RF and microwave electronics industry sets sights on common modules and open-systems standards

Jan. 21, 2015
PHOENIX, 21 Jan. 2015. The U.S. military and defense industry are trying to do for RF and microwave design what has been done for the embedded computing industry -- create open-systems industry standards to help speed systems development, reduce costs, and facilitate systems upgrades.
PHOENIX, 21 Jan. 2015. The U.S. military and defense industry are trying to do for RF and microwave design what has been done for the embedded computing industry -- create open-systems industry standards to help speed systems development, reduce costs, and facilitate systems upgrades.

Various efforts to bring about a paradigm change in the RF and microwave industry are coming from government and industry to encourage RF systems designers to move away from proprietary designs and adhere to widely accepted industry standards.

From government comes the Modular Open RF Architecture (MORA) initiative from the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. From industry comes the OpenRFM program, spearheaded by Mercury Systems Inc. in Chelmsford, Mass. OpenRFM stands for Open RF and Microwave.

Experts from CERDEC and Mercury outlined their respective RF and microwave standardization initiatives this week at the Embedded Tech Trends conference in Phoenix.

The Army's MORA effort recognizes the embedded computing industry's OpenVPX standards initiative as a potential model for creating standard RF and microwave systems modules like the embedded computing industry has standardized on circuit card form factors, electronic interconnects, backplane connectors, and electronic chassis, says Benjamin Peddicord, chief of the Intel Technology and Architecture Branch at CERDEC.

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"We don't have the room on our vehicles for what we need, and we don't have the power to run the equipment," Peddicord told Embedded Tech Trends attendees. One potential solution is to create RF and microwave design standards to create systems with small size, weight, and power consumption (SWaP), and enable rapid RF and microwave systems upgrades by switching out standard modules.

From Mercury comes the OpenRFM program, which seeks to create common connectivity and power for RF, as well as a common software layer of abstraction to enable systems designers to scale and upgrade their systems quickly and affordably, says Lorne Graves, chief technologist for embedded products at the Mercury Systems facility in Huntsville, Ala.

"Budgets are going down and the threats are going up astronomically," Graves says. "RF and microwave systems need to be interoperable, scalable, and affordable." The OpenRFM program seeks to create a common RF and microwave control plane, and a common RF and microwave control architecture. "It all boils down to software compatibility," Graves says.

The problem permeates the RF and microwave industry, yet the a lack of resources is forcing change. "Customers want to re-spin technology fast, so the non-standard model is not sustainable," Graves says.

The overall intent of the OpenRFM program is to enable RF and microwave systems designers "to be as creative as they want to be inside of that box," Graves says. Systems standards, he says, have the potential to speed system development, reduce costs, and enable rapid technology insertion. "It's a way to reduce our development costs up-front"

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New and emerging RF and microwave open-systems standards could be based on the standards model of the VITA Open Standards and Open Markets embedded systems industry trade group in Fountain Hills, Ariz., experts say, and potentially could be overseen by the VITA organization.

While open-systems standards are nothing new to the embedded computing industry, the RF and microwave community will find it difficult to accept such a new paradigm, Graves warns. "No two microwave companies build modules the same way, or support in the same way," he says. A standards approach "is new and confrontational, and is a new paradigm in the RF and microwave community."

Introducing standards on this industry could require a major culture shift. "I challenge you to ask an RF and microwave guy to make an incremental upgrade in his system," Graves says. "You better have your medical team with you because he's going to have a stroke right there on the spot."

The RF and microwave industry suffers from what the embedded computing and software industries have suffered from in the past -- a cult of experts, or "gurus," who thrive on proprietary closed-system designs. "Every RF and microwave company has an RF witch doctor who can come in and make the RF system work," Graves says.

This proprietary mindset is embedded in the RF and microwave industry. "RF guys typically look at these systems and take the easiest path to integrate RF components," Graves says. "It isn't always the most interoperable approach," he adds. "It's like the Wild Wild West out there in the RF community."

There is hope for open-systems standards for the RF and microwave community, Graves says. "They are receptive, but they don't know how to go about it. RF people haven't gone out on that limb and taken that leap of faith."

For more information contact CERDEC online at www.cerdec.army.mil, Mercury Systems at www.mrcy.com, the Embedded Tech Trends conference at www.embeddedtechtrends.com, or the VITA trade organization at www.vita.com.

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