by David Vye, Director of Technical Marketing – AWR Group National Instruments
MPD: The defense market for RF and microwave components through subsystems appears to be more lucrative than in recent years, especially in the area of electronic warfare. If your company sells into the defense market, what are your thoughts about how it will perform in 2017?
In the slowly rebounding market following the Great Recession, defense companies need to win business with smarter electronic systems while competing over technical resources with commercial giants such as Google, Apple, and traditional (RF) members of the information technology value chain. To compete more effectively, these firms must leverage existing products and technologies. To support defense contractors and their suppliers, National Instruments offers design-to-test solutions that are helping defense contractors and their suppliers develop more robust products in less time and on budget.
Specific to the design challenges of these customers, recent functionality and model libraries developed for NI AWR Design Environment serve to help accelerate product development. Defense systems and their underlying RF hardware rely on the successful integration of heterogeneous technologies such as monolithic microwave integrated circuits (MMICs), RFICs, modules, and printed circuit boards (PCBs) to reduce system size and weight while improving performance and reliability.
Advances in modeling and simulation technology enable designers to develop complex systems such as phased-array antennas from design start through detailed circuit integration and physical realization. Recently published work on ni.com/awr highlights applications demonstrating an important case study whereby a single large antenna array model represented by individual simulated (or measured) antenna field patterns is directly co-simulated with front-end T/R modules that include a nonlinear power amplifier (PA). Another recently published example demonstrates the state of design for integrated multi-technology RF module co-design based on a multi-channel Wi-Fi/cellular device consisting of a gallium arsenide (GaAs) MMIC, silicon RFIC, surface acoustic wave/bulk acoustic wave (BAW/SAW) filters, and advanced laminate packaging, analyzed in unison via circuit and EM co-simulation and yield optimization. The complexity of these examples reflects the state of today’s design challenges and the power of NI AWR software operating as an open platform with best-in-class simulation technologies, inclusive of interoperability with third-party tools, to maximize engineering productivity.
MPD: The fifth generation of cellular is rapidly approaching and the immense scope of 5G seems almost certain to present significant opportunities for the RF and microwave industry. What is your perspective on this issue?
5G represents one of the most ambitious standardization goals in wireless history, targeting more traffic and increased capacity, as well as reduced latency and energy consumption. These goals will be achieved largely through greater spectral efficiency, significant enhancements in antenna (over-the-air transmission) technology and the exploitation of large unused bandwidth at millimeter-wave frequencies. Improving communication data throughput and efficiency will present significant design challenges at the system and component levels.
In the quest for greater spectral efficiency, technologies such as carrier aggregation and multi-user digital modulation schemes like orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA) are challenging designers of RF front-end components and PAs with wide bandwidth requirements and high peak-to-average power ratios that impact linearity and efficiency due to power back off. These challenges are being addressed with new semiconductor technologies such as gallium nitride (GaN) and amplifier architectures such as envelope tracking and digital pre-distortion. Transistor modeling, load-pull techniques, and simulation/hardware-in-the-loop technologies will play a critical role in the successful development of 5G PAs. The NI AWR software platform is addressing these needs with unprecedented load-pull solutions for digitally-modulated RF PAs, support for 5G waveforms, and links to NI’s vector signal transceiver (VST), PXI, and LabVIEW.
MPD: The Internet of Things (IoT) might better be called the Wireless Internet of Things, as without RF and microwave technology, little could be accomplished. If your company is selling into this market, please provide your perspective on IoT and its prospects for the RF and microwave industry.
IoT represents the third phase of information connectivity, one that will dramatically change the use of wireless technology and significantly expand the wireless market. The first phase connected homes and businesses through wired telephony and the early Internet via dial-up modems. This phase was superseded by the wireless revolution, which resulted in over seven billion mobile devices worldwide connecting nearly four billion people. The next phase will be to connect things with at least 10 times the number of devices as people.
Many of these devices will be designed and manufactured by companies lacking a tradition in RF design. In addition to limited experience and access to technical resources, these companies will be challenged with designing and integrating very small, high-volume, low-cost antennas and sensors. NI AWR software solutions will help them adopt new materials and structures with integrated circuit/EM co-simulation and intuitive design tools.
In addition, the NI AWR software portfolio has recently expanded to include AntSyn™, a unique antenna synthesis product that utilizes genetically-derived EM optimization that takes antenna engineering requirements such as gain, voltage standing wave ratio (VSWR), and physical constraints as input and produces physically realizable antenna designs as outputs.
As an example, AntSyn is proving itself in a related application of ultra-high frequency (UHF) RF identification (RFID) tag antennas. RFID tags need to be inexpensive, efficient, and as robust as possible for the installation environment. Designing and optimizing such antennas by hand is a time-consuming and difficult process, and EM tools are generally not well suited for extensive automated exploration of the search space. Here, genetic algorithms (GAs) combined with EM simulation are very effective at creating antennas for a wide variety of applications and dielectric substrates as specified by the user. This capability enables RFID tags and other related IoT antennas to be optimized for robust antenna/platform integration.
To fit their integration platform, IoT devices often need to be electrically small, which leads to narrowband performance, design sensitivity, and difficulty achieving the required antenna performance. These are the antenna design challenges that are well served by the intelligent design space investigation offered by AntSyn.
MPD: In your opinion, what are the RF and microwave technologies to watch in 2017?
Microwave materials and their applications will be an area of interest for 2017 and well beyond. It’s a broad field that includes many future applications, from embedded wireless technology in wearables to superconductors used in the emerging field of quantum computers. Materials with certain desirable electrical characteristics will likely play a more immediate role in communication devices.
For instance, microwave devices based on tunable materials are gaining interest in applications such as frequency-agile filters, matching networks, antenna beam steering, tunable power splitters, phase shifters, and voltage controlled oscillators. Ferroelectric materials are showing promise in applications calling for optimum response time, dielectric loss, and tenability, whereas polymers and liquid crystals are emerging as potential candidates for a number of new applications offering mechanical flexibility, lower weight, and lower tuning voltages.
Adopting new materials will place continued emphasis on EM simulation, material modeling/characterization and the means to incorporate this information into a product development design flow.