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VFTT – National Instruments

VFTT – National Instruments

by Co-contributors: Alejandro Buritica Senior Solutions Marketing Manager; Sarah Yost, Senior Solutions Marketing Manager – SDR; Brandon Treece, Senior Solutions Marketing Manager – Aerospace and Defense
National Instruments

MPD: How effective do you believe operation at millimeter wavelengths will be for meeting the challenges of 5G?


Engineers are working hard to re-farm existing cellular bands and find other potential spectrum allocation below 8 GHz to accommodate more data and more users.  But that spectrum is highly priced and very scarce. Spectrum is more readily available and in wider bandwidth chunks at higher frequencies. The wider bandwidths allow for higher data throughput to help meet the ever-increasing demand for more data. The massive increase in data throughput mmWave can deliver enables use cases that are still just ideas today, like high definition augmented and virtual reality. Other use cases are sure to emerge as mmWave technology becomes more broadly available. Just as it would have been impossible to predict all the ways 4G would change the world with new use cases like Uber, it’s impossible to know today all of the ways 5G technology will impact our lives 5 years from now. With the ultra high data throughput mmWave provides, the possibilities are numerous and exciting.

To capitalize on the promise of mmWave for 5G, researchers and engineers must develop new technologies, algorithms and devices that improve connectivity at higher frequencies, because the fundamental properties of the mmWave channel are different from current cellular models. With chipmakers racing to commercialize 5G mmWave technology, engineers face the daunting challenge of accelerating product schedules combined with new and often unsolved technical requirements. 

NI’s mmWave test solutions address these challenges in both the R&D lab and the high-volume manufacturing environment, delivering measurement quality to meet rigorous technical requirements and an architecture designed to scale to the specific needs of production test for mmWave chips.  Furthermore, engineers benefit both from NI’s unified software experience to simplify measurement and automation, and from identical instrumentation in validation and production to shorten correlation efforts and reduce development time. 

MPD: If you sell to the defense sector, what do you believe are the major challenges for RF and microwave technology in serving DoD’s needs?


RF and microwave technology is proliferating in many industries and the DoD (as well as those that serve it) is no different.  This however doesn’t come without challenges.  Some of the key applications for the DoD where these challenges are especially apparent include the development and testing of cognitive radar systems, and the convergence of SATCOM and 5G cellular communication.

With the emerging trend of cognitive and AI enabled applications such as radar and Electronic Warfare, the design paradigm is rapidly shifting from parametric testing to more advanced system level validation. This includes not just traditional RF measurements but a mixture of RF and digital instrumentation, often in a closed, real-time loop with the unit under test.

SATCOM largely falls between the L and Ka frequency bands (1-40 GHz).  Traditionally, cellular communication has occupied the sub-6 GHz bands so up until now, there has been little interference.  With the introduction of 5G mmWave however, cellular communication is now entering the K and Ka bands (18-40 GHz) occupying much more of the SATCOM frequency space.  This convergence of communication frequencies introduces much more opportunity for interference.  

These trends in the industry are putting intense pressure on the teams that both design and test these applications.  Like the commercial space, systems for the DoD are becoming more complex and facing higher levels of integration, and at the same time, design cycle are getting shorter.  Test engineers need access to more capable test equipment that is designed with these challenges in mind.  Equipment that offers wider bandwidths, higher channel counts, and the ability to tightly synchronize mixed I/O (RF, DC, and digital) while keeping the cost of test, and the time it takes to perform those tests, under control.

MPD: What RF and microwave technologies will have the greatest impact in the next few years?


Forecasters rightly proclaim a 5G revolution as one of the technological improvements with the greatest effect.  In ten years, we can expect 5G networks to have been actively running, greatly increasing consumer expectations for mobile speed and performance compared to what 4G networks can deliver today. As more users get connected around the world, the demand for data will continue to rise, and legacy spectrum below 6 GHz will likely play a smaller role in data traffic as bandwidth intensive applications take advantage of mmWave connections.  New mmWave bands at higher frequencies, previously used only by military and satellite communications, will become popular to move tens of gigabytes per second.

New semiconductor technologies will greatly contribute to usher in this 5G revolution.  For many years, 2G and 3G devices had been relying on simple-function gallium-arsenide (GaAs) and other monolithic microwave integrated circuit (MMIC) technologies. As the industry transitioned to 4G, silicon-germanium (SiGe) and fine-line CMOS with higher integration levels began to replace many of these functions in the cellular range.  

Engineers developing Gallium-nitride (GaN) and silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technologies continue to deliver new levels of high-power and dynamic range performance in smaller packages.  Semiconductor fabrication and co-packaging technologies will give engineers new options to solve complex new 5G test challenges such as increased power efficiency, frequency coexistence, and bandwidth growth.  We’re likely to experience even more tightly integrated semiconductor designs that combine mixed-signal and digital back-ends to enable the much anticipated 5G multi-user MIMO and beamforming performance.

When thinking of high levels of integration, many new RFICs for 5G will be complete systems in package (SiP) with no exposed RF connectors.  Therefore, testing these devices will require over-the-air (OTA) measurements.  OTA testing presents the opportunity to test devices as a system, as compared to a set of individual elements.  But OTA testing presents engineers with several challenges, such as increased measurement uncertainty. When testing over the air, test engineers must consider measurement uncertainty from antenna calibration, positioning accuracy, fixturing tolerance and signal reflections. Furthermore, OTA tests need anechoic chamber integration, proper beam characterization, optimal code-book calculation and antenna parameter characterization. 

Over the next few years, the test and measurement industry will need to rapidly respond to these challenges. As innovation in test and measurement increases, the industry will be forced to respond with new and dynamic solutions. Test groups need to consider highly flexible, software-defined test strategies and platforms to ensure they can keep pace with the speed of this growth.

MPD:  In addition to 5G and IoT, what commercial markets will be the most important for the industry in 2020?


In addition to 5G and IoT, another important commercial market to pay close attention to is the automotive sector. The growth of autonomous vehicle (AV) technology is indicative of an inherent need to ensure this technology is tested and safe, and NI has been hard at work to address these concerns. 

Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) are a convergence of sensors, processors and software to improve safety and ultimately deliver self-driving capability. To achieve level 4 or 5 autonomy, which does not require a human to be driving the vehicle, there are a range of obstacles that the automotive industry will have to address going forward. An example of this would be sensor fusion, the combination of measurement data from many sensors to drive outcomes, which is required, and it demands synchronization, high-power processing and the continued evolution of the sensors themselves. For automotive manufacturers, this means finding the necessary balance across three crucial trade-offs: cost, technology and strategy. 

NI is also helping to position the automotive industry in a place where automotive manufacturers can test their own AV technology independently. NI recently launched a software-defined platform that accelerates the development and performance of automated test and automated measurement systems for AV supercomputers and sensors.

Overall, full integration of these types of technologies will be necessary for AVs and autonomy will clearly be a critical market to look at in 2020. Throughout history, the development of new technology has empowered the industry to drive higher productivity gains. Increasing efficiency in software development will be integral to the autonomous driving revolution.