Open-systems standards for RF and microwave taking shape in military embedded computing industry

THE MIL & AERO COMMENTARY, 19 Jan. 2016. The embedded computing industry is making progress toward establishing open-systems standards for the integration of RF and microwave technology with digital signal processing in an effort to streamline development of advanced communications, signals intelligence, and electronic warfare (EW) systems.

Jan 19th, 2016
After big defense cuts, what lies ahead?
After big defense cuts, what lies ahead?
THE MIL & AERO COMMENTARY, 19 Jan. 2016. The embedded computing industry is making progress toward establishing open-systems standards for the integration of RF and microwave technology with digital signal processing in an effort to streamline development of advanced communications, signals intelligence, and electronic warfare (EW) systems.

Three separate initiatives are moving forward to apply open-systems standards to RF and microwave systems development -- particularly to blend RF components and digital signal processing in integrated systems that would be relatively easy and straightforward to maintain and upgrade through extended life cycles.

Embedded community experts discussed these initiatives this week at the VITA Embedded Tech Trends conference in Houston.

The three initiatives are the VITA 49 VITA 49 Radio Transport (VRT) standard of the VITA embedded systems trade association in Fountain Hills, Ariz.; 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.; and the Open RF and Microwave (OpenRFM) project, championed by Mercury Systems Inc. in Chelmsford, Mass.

It's early in the process, and any effort to apply standards to notoriously proprietary and custom RF and microwave technologies will be a mammoth task.

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

The RF and microwave industry is used to doing things its own way, and this industry segment has more than its share of "gurus" and "wizards" practicing what many consider to be a black art that's inaccessible and unintelligible to many in the electronics industry.

Many RF and microwave systems engineers consider their proprietary designs to be closely guarded intellectual property -- secret sauce, if you like -- and the big RF and microwave companies are unlikely to take attempts to commoditize the core of their businesses lying down.

In short, open-systems standards are alien and suspicious to many in the RF and microwave industry, where industry standards simply are the modern way of doing business in the digital embedded computing industry.

Bringing both these diverse technology communities into the big tend of open-systems standards is the aim of VITA 49, MORA, and OpenRFM, and its bound to be a long, difficult, and frustrating process.

VITA 49 has been an industry standard since 2007. MORA and OpenRFM, meanwhile, are embryonic projects pushed by separate organizations. MORA may move toward becoming an industry standard, could remain inside the U.S. government, or may fall by the wayside. OpenRFM, still evolving, may be submitted to VITA for consideration as an industry standard within the next six months to two years.

Related: Open Systems Architectures for RF and Microwave Systems

There's a possibility that these three separate initiatives somehow could morph together into one or more broad industry standards. It's too early to tell how events will unfold.

Before VITA 49, each software-defined radio (SDR) receiver manufacturer developed custom and proprietary digitized data formats and metadata formats that precluded any possibility of making interoperable data among different receivers.

To get around this problem, VITA 49 provides an interoperability framework for analyzing RF spectrum and localization of RF emissions. The foundation of VITA 49 is transport protocol that moves RF data and metadata in separate parallel streams of data packets.

The standard conveys time-stamped signal data in IF data packets and metadata in context packets. The protocol abstracts the receiver data from different transceivers and enables systems designers to develop a common software suite independent of the separate transceivers.

"VITA 49 standardizes the way you deliver the digitized data from the RF system to the processor, explains Rodger Hosking, vice president of software-defined radio specialist Pentek Inc. in Upper Saddle River, N.J.

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Not only does VITA 49 provide a standardized way of moving data from RF transceivers to digital signal processors, but it also provides a standard way of expressing the transceiver's configuration, location, antenna angle, and how the transceiver collected its signals.

"You can adapt different radios without learning about how those radios work from scratch, so you can start writing protocols quickly," Hosking explains.

This has the potential to enable several different advanced radio communications capabilities, configurable radio communications, radar, electronic warfare, and signals intelligence systems. With such a rich set of RF and transceiver monitoring data, software-defined radio systems could change their characteristics on the fly in real time to adapt to changing conditions.

The Army's MORA effort, meanwhile, 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.

Thus far the project has been largely theoretical, but an on-vehicle demonstration to validate the MORA concept is scheduled for November 2016. It's unclear if the MORA approach will gain traction with Army program managers, but "if our customers don't want it, or don't know how to spec it, they won't buy it," warns David Jedynak, chief technology officer of COTS solutions at the Curtiss-Wright Corp. Defense Solutions division in Ashburn, Va.

Related: Air Force takes up open-systems standards for ISR sensor pods in hopes of spreading military-wide

It's encouraging, however, that the Army procurement and research communities appear to be communicating about the MORA project. Time will tell of the program bears fruit.

The OpenRFM project at Mercury Systems is an extension of the OpenVPX embedded computing standard, explains Robert Grochmal, director of the OpenRFM program at Mercury. It seeks to create a standard approach for integrating RF and microwave components and subsystems with OpenVPX digital signal processing systems.

"An OpenRFM brick could go onto a VPX card as a modular piece," Grochmal says. "If designers put everything in an OpenVPX box, then OpenRFM could be a piece of that.

Taking a step back, Grochmal refers to VITA 49, MORA, and OpenRFM as separate "nuggets" for integrating RF and signal processing components in an open-systems approach. "If you pull all of those nuggets together, you can solve the things that designers are trying to solve so that no one gets boxed into proprietary things," he says.

As for right now, however, the pieces may be falling into place, but won't have any chance of being ready for an integrated standard perhaps for years to come. "All the nuggets are good, but they are not yet sufficient," Grochmal says.

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