5G is less than five years away, so the initial wave of deployment will include products we have ready today. Our customers work 12-18 months ahead in their qualification cycles, so that’s how we work, too. But the impact of today’s research and technology development will really come into play after 5G deploys; there will be longer-term opportunities based on how 5G is actually being used.
For instance, there are tremendous opportunities on both the handset and base station side — from improving packaging to dynamic range. On the handset side, the challenge of inserting a millimeter wave radio and antenna systems into a handset sized form factor will drive new technology development in packaging, antenna performance and power consumption to support a consumer price point. On the infrastructure side, which will lead the handset market, we’ll need to look at packaging including antennas and front-end electronics. Base stations will provide faster data throughput. Frequencies will start from 28 GHz and go up to 35 GHz and beyond. From a research and technology development side, this means the microwave industry will provide higher linearity, efficiency output and bandwidth. LNAs and PAs will need to be more efficient and use less power; there are great opportunities to come up with the right innovations.
MPD: What RF and microwave technologies do you feel will have the greatest impact in our industry overall between now and 2020?
The year 2020 is not that far away considering that technologies are already in development 12-18 months ahead of time — so I’d even look to 2025. Let me highlight three areas that will, and already are, greatly impact our industry:
GaN: for Qorvo, GaN-on-SiC is our core in defense and growing in the commercial market. However, we’re only now discovering and leveraging the beginnings of GaN-on-SiC and there’s more work to be done there. There are also ways of using GaN for some purposes and GaAs for others that warrant our attention.
Thermals: from a research perspective, we’re looking for high power, smaller footprint options with better packaging that considers thermals. We’re always looking at how to take the heat out, because circuit designers can be limited by thermals.
3D Integration: we’re also looking at hetero-integration, which is a way of doing 3D integration on the vertical access. There’s tremendous opportunity to increase density by shrinking size and aligning microchips.
MPD: After years of hype and little to show for it, IoT networks are actually being deployed in a variety of applications. Do you believe IoT is a major opportunity for the RF and microwave industry? If so, why and if not, why not?
Absolutely. IoT networks are a huge opportunity for the RF and microwave industry. Low power, Bluetooth and Zigbee will play in smaller battery powered nodes such as sensors or attenuators in smart home applications. Wi-Fi and cellular-based connectivity play a large role in supporting high bandwidth connectivity needs in market applications ranging from broadband connectivity to backhaul and autonomous vehicles. We are relying on the front-end of the rapid growth of IoT applications.
However, as we look out into the future, we see the role of RF and microwave products evolving beyond sensors and toward a customer service proposition wherein the sensors are not only networked, but also include smart learning apps and systems supported by data analytics capabilities to help improve end user experiences. Ultimately, where we see the intersection of artificial intelligence and broadband, ubiquitous connectivity will drive massive RF content. An example of this can be imagined in the autonomous vehicle application. The block diagram of this example categorizes the major blocks as sensors capturing data to feed the cloud-based AI database, as the uplink connecting the sensor data to the cloud or as the downlink to update the database in the vehicle. There are many examples of similar block diagrams in other consumer applications such as the smart home. Smart homes are rapidly gaining functionality and learning capabilities, and the melding of software apps combined with big data analytics will enable significant lifestyle benefits to the end user.
MPD: We believe that the defense industry will retain its crucial importance to the RF and microwave industry regardless of overall DoD budget constraints. Do you agree with this statement? Either way, please explain your reasoning.
We agree — many of our new innovations are created in response to defense needs. We cannot see a world in which defense does not invest in new technologies; the DoD requires cutting edge technologies that serve a significant purpose. Many key defense systems are RF-based: communications, missiles and radar, for example.
Qorvo strives to be the first to provide these technologies and be a visionary in this field. For instance, GaN-on-SiC has been ideally suited to defense technologies, especially radar and electronic warfare products. And staying on the forefront of technology enables our armed forces to engage threats closer to the source, while decreasing their own detectability. Qorvo continues looking ahead to make improvements on its RF-based defense technologies, now and in the long-term future. We know the defense industry depends on us, so we have taken steps to ensure our technology is produced in a “Trusted Source” microelectronics foundry that meets the DoD’s MRL 9 qualifications.